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It’s always such a joy to welcome a new addition to your budding landscape collection. A new tree or shrub brings with it the promise of deep shade, showy flowers, or ornamental fruit for many years to come. And for new homeowners staring at a blank canvas of bare earth on their doorstep, the promise of greater things to come is all the more powerful as the cascade of new plants makes their arrival.
But much as it takes proper love and attention in the comfort of a nurturing environment to raise a child into a healthy and happy adult, so too are the first year or two of a plant’s new life in your landscape critical to its long-term success and happiness. The establishment years of your new plants will go a long way to determining their performance and longevity, and will either positively or adversely affect their ornamental and functional attributes.
So let’s examine the factors within your control that will determine a plant’s success or failure during its establishment years, and in particular, the first year of its life in your landscape.
First and foremost, this article assumes that the plant has been situated in an appropriate location, culturally speaking (sunlight, drainage, space), and has been properly planted, meaning a proper planting hole, deep watering, slow-release root fertilization, and a large reservoir of ideal soil in accordance with the plant’s preferences. Proper planting techniques are outside of the scope of this article and can be found in greater detail in other articles.
Understanding the Hazards of Year 1
The first thing a homeowner must do is to keep his or her expectations of the plant’s performance realistic over the establishment period. It’s tempting to want a new tree or shrub to offer even a hint of great things to come, putting forth a sampling of showy flowers or a vigorous burst of growth, but that’s not what matters in the long term.
The objectives of the establishment period are for the plant to develop a good root system, become accustomed to its new surroundings and whatever quirks its new location may bring, and carry it through the first growing season and subsequent winter with minimal stress.
In fact, the story of the first year is a story of stress, from the perspective of the plant. For one thing, its root system was invariably compromised by the transplant, most likely right at the grower’s fields.
Clearly bare root and balled-and-burlapped transplants have suffered extreme root damage, but even container-grown plants have likely experienced some degree of root injury. And the older or larger a transplant, the more likely that significant root damage has occurred.
Roots are critical to plants, a “vital organ” by human standards. Healthy extensive roots support healthy and vigorous top growth and encourage ornamental performance by reaching deep and wide to access water and minerals in the soil, and by firmly anchoring the plant against wind and powerful rains.
Conversely, compromised root systems are unable to access a large pool of water, rendering the plant very susceptible to even slight stints of drought, and are unable to secure the plant, especially if it is top-heavy, like a tree.
Until roots damaged by a transplant can fully recover, the rest of the plant will suffer and show at least some decline. This is commonly called “transplant shock”, and is simply the plant’s way of reacting to the imbalance between the needs of the above-ground parts and the diminished capability of the roots.
Depending on the degree of damage, transplant shock can be as insignificant as a blip in the growth, or as pronounced as a total cessation of growth in the first year. Leaves will often appear immature and underdeveloped, and new growth is weak and lethargic.
There’s not much a homeowner can do to correct transplant shock other than to encourage the conditions that support root development, and then wait for them to catch up.
Besides the roots, there are other stresses that a newly moved plant will experience. It will notice a change in the growing conditions between your landscape, the nursery where it stayed a while, and its original growing location.
Plants will respond to things like altered sunlight, wind patterns, and drainage conditions, and will require a period of acclimatization to synchronize with their new surroundings. They are also more susceptible to afflictions such as insect attacks, diseases, and the ravages of winter that established plants weather with no problem.
Factors in Your Control
It may seem like the odds are against the owner of a new transplant, but there are many things one can do to encourage the plant over its first couple of years.
Rigor is the key; routine care and attention are pathways to success because it only takes one slip for an already compromised plant to take a serious turn for the worse.
A plant with a compromised root system is highly susceptible to both a lack of water and too much water; it requires an even and regular supply of moisture without growing in standing water. This is actually a difficult balance to achieve with consistency because it doesn’t take long for adequate moisture to turn into dryness.
The key is regular, frequent, and deep watering in a situation of good drainage. A regular watering schedule guarantees that the plant will not be without moisture for any prolonged periods, deep watering encourages deep root growth, and good drainage ensure that deep watering doesn’t pool into subsurface lakes which can drown the roots.
Watering schedules need to be adjusted for rain and drying conditions such as excessive wind, prolonged periods of sunlight, or drought. Plants in lighter sandy soils will also require more frequent watering than those in heavier clay soils.
As a general rule of thumb, water the plants every second day for the first two weeks, twice a week for a month following that, and then at least weekly from there on. Double or even triple these durations for plants that are clearly experiencing transplant shock, because it will take longer for their roots to recover.
Adjust this watering schedule for any soaking rains that may fall. You can test the soil moisture using your finger; if it is dry an inch deep from the surface, it is time to water.
In general, most established trees and shrubs don’t require fertilizing at all, with only a couple of exceptions (e.g. azaleas, and hydrangeas). The most important fertilization you can provide a new plant is at the time of planting, using a slow-release low-nitrogen fertilizer such as bonemeal to stimulate root growth.
Liquid root-boosting formulations can also help stimulate root growth, but are quite short-lived, and must be discontinued once the plant reaches a certain level of root development.
