Newly transplanted trees browning - transplant shock, overwaterin

bobert18August 5, 2014

I guess my first question is actually: what are these? I had a friend who was nice enough to let me transplant some good-sized trees from a field, but we really don't know what they are. We assumed that they were at least fairly native & safe, as they were growing wild, and I've seen them all over the place. Not sure exactly how safe that assumption is, but at the very least, that should indicate that they should have no problem growing in this area (Southwest TN).

I transplanted these in Mid July (I know, mistake #1, but time was not on our side). I did my best to take as much root as possible with each tree - I believe I was able to manage about a 4' diameter root ball on each one. I should note that the roots were all very shallow - very few had anything more than a few inches deep. This led to a lot of the dirt coming off during transport, so they ended up being an almost bare-root transplant. Problem #2, I'm guessing.

When we planted them, my, um, "helper" put some slow release, high nitrogen & phosphorus fertilizer in, and watered thoroughly. Only afterwards did I realize how much he had put - I'm afraid he may have overfertilized. Possible problem #3.

It's been 2-3 weeks since I finished the transplant, and the trees have all taken on various shades of brown. Some seem to be coming back a little more towards the green side, but I'm really not sure what to do at this point.

It's possible they need more water. I keep the soil moist with a 75' soaker hose every morning (30 minutes/day, increased about a week ago from 10-15 minutes/day). But it's also 90 degrees and sunny here every day, so I could definitely see needing more water. The area is well-drained - they're on a slight slope, so water doesn't really pool up or anything.

It's possible they need less water. The soil (3-4" deep) is always moist, not slimy, but there are a couple places (slightly downhill from the trees) that are always slightly soft when I walk on them now, like they're just mud. I know overwatering can be just as dangerous as underwatering, but I'm really at a loss to as to how to know which one these might be experiencing.

It's possible they have root burn from the overfertilizing. The good news is that it's slow release, so maybe it wouldn't hit the trees quite as hard as fast-release. The bad news is that it's slow release, so the problem may persist for much longer. And, of course, the solution for this appears to be lots and lots of water - not something I really want to try if I'm not sure if they're overwatered or not.

Or it's possible that it's just transplant shock, and I'm being paranoid because I have so much time & effort invested in these. I thought transplant shock usually cleared within a couple weeks, but maybe I'm wrong, especially with larger plants.

Or maybe it's something else altogether. I'm good at reading possible problems online, but apparently very poor at diagnosing the issues myself. If you see something else that's going on, please let me know.

At this point, losing these trees is really not an option. Besides the time & effort put in, there simply aren't any more trees in this size range available to me. I'm more than willing to do whatever it takes to make sure these survive.

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I'm having some trouble with the image attachments. I'll get them added ASAP.

    Bookmark   August 5, 2014 at 3:55PM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

do tell us.. how big GOOD SIZED TREES are ...

crikey ...

and i would tend towards invasive.. when you state you see them everywhere ... as compared to natives .....

and since you are in the conifer forum.. can i hazard a guess of Juniperous viginiana???

anyway ... we await the pix ...


    Bookmark   August 5, 2014 at 4:14PM
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Sorry, the size would have been obvious had the images successfully attached. I haven't measured, but the fence behind them is a standard 6' privacy fence, so I'd guess they range from about 8-15' tall.

I went ahead and just dropped the pictures in an imgur album. Link below. I tried to get pictures of all the trees, plus a few closeups of one in pretty decent shape, as well as a couple that aren't doing quite as well.

Here is a link that might be useful: Imgur photo album

    Bookmark   August 5, 2014 at 4:32PM
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Red Cedar was one of the ones I had guessed, based on some searching. I wasn't 100% sure, though, since mine, growing wild, don't look exactly like the nice specimens most people put up. Hopefully someone can confirm.

If you guessed correctly just based on my initial post, I'm extremely impressed. Heck, I'm impressed that you were even close, even if you weren't right.

    Bookmark   August 5, 2014 at 4:46PM
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Eastern Red Cedar is left most of the root system behind..I'd guess.

They probably don't transplant well...but they're sure hard to kill if you don't dig them up.

They're probably also fertilizer sensitive, they grow in the poorest places.

    Bookmark   August 5, 2014 at 4:54PM
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So those are Eastern Red Cedars? That's interesting - I was really expecting a tap root, but didn't see (or feel) one on any of the trees. Once the surface roots were cut, everything else came up without any problem.

