10 Tips For Minimizing Transplant Shock in Palm Trees

Sick Pygmy Date Palm Trees (Phoenix roebelenii). Photo by Flickr.

No matter how careful you are, palm trees will experience stress when transplanted to the new location. So, if you notice that your newly planted palm tree has brown, yellow or droopy leaves and looks likes it might be dying, it’s going through so called ‘transplant shock’.

Transplant shock – is hardening of the roots which occurs as a result of roots being disturbed and exposed to air, sunlight and new soil. This happens because palm trees were not designed to be moved from one place to another.

When you move a palm tree, depending on the species, it loses a lot or most of the roots. Remaining roots have a hard time providing palm with enough water. That leads to a water stress.

That is one of the reasons why you should keep the rootball of the palm moist as much as possible. Any disturbance of the roots will cause a stress. While there is no way to prevent transplant shock, there are ways to minimize it.

1. Remove Leaves

Field-grown palms loose a lot of water during transplanting mostly from the transpiration through the leaves. To decrease water loss, you can remove one half of the leaves before digging the palm out of the ground. Some nurseries even remove all of the leaves on species like Sabal palm.

I think leaf pruning is a good practice because field-grown palms might loose their older leaves anyways. When palm cannot get enough water from its severed roots, it drops older leaves to support the new growth.

With container-grown palms, there is no need for leaf removal since their roots won’t be disturbed as much.

2. Transport Palm Properly

If you have a large palm that is being transported by a truck, make sure to protect it by wrapping it with damp tarp. Also, tie up the fronds and attach 2 splits to the trunk and a leaf bundle to prevent trunk from snapping.

Some palms require extra care during transporting since they are much more sensitive to heart injury. Other palms with large heavy crowns should also be braced to prevent the bud from breaking.

Unlike broadleaf tree, palm is unable to heal itself so you need to protect the trunk from any scratches or scrapes. If the trunk gets injured, it will never heal creating an entry point for insects and diseases.

3. Pick The Right Time

According to University of Florida, the best time for planting palm is during warm rainy months which is not necessarily in Spring. Depending on your location, the weather might vary.

For example, in Florida late Spring months are some of the warmest but also the driest time of the year. So it’s better to plant during rainy season which is June to November. This will increase palm’s survival rate and reduce the transplant shock.

Evening hours is the best time for transplanting, since the sun is not as strong and temperatures are usually cooler. This will give you palm tree all evening and all night to adjust to the new place before getting exposed to sunlight.

4. Acclimate Palm

Palms don’t like sudden changes in temperature and light levels. If you transplanting a palm from the pot into the ground, you can place the palm in the area in which it will be planted a week in advance. That will give your palm enough time to acclimatize to the temperatures and the light levels of that location.

Another method is to plant a palm in the new location and cover it with plastic. Each week make holes in the plastic to increase light levels.

5. Prepare Soil

There are a lot of discussions about soil amendment. Some palm enthusiasts think that improving the soil will help palm to develop new roots easier but will cause problems later on since the palm roots will stay within the radius of amended soil like in a container.

I think that palm roots will have to get used the soil of your garden, however from my experience, palms recover from transplant shock and establish much faster when provided with good quality soil mix. I like to use organic matter and some sand for better drainage.

If you have a clay soil, use one par of coarse sand and one part of organic matter to three parts of native soil. No need to add sand if you have a sandy soil. Just add one part of organic matter to three parts of your native soil.

6. Improve Drainage

Good drainage plays a big role in palm’s survival and establishment. Make sure to check the drainage before planting. Sandy soils have much better drainage than the clay ones.

You can check by digging up the hole, filling it with water and then after an hour filling it with water again. See how long it takes for water to go away. If it goes away in couple hours, you have an excellent drainage. If it still there after 24 hours, there is a problem.

You can improve the drainage by adding sand to the soil, some rocks to the bottom of the hole, and drilling holes at the bottom and the sides of the hole to loosen up the soil. In severe cases, install a pipe that will take water away from the plant.

7. Avoid Disturbing Palm Roots

Depending on the species, palm trees lose some or all of the roots when transplanted to the new place. Palms grown in a container usually have roots that wrap around the inside of the container. There is no need to trim them. Palm will rely on the old roots for getting water, while the new roots are developing.

Keep in mind, that field-grown palms end up with less root mass than the container-grown palms because their roots get cut when dug out of the ground. Most palms have a lot of small thin roots that don’t spread as far as roots on the woody trees.

When digging out the palm out of the ground, try to keep the root ball as big as possible. For example, for a palm with a single trunk that is less than 15 ft tall, leave about 1ft of radius from the trunk.

While a larger root ball will minimize the transplant shock, the additional weight and costs involved in the transportation might not be worth the effort. It really depends on the type of palm you have.

Queen palms will be ok if dug with a 6″ rooball radius from the trunk. Coconut and Sabal palms will have some root branching with new roots growing directly from the trunk. So leaving a smaller rootball for those two palms.

