Are the trees you have just transplanted wilting, or do they have rolling or browning leaves? These are some of the first signs your trees are experiencing transplant shock. Trees may take years to recover from transplant shock, but you can take steps to help the trees shake off the shock.
Here is how to fix and avoid transplant shock in trees:
- Plant trees native to your area.
- Transplant the trees immediately.
- Give new trees plenty of water.
- Plant at the right depth.
- Use a root stimulator when transplanting.
- Transplant the tree using the same soil.
- Prune the roots a few months before transplanting.
- Gently loosen the root ball.
- Add 2-4 inches (5-10 cm) of mulch.
- Transplant during the cooler months.
- Avoid transplanting trees that appear unhealthy.
- Handle the tree gently when transporting and transplanting.
- Remove any dead, diseased, or broken branches.
- Avoid pruning the tree too early.
Transferring a tree from the nursery to your backyard can be stressful for the tree. There is the risk of root damage or stress due to the sudden changes. I’ll discuss transfer shock and how you can avoid or fix it.
1. Plant Trees Native to Your Area
Native plants recover faster when transplanted because they are already conditioned to the climate and soils in your area. Few suffer transplant shock, but they recover very quickly with minimal intervention.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that there are roughly 750 native tree species in the US.
Here are some trees native to the US that you can plant depending on your area:
Red Maple Tree
The red maple tree grows well in zones 3-9. It tolerates a variety of soils and prefers full sun. At maturity, Red Maple is 40-60 feet (12-18 m) tall. It’s native to Rhode Island.
Loblolly Pine (Pinus taeda)
The loblolly pine is also known as North Carolina Pine and Rosemary Pine. It thrives in Zone 6-9. It’s a fast-growing pine and gets to 60-90 feet tall (18-27 m) at maturity.
The American sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) grows in hardiness zones 5-9 (Southeastern states). It grows in various soils but is negatively affected by pollution.
The Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) is a state tree of Oregon, but it does well in zones 4-6. It performs well in well-drained acidic or neutral soils but poorly in dry, compacted soil.
The sugar maple (Acer saccharum) is a popular maple tree, common in South Dakota, Oklahoma, Kansas, and North Dakota. It’s the state tree of Wisconsin and Vermont. It grows well in zones 3-8.
The balsam fir (Abies balsamea) grows to 45-75 feet (14-23 m) high and 20-25 feet (6-7.6 m) wide at maturity. It’s ideal for zones 3-5. It’s a highly adaptable tree, growing from swampy to rocky mountainsides. However, it grows extremely well in cold climates with moist, acidic soils.
Before transplanting a native tree, you need to make sure you are in a place where it thrives, and the soil conditions are right to avoid transplant shock.
2. Transplant the Trees Immediately
When you bring a tree from the nursery, ensure you transplant it immediately. If you’re not ready to do so, ensure you keep watering it.
The idea is to ensure the root ball doesn’t dry out or freeze before planting the tree. Otherwise, the tree will experience severe transplant shock and may struggle to establish itself in the new environment.
3. Give New Trees Plenty of Water
Trees from the nursery usually have their roots trimmed if they get too big for the container. So, the tree initially relies on a smaller root system for the water and nutrient supply.
This creates a demand and supply imbalance. You need to hydrate the tree more in the first few weeks or months to help it adapt to the new environment.
The watering schedule for transplanted trees is:
- Daily for the first two weeks
- Every 2-3 days from weeks 3-12
- Water once a week after 12 weeks until the roots are well established
Some trees may take longer to recover from transplant shock, so be sure to observe how well your transplanted tree responds to watering. When watering your tree daily in the first few weeks, ensure that the soil is able to drain excess water properly. Otherwise, your tree will sit on excess water which can be counterproductive.
4. Plant at the Right Depth
A common mistake when transplanting trees is planting them too deep. The deeper you plant the trees, the slower they grow because of limited soil oxygen levels.
On the other hand, if you plant it too close to the surface, high or low soil temperatures may kill the roots. A tree with transplant shock symptoms due to either issue will take longer, if at all, to recover.
When digging a hole to transplant your tree:
Check the Root Ball
The planting hole should be 2-4 inches (5-10 cm) shorter than the root ball. Make an independent decision depending on the root ball height. If it’s too tall, you can go for the higher limit, but the lower limit is applicable if it’s too short.