Any consensus on overfertilization being my issue?

    Bookmark   August 5, 2014 at 5:03PM
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They could be...I can't tell w/o close-up and probably not w/o being there for sure. It's likely that's what they are though.

    Bookmark   August 5, 2014 at 6:27PM
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Wow those are really big trees, about 10ft tall if that fence is 6ft. Very large trees to move, especially with two guys and a couple shovels in mid-summer.

The good news is that if they are Juniperus virginiana (Eastern Red-cedar) then they are tough trees.

As others have mentioned they stand up to poor growing conditions very well. We have several smaller ones near our house, about 3-4 feet tall, and last winter the deer browsed them heavily, eating off about half of each tree. Today they have grown back and you would never know how badly they were browsed. Of course, those were growing in the wild and had not been moved so the root systems were intact.

Yes some mistakes were made during the moving process but all you can do at this point is make sure the ground around each rootball is damp, not dry or soaking wet. I would probably have removed the grass surrounding the planting holes and mulched them. Mulch really helps retain moisture and can help moderate temperature fluctuations in the soil around the trees. Some people like mulch, others don't, but I think it really helps plants during the establishment phase.

I don't know if your trees will survive but I have my fingers crossed for you. Good luck.


    Bookmark   August 5, 2014 at 6:30PM
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Thanks a lot for the insight. How big a difference will mulch make? I really hate mulch in the yard, but if it's the difference between these trees living or dying, the grass will be replaced with mulch tomorrow.

I was reading something about foliar feeding earlier (spraying liquid fertilizer mixed with water directly onto the leaves), which got me wondering about replacing the soaker hose with something like an oscillating sprinkler, so that the trees get water from top to bottom, not just in the (possibly damaged) roots. I really don't know what ability these trees have to absorb water through the leaves, but I'm guessing anything they can get might help. This would be done right around sunrise, so the heat of the day should(?) prevent any moisture from gathering too much and causing fungus issue or anything like that. Any thoughts on that idea?

    Bookmark   August 5, 2014 at 7:34PM
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Well I suggest you do some online research on mulching before you do anything to your grass. Personally I have found that mulch is very beneficial in getting trees established by holding in moisture and keeping soil temps a bit cooler.

But before you decide on anything I suggest you do some research on the pros and cons of mulching.


    Bookmark   August 6, 2014 at 8:34AM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

i would not waste money on mulch.. i think they are all basically dead ..

you went with instant gratification.. on size ... and did just about everything wrong ...

if you insist on a do over.. with the same weed trees.. go with 2 to 3 footers.. and do in in sept or april ....

it would be much better.. if you mail ordered some quality conifers.. instead of these carp plants ... crikey.. TN is one of the production capitals of the US for nursery stock ...

start a new post if you want suggestions ...

also.. see link ... a good primer ... get this.. by some TN guy ...


Here is a link that might be useful: link

    Bookmark   August 6, 2014 at 8:46AM
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Ken brings up a good point. If these trees are dead or dying then no need to spend money on mulch. The trees I plant are less than half as tall as these trees with good root systems and mulching has helped them quite a bit.

With the money you might spend on mulch you could order some very healthy, smaller trees to replace these.


    Bookmark   August 6, 2014 at 9:00AM
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Ok, well then please help me with some lessons learned. If these are dead, what killed them? What should I do differently next time? I know your first comment is going to be size-related, but honestly, let's skip that for now. Our situation is such that we either use trees roughly this size, or we have the entire yard re-graded about 4 feet higher than it currently is. If we have to wait 3-5 years for the trees to reach this height, there's absolutely no point in planting them.

Anything at all that can be done to save any of these trees? As you can see, the first several seem to be doing much better than the last few. If there's anything that I can do to save the healthy-looking ones, please let me know.

    Bookmark   August 6, 2014 at 10:23AM
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Well all you can do is wait and see what happens and how many live or die. Keep the rootballs damp and hope for the best.

All of us would like instant gratification and have large healthy trees right away. Problem is that large trees like these are much harder to dig up and move compared to smaller trees, especially when moving is done by homeowners using shovels in July. More often than not you simply can't retain enough root mass to support such a large tree, especially in summer.

The best way to move trees this large would be to have a professional move them with specialized equipment. Even then, spring or fall would be a better time to do this. And of course professional movers would charge a lot to move the trees. Probably not worth the cost considering the trees are eastern Red Cedars growing in a field to begin with.

