Transplanted Trees: Watering, Fertilization & Pruning Guidelines

Did you know that many trees don’t survive more than 2 or 3 years after being planted or transplanted?

Whether you planted your new tree yourself or had it done by a tree care professional, there are things you can do to make sure your new tree grows and flourishes. Follow these guidelines to ensure that you’re giving your transplanted tree everything it needs to thrive as it becomes established, and that you’re avoiding common mistakes that could kill your new tree.

A garden hose with water trickling out on a sidewalk with green grass in the background

Watering a Transplanted Tree

Water is the most important thing a newly-planted tree needs. In fact, your new tree will need regular irrigation for several years, particularly during hot and dry weather.

A small, young tree has a small root ball with limited capacity to absorb water. A transplanted tree, regardless of how large or mature it is when planted, has not had time to grow new roots out into the surrounding soil. Because repeated water stress can affect a tree’s overall vigor, leading to stunted growth and sparse foliage, you’ll need to provide additional water until your new tree is well established. Expect this to take at least two years and as long as 10 years, depending on the tree species and growing conditions.

Whether you have an irrigation system or a garden hose, make sure you’re giving your new tree enough water to develop an extensive root system and a healthy crown of leaves.

General Watering Guidelines

For the first week, water daily to help the tree get over the initial shock of being transplanted. After that, water deeply once a week in warm weather, more frequently in hot, windy weather. Continue watering until the leaves drop in fall.

Be sure water is reaching deep enough into the soil to wet the entire root ball and that it’s not drying out between waterings. Trees planted in quick-draining loamy sand or sandy loam soils will need water more often than those in heavier silt loam or clay soils. Soils that are high in organic matter will also need less frequent watering.

Why a Lawn Irrigation System Won’t Work for Trees

If you have a lawn irrigation system, don’t expect it to provide enough water for your new tree. Trees need regular, deep watering so that water moves down into the soil where you want the tree’s roots to be. Turfgrass and small annual and perennial plants have much shallower root systems, and can get by with shorter irrigation cycles. If you give your tree only short bursts of water, it will respond by developing shallow roots that stay where the water is. Shallow roots will compromise the tree’s stability; if it can’t develop deep, anchoring roots there won’t be anything to hold it in place, especially during heavy rains and high winds.

Don’t Prune a Transplanted Tree

Young trees have small branches, and often they grow more stiffly upward than they will as they grow and mature. With that in mind, remember that your new tree can only make food energy from the leaves it has, so resist the temptation to prune for at least two years.

Don’t believe the myth that pruning a young tree will make it grow more vigorously! All you’re accomplishing is reducing the number of leaves that can photosynthesize and provide energy for your tree. Unless there are broken or damaged branches that do need to be removed, keep your pruners in the garage for now.

Plan for Future Pruning

While you should keep from pruning your new tree immediately, you will want to prune it within the first five years of its life. This is done to establish a well-balanced branch structure and a strong central leader, or trunk. With a good framework, your tree will develop an open, well-shaped crown that will support its growing form.

And if you don’t know how to prune, hire an arborist to do the important early pruning and learn about how pruning should be done. Trees are not hedges; don’t shear, top, or keep them dense. A good early pruning with minimal cuts is the best foundation for later growth.

A Riverbend team member shovels mulch around a shrub or young tree

Feeding a Newly-Planted Tree

Your new tree will need some regular, ongoing care. Chief among these are mulch and compost.

Use Compost

Compost is the best soil amendment you can give your tree, as it improves your soil’s fertility and water-holding capacity over the long term. Spread an inch-thick layer of compost over the soil and replenish it regularly as it breaks down to keep soil nutrients at optimal levels.

Add Mulch

The finishing layer is mulch. Organic mulch, meaning mulch made from organic, once-living material such as wood chips, is the best choice. It keeps soil moisture from evaporating, regulates soil temperatures so that young roots will neither freeze in winter nor dry out in summer, and help suppress weeds.

Apply a three or four-inch layer of mulch around your tree; extend it about three feet or to the edge of the tree’s canopy, whichever is larger. Because it will break down to improve your soil over time (just like compost), replenish it regularly.

And remember to keep the mulch away from your tree’s trunk. You don’t want any water-holding material resting against your tree’s bark or its root flare, as moisture invites bacteria and fungus growth that can infect your tree.

>> Learn all about mulch – types, proper use, benefits, and what to avoid

Avoid Fertilizer

A newly-planted tree does not need fertilizer during its first few years. Why? Because most of the fine root hairs and feeder roots that take up nutrients will have been damaged or removed during the transplant process. Trees wont be able to take advantage of nutrients in the soil until they’re firmly established. And even then, have a professional soil test performed before adding fertilizer – if you’ve been using compost and organic mulch, your soil will likely have more than enough nutrients to support your trees.

A few final thoughts

If you follow these guidelines and suggestions you can expect your new tree to establish itself and grow vigorously, and you’ll avoid some of the most common problems new trees are susceptible to.

Watching your tree grow can be a source of great satisfaction, and may induce you to do more gardening and learn more about plants in general. We certainly hope so!

If you need some assistance with choosing plants or trees, planting them, or caring for them, give us a call. We’ll come out and evaluate your property, tell you what’s going on, and even give you planting and landscape design suggestions.

Together, we can not only insure that you new trees thrive, we can help you create a landscape that fits your style and is designed to be harmonious, beautiful, and a valuable addition to your property.


Give Us a Call at 703-402-9366

If you'd like help with your trees or landscape, have any questions, or would like to schedule an appointment with one of our Certified Arborists, please give us a call. We'd love to hear from you!

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Peter Hart

Peter’s love of trees and the outdoors started early, becoming involved and teaching at Audubon nature camps at 12 years old. This appreciation for nature continued into adulthood as Peter earned his Arboriculture degree from the University of Massachusetts. From there Peter went onto become a Massachusetts certified arborist as well as earning an ISA Tree Risk Assessment Qualification.