Leave 2+ Structural Roots Within the Topsoil
Leave at least two structural roots 1-3 inches (2.5-7.6 cm) within the topsoil. The structural roots are 3-4 inches (7.6-10 cm) from the trunk.
However, some tree species, like red maple, hackberry, and poplar, have roots that regenerate after transplanting and grow toward the trunk. The structural roots should be 1 inch (2.5 cm) within the topsoil for such tree species.
Dig a Wider Hole
Next, dig a wide saucer-shaped hole, at least three times the diameter of the root ball. A wide hole supports root regeneration.
The sloped sides redirect roots toward the area with a higher soil oxygen supply instead of being trapped in a hole with compact soil. Besides giving the root growth allowance, a wider hole also gives better margins of error should you overwater the trees.
5. Use a Root Stimulator When Transplanting
Roots determine how well the tree will adjust to the new environment. If they are too small or poorly developed, the roots will struggle to cope, especially if you transplant the tree at the end of the fall season. When they are approaching winter dormancy, plants don’t need fertilizer, specifically nitrogen.
Root stimulators differ from deep root fertilizers because they contain no nitrogen or iron. So, while the root fertilizer can’t be used in the fall when the tree is slowing its growth in preparation for winter dormancy, root stimulators can help the tree survive the harsh season.
Root stimulators can also help prevent or minimize the effects of transplant shock because they will make it easier for the tree to develop stronger roots that easily penetrate compact soil.
You can also use root stimulators when transplanting in other seasons. A tree with high root density is likely to survive transplant shock faster, irrespective of the season.
6. Transplant the Tree Using the Same Soil
You can minimize transplant shock by retaining the same soil that the tree is used to, especially if it was initially in a container. When in a new environment, the tree will cling to whatever is familiar, and in this case, the soil will act as a buffer against environmental shocks.
7. Prune the Roots a Few Monts Before Transplanting
If you can get the tree you intend to transplant early from the nursery, you can start preparing it to reduce the possibility of transplant shock. Pruning the roots early will allow the tree to grow feeder roots before transplanting.
Pruning will also reduce the size of the root ball if it’s bigger than it should be while encouraging the formation of a future root ball. More roots will help the tree to overcome transplant shock. Big root balls contain more roots, making the tree heavier to move.
Here’s a table showing the ideal root ball sizes for different types of trees.
|Type Of Tree||Tree Height||Root Ball Diameter||Min Ball Depth|
|Small Ornamental Trees||5 ft (1.5 m)||16 inches (40.6 cm)||10 inches (25 cm)|
|Shade Trees||8 ft (2.4 m)||16 inches (40.6 cm)||10 inches (25 cm)|
|Multiple-stemmed trees (upright)||6 ft (1.8 m)||22 inches (56 cm)||14 inches (35.6 cm)|
|Multiple-stemmed trees (spread)||6 ft (1.8 m)||32 inches (81 cm)||21 inches (53 cm)|
Trees with a larger root ball diameter take longer to establish after transplanting. If you intend to transplant a larger plant, you’d consider pruning the root ball at least a year before transplanting.
If the tree is average-sized, you should prune the root ball for a spring transplant in the fall. During winter, the plant starts growing feeder roots, and since the tree isn’t consuming a lot of energy, the tree will utilize most of the energy facilitating the growth of new feeder roots.
If you intend to transplant at the end of fall, you should prune the root ball in spring. However, the tree will need support to survive the summer heat. You’ll need to water it frequently.
You can prune the root ball in multiple ways:
With spading, you’ll use a spade to make a circular cut around the root ball. Spading is ideal for plants with a small root ball diameter.
When pruning using the trenching method, create a trench around the roots and then refill it with organic matter. The feeder roots will grow along the trench.
You can make it around the root ball or halfway. You may need to trench the root ball again if you do it halfway. The trench should be 8-12 inches (20-30 cm) wide or even wider. Trenching is ideal for older trees with large root balls.
Once pruned, the roots will absorb more moisture. Additionally, the feeder roots will help the tree resist transplant shock. You’ll also be better positioned to tell if the soil is dry when the root ball is pruned.
8. Gently Loosen the Root Ball
After placing the tree in a wide hole, attempt to loosen the roots so that they will grow outward, instead of only growing downwards. Outward-growing roots shake off transplant shock much faster than those forced to grow downwards where soil oxygen is limited.
You will also identify any rotten or dead roots and cut them off. Ensure you retain as many roots as possible to improve the tree’s chances of survival.