In my limited experience I tend to agree with Ken and others that planting smaller trees with intact rootballs is the way to go. Smaller trees with a better root system are more likely to survive summer heat and winter cold. Some trees like Dawn Redwood, Eastern White pine and Norway spruce grow several feet per year once established, so something similar might be worth looking at if these trees do not survive.


    Bookmark   August 6, 2014 at 11:17AM
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I've tried both approaches, small container and large b&b. I agree the people on here, smaller containers establish faster and in most cases will catch up to larger specimens. I've wanted immediate focal points and done 9' b&b's successfully. If I could do it again, I'd get 4' containers, save some money and my back.

I you absolutely can't wait, you'll need to be sure you get trees with large footballs. We're talking a few hundred pounds each. Without good roots, odds of survival are low.

Plant in spring or fall. I personally like spring, most of the collectors prefer fall.

No fertilizer

I hate mulch in a planting like that, but it's going to help survival. In a few years, the grass will die under there anyway.

You did all the work, I'd wait and see. Remove them in fall if they continue to decline. Prep the planting area by removing grass.

Try again in spring. That's what I would do.

    Bookmark   August 6, 2014 at 12:10PM
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Thanks for all the input.

I did try watering with an oscillating sprinkler this morning, applying the water directly to the leaves. Amazingly enough, all of them look better now than they did yesterday - they're all at least somewhat greener, and the leaves are all less brittle and more flexible and alive-feeling. I'm sure this isn't a permanent solution, but maybe it will help while they recover from the root damage & transplant shock?

The bad news is, I used the sprinkler for 30 minutes, which appears to have been too long. The soil is now (several hours later) definitely wet, not damp. The area under some of the trees would best be described as muddy. Looks like I'll need to find a happy medium that gives the leaves water, but doesn't destroy the roots & surrounding area. And/or dig something of a drainage ditch away from each one, just so that extra water has somewhere to flow besides the soil that's still soft from planting.

I was headed out to get some mulch, and then thought about what's been said re: it retaining water better. If it looks like I'm going to have a hard time balancing not enough water for the leaves, and too much water for the soil, do I want something that's going to retain water? For that matter, do I want anything under there at all? Would I be better off pulling the grass back up (it should still be movable at this point), and letting the hot TN sun do its thing to that mud?

Since the foliar watering seems to have worked, at least to some extent, I'm also thinking about following some tips I've seen for foliar fertilizing with a low concentration of Miracle Gro. Any thoughts?

Sorry, lots of thoughts bouncing around in my head now that I have some hope for these things to make it. Just trying to run them past some people who actually know something about this stuff.

    Bookmark   August 6, 2014 at 3:00PM
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Based on what you've added in this thread I personally would wait and see what happens to these trees before going to all the effort and expense of ripping up and removing grass and applying mulch.

Originally I did suggest mulching the trees but the more I think about this the more I agree with Ken and the others and would wait to see which trees, if any, survive before spending time and money mulching them.

In a perfect scenario, with healthy trees with good intact root systems, mulching is a standard practice to moderate soil temperatures and moisture levels. In this case I think I would simply try to keep the soil around the rootballs damp and moist, not muddy or soggy. Hold off on mulching until it's clear how many trees will survive. I would not add fertilizer since all these trees are in transplant shock and fertilizer won't help them at this point.

In several threads here on GW Ken has provided a good link regarding tree planting. I will include the link and hope that it provides good information to anyone in the future who is thinking about planting or moving a tree. Very informative.



Here is a link that might be useful: Planting a tree or shrub

    Bookmark   August 6, 2014 at 6:52PM
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Well, after another month or so, it looks like about half of them are going to pull through. If I'm able to get access to get a few more, what are my lessons learned here? What should I be doing differently with the next ones? Here's what I've come up with based on your responses & some fairly extensive research on my end. Let me know if I'm missing anything:

1. Cooler weather. I'm thinking maybe mid October? Average temperatures here at that point are low 70s during the day and low 50s at night.

2. Better care of the root ball. I'll need to get some burlap and wrap them as I dig them, so we don't end up with a bunch of bare (aka dead, from what I've read) roots. It doesn't do me much good to go through the trouble of digging up a nice big root ball if most of it doesn't make it to the planting site intact. I've also seen tips to not let them be out of the ground more than an hour or two at most - is this correct? I had read previously that if they were kept moist (which I still plan to do), 24 hours out of the ground wasn't a problem.

