Perhaps it is simply human nature to want instant gratification. We plant a tree and, well, we want it to look beautiful and grow vigorously right away! We have this image of a mature, lovely specimen gracing our property, shading our patio, providing all those ecosystem benefits we keep reading about. Then reality sets in. It looks the same this week as it did last week. We have to be patient…Oh My Goodness!
If you purchased a ball and burlapped tree (BnB), it lost the majority of its roots in the process of preparing the tree for transplanting. These trees are initially grown in the field, then dug with a tree spade (less often by hand), the surviving root system is then wrapped in burlap. They can lose 85 to 90% of their roots during this process. If you purchased a tree in a container, its root system may be a twisted mess. See my previous blog Selecting A Quality Specimen to Plant.
No matter what method you purchased, freshly planted or transplanted trees will have an establishment period. The general guideline is it takes a year per diameter inch of trunk for the tree to establish. Example: If you plant a tree with a 2″ diameter trunk, it will take approximately 2 years for it to establish.
What does to establish mean? Primarily, the tree needs to develop a new root system as it likely lost a large portion of it during the transplanting process, as mentioned above. All of the water and nutrient uptake is through the root system; it has to redevelop. The more roots it lost, the longer it will take to establish. During that time, you are not going to see much going on above ground as a great deal of its resources need to go below ground. It should leaf out but those leaves may be a bit smaller, and you may not see much elongation in the twigs. Hang in there. Don’t panic yet. This is one of the major reasons we recommend planting bare root trees and/or going with smaller diameter trees. They will establish faster. The root-to-shoot ratio is much greater, enhancing its survival rate.
Why we recommend planting a smaller tree: Using 1″ and 4″ trees as examples assuming they were planted close to the same time and are of the same species, the one-inch tree will establish in one year and be off and running while the 4″ tree will spend the next 3 years still working on its root system. In that 3-year time span, the 1″ tree has likely caught up with and is surpassing the 4″ tree in size and development. This is illustrated in the photo below.
Not only is that smaller tree now a bigger, probably healthier, tree but it was a whole lot cheaper to buy and much easier to plant!
In addition to developing a new root system, the new plant may be coming out of a nursery where it was being grown in soil-less media (if in a container) or in soil of completely different physical and chemical composition. (Another good reason for planting a bare root tree: neither of those issues will be a factor.)
Both soil-less media from the container and the soil around a BnB tree can present interface issues interfering with water uptake. Osmotic pressure can create a drought situation in the root zone if the soil around the root ball is wicking the moisture away from the roots.
Purchasing a quality specimen of a tree hardy to your area, suitable for the soils you have with a site that is suitable for the mature tree, and planting it correctly are all important steps in helping your new tree get off to a good start.
Then there is the after care. It will need to be watered appropriately. Which means you will need to monitor the soil around the root ball and the root ball itself until that interface has been breached and equilibrium has been established. As the tree develops, you still need to water appropriately. This will have to be adjusted for its growth and species requirements as well as environmental conditions and soil characteristics that determine how much and how often you will water.
During the establishment period, and particularly that first season, your new tree may not look as good as it did in the nursery. This can be particularly shocking in the case of some conifers, especially pines. I tell clients to go ahead and get it planted then not to make eye contact for the first year. Well, you do want to keep an eye on it but it is definitely going to go through a stress period that will be a bit unnerving if you are unprepared. Pines may put out very little growth that first year after planting and look sparse compared to their appearance in the nursery. And deciduous trees and shrubs can desiccate, completely losing their leaves early. Check for new buds being set. If new buds are set, hang in there. All will probably be well. Give your new tree time; it will be worth the wait.