9. Add 2–4 Inches (5–10 cm) of Mulch
Mulching will give your tree a competitive advantage over weeds and grass. It will also give the tree a chance to resume growth, which is usually faster than the trees without mulch. The mulch will improve soil fertility, retain moisture, and moderate soil temperature.
Shredded bark, wood chips, pine needles, and nuggets are great materials for mulching. Avoid using compost because it encourages weed seed germination, which results in competition for nutrients. The tree will struggle with transplant shock for longer if forced to share water and nutrients with weeds.
If you’ve to use mulch, only apply a small layer and cover it with large particle-size mulch, like wood chips, to help control weed growth.
10. Transplant During the Cooler Months
Trees will cope better with transplant shock during the cool season. The best time to transplant is at the start of spring or the end of fall. Summer is the worst time to transplant because the heat will dehydrate the trees. The hot soil will also stress the roots.
Winter is a great season for transplanting trees because the tree is dormant. So when you transplant your tree at the end of the fall season, the soil will be cooler, and the tree’s roots will grow slowly in search of nutrients and water.
Additionally, the tree will not compete with weeds, allowing it to establish itself faster. The tree will have a well-developed root system to cope with accelerated growth and heat when spring finally rolls in.
During winter, trees don’t need much water. This makes management easier, especially if you don’t have the time to water the trees frequently.
Some trees, like magnolia, oaks, hemlocks, birch, and rhododendrons, don’t respond well to a fall transplant. These trees are intolerant of soggy soils, so it’s best to avoid exposing those recently transplanted to the harsh winter season.
This video shows what happens to trees that are intolerant of soggy soil:
11. Avoid Transplanting Trees That Appear Unhealthy
Transplant shock will be more severe in unhealthy trees. When choosing a tree, ensure it’s strong and healthy. Even if it suffers transplant shock, it’s healthy enough to withstand and overcome environmental changes.
Ensure you choose a tree that is mature enough for transplanting. The height and width of the tree will tell you if the tree is ready for transplant or if it is too small.
You should also look at the root system. The root ball diameter should be 10-12 inches (25-30 cm). If the root ball diameter is smaller, it will take longer for the tree to establish, and it will suffer transplant shock for longer.
Other signs that a tree is unhealthy include:
- Decaying roots or presence of fungi, like mushrooms
- Peeling, cracks, loose bark, or deep slits at the root collar
- Swelling and cavities along the trunk
- Dead, low-hanging branches
- Spots or holes on the leaves
- Leaf discoloration or deformities
12. Handle the Tree Gently When Transporting and Transplanting
You can get a great tree from the nursery, but if it’s handled poorly, it may suffer injuries which will affect how well it adapts to the new environment. When moving the tree from the nursery to your home, you may injure the trunk and roots if you handle the tree poorly.
You can do the following to prevent tree injuries.
- Don’t lift the tree from the trunk. Instead, hold it at the root ball or the container.
- Protect the tree from the sun and wind when transporting it.
- Cut the container when transplanting instead of forcing the tree out of the container.
- Carefully untangle root balls. Use a serrated knife to separate bound roots.
- Don’t drop the tree in the hole. Instead, handle the tree gently, and ensure the trunk remains upright.
- Ensure the hole is wide enough so that you don’t have to force the roots to fit.
- When transplanting during winter, wrap the trunk with a light-colored tree wrapping to prevent sun scalding.
13. Remove Any Dead, Diseased, or Broken Branches
Dead, diseased, or broken branches add unnecessary burden to a tree showing signs of transplant shock. The diseased branch is especially problematic because it will be using the limited energy the tree is producing for survival.
14. Avoid Pruning the Tree Too Early
Pruning too early may keep the tree from healing quickly from transplant shock. When you prune your tree, every cut is a wound.
If the tree is already experiencing transplant shock, pruning will only worsen a bad situation. The tree will struggle to survive in the new environment and, at the same time, attempt to heal from the cuts made when you pruned.
Pruning also makes the tree vulnerable to attacks from pests and diseases. A tree undergoing transplant shock will not be healthy enough to fight these attacks. It will also struggle between dealing with transplant challenges or pests and diseases.
Transplant shock is tough on all plants, including trees. When you take measures before transplanting, you’ll minimize the shocks. Plants eventually adjust to their environment and will start to thrive despite the tough beginning. Unfortunately, some trees will not be so lucky. Their roots may die, so you’ll need to consider getting a new tree.