3. Easy on the fertilizer. Pretty much none, in fact. The more I read, the more I'm convinced we burned the roots on these things. I'm thinking some Fertilome Root Stimulator & Starter Solution when I plant, and maybe some Superthrive a week or two later. Is that too much? Not enough? Should I be looking at a hormone root stimulator powder of some sort as well?

4. Mulch. I'll be getting rid of the grass directly underneath them, and putting mulch in. No volcanoes, no mulch over the root balls or touching the trunk. It'll be way easier than removing the grass and putting it back, anyway.

5. Smaller trees. This one is going to be hard for me, since it really defeats the purpose of the entire project, but I'm going to do my best to stick to the 6-8 foot size. I got way over-ambitious on some of these, and some of the ones I got ended up being twice that size.

One final question: I recently saw something about supporting trees with dowels driven into the ground at the corners of the root ball, instead of using stakes and rope. The wood naturally decomposes in the ground over a couple of years, just in time for the tree to no longer need the support. I really like this idea for several reasons - no bark damage, no visible stakes, no ropes to trip over, allows for slight tree movement for increased root growth, etc. Does anyone have any experience with this, and/or know of a reason it would or wouldn't be a good idea?

Any and all other thoughts are definitely appreciated as well. Thanks.

    Bookmark   September 5, 2014 at 12:11PM
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Just wanted to post a followup on this for anyone who may come across this thread in the future. I always hate finding a thread full of good information, but then not knowing if it actually worked or not.

I replaced the trees that died, and the new ones are doing great. Here's what I did differently. (I know that for some of you, these may be the most obvious things in the world, but some of us are still learning, even from our really stupid, obvious mistakes).

- I waited til it cooled down. It got cooler earlier than I expected, so I was able to do the transplants a couple weeks ago.

- Smaller trees. I did still really need the height, so I went with 6-8' tall trees (some are about 9', actually), but I got much smaller caliper (trunk diameter) trees. I tried for no more than about 1.5" caliper, measured 6 inches above the root flare (some are a little closer to 1.75"). They're definitely much less full, but they'll get the job done until they fill in and grow up a little. It helps a lot that I found out that for screening purposes, eastern red cedars can be planted as close as 4' apart. Bigger, fuller trees really aren't needed at that spacing.

- No starter fertilizer. These are trees, not grass. I used some Fertilome Root Stimulator & Starter solution (per the manufacturer's instructions) when I planted, and may add some Superthrive in a couple weeks, just to get the roots really going before winter kicks in.

- Much better care of the root balls. I didn't make perfect root balls, as such - after reading a whole lot of back and forth between scientists on the benefits of good root balls vs taking as much root as possible, even if they're outside of the dirt, I kind of went with a hybrid approach. I got as much root as I could, and kept as much dirt on them as possible. I kept all of them covered with dirt of some type for as much time as possible, and ensured that they never actually got dry. Total time from digging to planting was less than 4 hours, and most of that time, they were in some kind of dirt.

- I watered with a sprinkler for a few days, to let moisture come in through both the roots & leaves, in case the roots were having difficulty of some kind. Then I found out about Wilt-Pruf (prevents moisture from escaping through the leaves, which causes a lot of transplant shock). I applied it per the manufacturer's instructions, and am now watering with a soaker hose, as Wilt-Pruf should also prevent absorption of water through the leaves.

- I haven't mulched yet (life got in the way unexpectedly), but I will be soon. Something else I came across in my reading - mulch isn't required, but most bushes or trees that are mulched in their first year or two after transplant show 20%+ more growth than those that aren't. Since growth & size are my primary goals here, it's worth having that junk in my yard for a year or two. We'll see what, if anything, will grow under these trees once they're established, but for now, it's gonna be mulch.

Thanks, everybody, for all the insights provided. Hopefully these results, and what I did to get them, will be useful to someone else in the future, too.

    Bookmark   September 24, 2014 at 10:59AM
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I like hearing how these things turn out, to.

They could be Eastern Red Cedar...or they could be white cedar.

If they are Eastern Red Cedar some will have tiny round blue-gray berries. Eastern Red Cedar like good drainage and don't like swampy soil. Not much should grow underneath them. Could you post an update picture?

    Bookmark   September 24, 2014 at 2:28PM
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