8. Leave The Old Soil

Even if you are planning on providing a better soil at the new location, leave as much old soil on the rootball as possible. This will minimize the root exposure to the air and sunlight decreasing amount of stress. You can use a better soil around the rootball when you backfill the hole.

After you dig a hole at the new location, place the palm inside and backfill it with the native soil or the soil mix you prepared. Make sure it’s planted at the same depth it was previously growing. Planting it a few inches deeper, like many gardeners recommend, might result in nutrient deficiencies.

9. Do Not Fertilize

Fertilizing palm right after planting will only create more stress. Give it some time to establish and develop new root system. You can wait for about 2 months or until you see a new growth.

Container-grown palms are used to very high nitrogen (N) levels of the potting soil, so when transplanted into the ground they need to receive fertilizer high in nitrogen (N). Lack of nitrogen, might result in slow establishment and nitrogen deficiency during the first six to 12 months following planting.

10. Water A Lot

Keep the rootball and the soil as moist as possible. Providing enough water will dramatically reduce the transplant shock. Palms should be watered every day for the first week after transplanting, and every other day the week after. Then you can switch to the regular watering schedule.

Since they have less roots to absorb water, water them more frequently with greater amount of water until new roots regenerate. I always recommend deep watering which is when you slow drip the water instead of dumping it al at once.

Another trick that you can do, is to install a 4-inch plastic drain pipe right next to the root ball when planting a palm. This pipe is usually used for waterproofing a basement. It has little holes that collect water and send it to the sump pump. By installing it next the palm, you can get water right to its roots!

How Long Does It Take For Palm Tree To Recover From Transplant Shock

It usually takes one year for the palm tree to recover from transplant shock. However, palm tree is considered fully established only after three years or three growing seasons.

It’s not unusual for the palm to loose a lot of older older leaves right after transplanting due to the transplant shock. Wilted, yellow or brown leaves that drop to the ground before completely drying out are also signs of the transplant shock.

But if you see a new healthy growth without any symptoms, your palm should be fine.

How To Help Palm Tree To Recover From A Transplant Shock

During the first year, newly planted palm tree will use most of it’s energy to develop new root system. So, don’t expect a lot of new foliage. Here is what you can do to help palm tree to recover from transplant shock:

  • During the first 4-6 months, provide roots with a lot of water so the soils is evenly moist but not saturated.
  • Apply a layer of mulch to help keep the soil moist.
  • Drench the root zone 2-4 times during the first few months with a fungicide.
  • Apply a good quality slow-release fertilizer about 2-4 months after planting. You can also use a foliar fertilizer spray since the root absorption is limited.
  • Provide cold protection during winter months until palm is fully established.
  • Regularly inspect palm for signs of insects and diseases since they like to attack weak plants.

10 thoughts on “10 Tips For Minimizing Transplant Shock in Palm Trees”

  1. King palm in yard. Appears to be 4 sep palms together, biggest 7.5 ft, smallest 5 ft. Should I separate or leave alone? Can I cut roots where attached?

    Thank you.

  2. I live in south Florida and recently had 3 sylvester palms planted about 6-7 ft of wood height. The root ball was large and original soil was in tact. I’ve heard from a few growers that the first month they should be watered every day and every other day the 2nd month. I’m confused and dont know who to trust. I’ve read you water equal to the number of gallons the container was. I’ve been doing thid daily for about 3 weeks.

  3. t.y. so much.that was a quick,easily explained lesson, that will greatly help when I get a tree whether I bring it home or I have it delivered and possibly installed .Should there be a guarantee on the tree not going into shock if a co. installs it?

    sincerely yours,dmg

  4. Hi there, I have recently planted new palms in a garden, I’m afraid that I have planted it to early in the year, it is now winter here and iv noticed that the palm leaves have started to brown. Can planting a palm during a season change from summer to winter kill the palm? I have been giving alot of water and have planted it the way instructed.

  5. I have s palm tree that I have to transplant and I’m scared to do it. It also has 2 pups growing along side of it. I have had it for about 5 years now and this is the first time it has ever bloomed. It grew a huge long thing on top and produced a bunch of white flowers. Am I safe in transplanting it?

  6. Thank you for your articles about palm trees. I am new to their care and now have 15 of them in my yard. I like having them and look forward to the new ones that I have planted growing tall and beautiful. I will use the tips you gave me in caring for my new trees.

  7. What zone is Boynton Beach Florida?
    Is this zone good for Royal Palm ,
    Christmas Palm
    FoxTail Palm ??

  8. Greetings, I had a worker dig out 3 large sago palms 5-6 feet tall with multiple medium smaller to mid size outgrowths all in out door ground. They were rarely watered yet survived. He separated all outgrowths and cut many of the larger roots. I have potted all and placed the 3 large ones ball at least 2 feet under soil. The smaller ones fronds are turning gold brown and I’m watering every 2-3 days. Please help as I live these palms! I live in Malibu, CA and we’ve had several heatwaves. The soil under top is moist. Thanks

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