It is tempting to force new transplants to perform by priming them with copious doses of top-growth and performance-enhancing fertilizers. This is a dangerous gamble; if the plant has the root system to match, it will respond in kind, but if the root system is damaged, it may further stress the plant and ultimately kill it.
This is a case where patience is truly a virtue; give them at least a year to establish themselves before driving them to perform.
There is a vigorous debate among horticulturalists as to whether or not it is wise to prune a new transplant. The proponents suggest that since there is an imbalance between the diminished root system and the undamaged top growth, reducing the top growth by a comparable amount should restore the balance; less top growth is calling upon the fewer roots for support.
Opponents contend that plants actually respond to a reduction in top growth by attempting to stimulate even more top growth, further straining the compromised root system.
I’m not aware of any studies which clearly favor one position over the other, but the latter position makes more sense to me. Personally, I like to trim off any obviously damaged branches, and any branches that are clearly not going to contribute to the plant’s final appearance. Beyond that, though, I don’t remove branches just for the sake of balancing the demands on the roots.
The timing of pruning is critical, too. Never prune a new transplant after the month of July except to trim off seriously damaged branches, right through until it has gone completely dormant for the season in late fall. Pruning during this period may stimulate new growth which will not harden in time for winter.
There is also a vigorous debate among some horticulturalists as to whether or not to stake newly planted trees (shrubs generally don’t require staking), but my experience puts me clearly in one camp – with few exceptions, staking is a must for new trees, particularly those with tall lanky trunks and an abundance of “lollipop” top growth.
Newly planted trees simply don’t have the means to anchor themselves into the ground, and inevitably a strong wind or storm will come along that leads them to one side or even topples them over. It drives me mad to see mature landscape trees growing at an angle with skewed trunks, all because they were not secured by stakes until they had established strong root systems.
The proper staking technique is absolutely critical. Unless there is a clearly prevailing wind, two stakes should be used at 180 degrees to each other, preferably rigid iron “T-bars” that won’t flex in the wind.
No matter what you use to secure the tree to the stakes (wire, string, nylon), it is imperative that it be run through a section of soft rubber or plastic hose at the point where it wraps around the tree trunk.
Wire and string will cut into the bark with friction from the wind, and if that doesn’t kill the tree, the bark will begin to heal and grow around the wire! Trust me, this is NOT something you want to have to correct later! And don’t forget to remove the stakes after a year or two when they are no longer needed.
As obvious as this might sound, it bears stating; new plants need to be kept as free from the competition as possible. Weeds have a hard time competing with established plants, but the converse is true for a new transplant; weeds and lawn grass can easily stress the plant.
So keep the gardens clean, always maintain a weed and grass-free radius around newly planted trees and large shrubs, and use a mulch to conserve moisture and keep the weeds at bay.
First Winter Care
If your primary objective during the establishment period is to minimize stress, then the first winter your plant experiences must be thought of as the greatest stress of all.
Our northern winters are hard on mature plants as it is, so you can only imagine what a new tree or shrub stressed by a recent transplant must go through. Be prepared to throw every winter protection you can possibly apply at your newly planted trees and shrubs.
For trees, this means always wrapping the trunk with plastic spiral tree wraps or fabric, which prevents sunscald, frost cracking, and animal damage. No exceptions! It means protecting young evergreens with burlap screens on the windward and sunny sides.
It means surrounding young fruit trees and ornamentals which are susceptible to deer and rabbit damage with wire mesh on a frame of posts. It means mulching the root zone to protect against temperature swings as well as to keep away weeds.
For shrubs, it means lots of snow cover, especially if they are in any way tender or not quite rated for your zone. Be prepared to shovel additional snow on them the first year if necessary, before the cold spells hit. Tender plants should be covered for the winter in a mulch such as leaves, flax straw, or peat moss, which must be removed the following spring.
For all plants, it means discontinuing watering and fertilizing as fall approaches to allow them to properly harden in time for winter. New transplants tend to lose their ability to respond to the cues of nature that signal the hardening process, and excess water and fertilizer further dull these responses.
All fertilizing should cease by the end of July, with no exceptions! And watering should gradually be reduced to no more than once per week starting in September. However, most plants, especially evergreens, benefit from one heavy soaking in late fall after they have gone dormant for the season.
Attention and Observation
In addition to the above advice, you must watch your new transplants like a hawk for the first year, looking for signs of anything wrong at all. They are not able to handle common afflictions such as insect attacks and diseases with the same vigor as a mature and established plant, and little problems can quickly become major problems.
Likewise, they are much more sensitive to even slightly adverse conditions, those which established plants will simply shrug off. Short periods of drought, prolonged rains, intense heat waves, cold snaps, and untimely frosts; all of these must be managed as they appear, with the end objective of minimizing the resultant stress on the new plant. It all comes down to keeping a close eye on them and responding with haste.
Yes, these suggestions mean more effort and attention on your part during this establishment period. But they will set your plants off to a good start and most likely a healthy life of minimal intervention from then on.