Minimizing transplant shock – tips & tricks to make sure your plant survives

Reduce transplant shock

Minimize transplant shock upon purchasing or moving a new tree or shrub. This will make your garden a welcoming place for the new addition to the plant family.

Whether you’re adding a shrub or moving an ornamental from the back yard to the front, a few simple steps will help counter transplant shock.

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Picture: Portugal laurel – Surely wished it had avoided transplant shock!

Three factors cause plants to go into shock when transplanting:

  • damage and wounds to roots and branches,
  • lost roots,
  • and a new growing environment.

For each factor, it’s possible to prevent damage and help the plant cope. Here is the best way to deal with transplant shock.

Protect your plant from physical damage

Being ripped out of the earth is traumatizing for many trees, shrubs and plants. Not all have the capacity to grow back immediately.

It’s important to minimize damage upon transplanting so the plant can focus on adapting instead of repairing.

Roots require special care

The most important roots in a plant are the tiny roots that connect directly to nutrients, water, and root fungi. These are thinner than a hair and worm their way between grains of sand and clay.

  • When pulling a root out, soil falls off. These tiny roots are torn from the main plant and fall out with it!

artist's rendering of minimizing transplant shock

The most active part of the root system is the periphery. It usually forms a circle line around the tree with the trunk in the center. This is where the tree finds fresh nutrients and trace elements. Inside this circle, plants have already found and collected most of what they needed.

  • When cutting a tree out of the ground, only the centermost, least active roots are brought along!

Given that so much is lost already during transplantation, what roots are left are very precious!

Broken branches, beware!

There are many reasons why branches are damaged during a tree transplant.

  • They get in the way when digging the root ball out.
  • The tree and its clump are heavy and branches make for a good grip… until they break off!
  • A tree without its roots topples over… and branches catch the fall!
  • During transportation and moving, branches get caught on corners, gates, they drag along the road, too.

These are a few reasons why it’s important to protect tree branches when transplanting!

Countering root loss

For an unpruned, mature plant, roots extend as far out as branches do. This is called the drip line. Since encasing the entire root system is often impossible for shrubs larger than two or three feet (½ to 1 meter) tall, a rough rule of thumb can serve as a guide:

  • prune back the branches in proportion to the root clump.

For example, if the shrub was three feet across and the root clump that is left is only one foot across, cut the branches back by two-thirds.

  • It’s safer to cut too much away from the branches than to not cut back enough.

In other words, better to prune more than not enough.

In some cases, it’s even recommended to cut individual leaves in half, too. A small stub remaining attached to the stem keeps the branch alive while not demanding too much from the smaller root clump. This is especially done to protect species that don’t react well to pruning like Prunus species (cherry tree, plum tree, ornamental plum trees, etc).

  • Lastly, remember to water often for the entire next season.

Integrating the new environment

Let it sit for a while – When transferring a plant to a pot, it’s good practice to sit the pot where the original plant stood. Do this for a few days, ideally for a week or so.

This ensures that environmental factors remain the same (exposure, wind, moisture). Complement with water regularly during this period.

Don’t do this if you plan to transfer the plant to the ground in another place, because then you’re simply losing time that the plant can use to adjust to its new growing environment.

Bring friends along – When uprooting the plant, there may be appealing or useful neighbors in the area. Add those to the transplant program. That way, whatever symbiosis they’ve reached can be maintained. If nice bulb flowers grow at the foot of your shrub, bring a few along, too. Spices interact a lot with their environment, too.

Mix in old soil – Use up to 50% of the old soil together with soil mix for backfilling or planting to a pot. You’ll be bringing beneficial fungus and microorganisms along for the transplanted plant.

Protect from too much light – If you’ve got a shading net that cuts off some of the light, use it for the first season to protect the transplant, especially in summer.

Orient your plant as it was before – Marking which side of the tree faces North and South and following that orientation upon replanting grants higher chances of success.

Prepare welcoming nutrients – don’t fertilize with chemical fertilizers. Prepare a dose of fermented weed tea instead. Not only will all your desired nutrients be there, you’ll also bring in helpful micro-organisms, too.

Smart tip about reducing transplant shock

A study was conducted on young birch saplings that were transplanted. They were watered with “sugar water”. Dousing the soil with sweetened water significantly reduced mortality and transplant shock. Why not try it out for your own shrub transplants? Add a cup and a fourth of sugar to one gallon of water (10 oz per gallon or 70g per liter). Mix well and use for watering for the first season.