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Transplant shock, what it is and key signs to look out for

Transplant shock

Transplant shock is a combination of three causes. Upon moving a tree or plant, it undergoes:

  • physical abuse (bruising and wounds),
  • a reduction in size (roots and branches are cut off),
  • and it ends up in a new environment.

Each of these factors may lead to transplant shock.

Let’s take a look at what transplant shock symptoms are. From there, we’ll assess the three challenges a moved plant faces: physical damage, downsizing, and new growing environment.

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Symptoms of transplant shock

A plant that is newly dug up and moved from one place to the another may show signs of :

  • wilting or falling leaves,
  • dying branches,
  • abrupt fall of flowers or fruit,
  • or it might die altogether.

This is called transplant shock.

For plants and herbs purchased in pots such as lettuce, coriander and parsley, transplant shock can also trigger bolting and going to seed.

When does transplant shock occur?

Transplant shock may occur when:

  • transplanting seedlings,
  • moving a plant around the garden, or even displacing a plant grown in a container or pot!
  • planting a tree or shrub from a garden center,
  • to a certain degree, even when simply repotting or topdressing a plant.
  • Some plants are more vulnerable than others.

It also applies to newly purchased houseplants. These leave the optimized environment of a nursery for a completely different setting: your own house!

Can transplant shock occur without moving the plant?

Actually, even without moving the plant, very similar shock can occur if the surroundings change quickly.

New buildings or removal of nearby constructions

  • This changes both exposure and wind patterns, which can result in shock to the plant.
  • Moving to a place with more shade will stunt growth.
  • Moving to a sunnier spot might give the tree sunburn.

This can also happen if a lumberjack fells a large tree, opening a clearing up. In forestry, sunburn occurs frequently on trees that remain in full sun after clear-cuts .

Underground changes

  • When construction workers dig trenches near roots, damage is inevitable.
  • Setting up a root barrier or a rhizome trap means cutting large roots off. It’s important to prune accordingly.

Physical abuse – broken branches and roots

You cannot move a plant without some degree of transplant damage. Roots, branches and leafage are all affected.

Roots suffer most, and wounds also hurt branches, too. This is typically due to cutting roots with the spade, pruning, breakage, parts of the plant dying off due to mishandling, transportation and such.

When roots are exposed to air, tiny invisible rootlets dry up and die off. Damage starts even within the first minute!

  • When the plant root ball is out in the open, it is important to hurry
  • … but it’s also critical to stay soft-handed.
  • Act delicately to avoid creating larger wounds (no twisting and bruising the plant).

Focusing on speed is good, but being careful is good, too!

Downsizing – less roots, less branches

A plant pulled out from where it used to grow typically loses half or more of its root system and sap production system.

Pruning branches: as important as protecting roots

For a transplant to succeed, remove branches and leaves to compensate for loss of roots.

As it grows, a plant develops its root system to meet increased circulation of sap, water and nutrients. Upon losing roots, all of a sudden, internal plumbing vessels and tubes that carry all these fluids are oversized. Their shape and volume doesn’t match the plant’s needs  anymore. The plant wastes more efforts to shift nutrients around than it did before.

This explains why it’s important to balance out what is removed.

  • If half the root system is lost during the transplant, then you must reduce leafage by half, too.
  • Ensure that the ratio of roots stays the same to that of branches and leaves.

Also, remember that most “active” roots are around the circumference. Roots near the trunk are still good, but usually they’ve already depleted soil around them. When transplanting, they’ll have to get to work again, which takes a while!

A new growing environment

In the long run, the most important factor is the change in growing environment. When moving a plant, 4 items usually change completely:

  • soil type – even in the same garden, soil may be clay on one side and humus-rich on the other, with “spots” of different soil types.
  • drainage – drainage and availability of water differs because of different soil types and different rainfall patterns (overshadowing trees, differences in wind patterns, etc…)
  • exposure – unless you’re moving from one corner of an open field to another, exposure to sun and shade will always be different.
  • companion plants – to a lesser degree, neighboring plants also influence the newcomer. A relationship always arises between a plant and its neighbors, so losing old and getting new neighbors influences this, too.

A plant, as it grows, responds intimately to its environment, to “bloom where it is planted“. The shock of change can often be overcome, but in some cases it proves too much to cope with, and the plant dies.

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