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 inevitably experience stress when transplanted to a new location. So, if you observe that your newly planted palm tree has brown, yellow, or drooping leaves and appears to be struggling, it’s likely undergoing what’s known as ‘transplant shock.’

Transplant shock occurs due to the hardening of the roots, which happens when the roots of the palm are disrupted and exposed to air, sunlight, and new soil. This phenomenon arises because palm trees are not naturally adapted to relocation.

When you move a palm tree, a significant portion, if not most, of its roots are typically lost. The remaining roots then struggle to provide the palm with an adequate water supply, resulting in water stress.

This is one of the reasons why it’s crucial to keep the palm’s rootball consistently moist. While you can’t entirely prevent transplant shock, there are ways to minimize its impact.

1. Remove Leaves

Field-grown palms lose a substantial amount of water during transplanting, mainly through transpiration from the leaves.

To reduce water loss, consider removing up to half of the leaves before excavating the palm from the ground. In some cases, nurseries even remove all of the leaves, especially for species like the Sabal palm.

Leaf pruning is a sensible practice because field-grown palms are likely to shed their older leaves anyway when they can’t access sufficient water from their severed roots.

For container-grown palms, there’s usually no need to remove leaves since their roots won’t be as disrupted during transplanting.

2. Transport Palm Properly

When transporting a large palm via truck, take precautions to protect it. Wrap the palm in a damp tarp for added safety.

Additionally, secure the fronds by tying them up and attach two splints to the trunk. Bundle the leaves to prevent the trunk from snapping during transit.

Certain palms, especially those sensitive to heart injury, require extra care during transport. Palms with large, heavy crowns should also be braced to safeguard the bud from potential breakage.

Unlike broadleaf trees, palms cannot heal themselves, so it’s crucial to shield the trunk from scratches or scrapes. Any trunk injury can become an entry point for insects and diseases, posing a long-term risk to the palm’s health.

3. Pick The Right Time

Planting a palm at the right time can significantly impact its success. According to the University of Florida, the ideal planting time for palms is during the warm, rainy months, which may not necessarily coincide with spring. Timing can vary depending on your location.

For instance, in Florida, the late spring months are among the warmest but also the driest of the year. Therefore, it’s advisable to plant during the rainy season, typically from June to November. This approach increases the palm’s chances of survival and reduces transplant shock.

Select evening hours for transplanting, as the sun is less intense, and temperatures tend to be cooler. This provides the palm with the entire evening and night to acclimate to its new surroundings before being exposed to direct sunlight.

4. Acclimate the Palm

Palms are sensitive to sudden changes in temperature and light levels. When transplanting a palm from a pot to the ground, it’s important to allow the palm to acclimate to its new environment.

To achieve this, consider placing the palm in the designated planting area a week before actual transplantation. This period of adjustment will provide your palm with sufficient time to become accustomed to the temperature and light conditions of its new home.

Alternatively, you can employ another method by planting the palm in its new location and covering it with plastic. Over the course of each week, gradually create holes in the plastic to increase the light exposure.

5. Prepare the Soil

There’s often debate surrounding soil amendment when it comes to palm care. Some palm enthusiasts believe that amending the soil can assist in root development initially but may lead to long-term issues as palm roots tend to stay within the amended soil area, much like in a container.

In my experience, palm roots can adapt to your garden soil, but they recover from transplant shock and establish themselves more rapidly when provided with a high-quality soil mixture.

I recommend incorporating organic matter and some sand to enhance drainage. If you have clay soil, blend one part coarse sand and one part organic matter with three parts native soil. If your soil is sandy, skip the sand and just add one part organic matter to three parts of your native soil.

6. Improve Drainage

Proper drainage is crucial for the survival and establishment of palms. Before planting, it’s essential to assess the drainage capabilities of the chosen area. Sandy soils naturally offer superior drainage compared to clayey ones.

To check drainage, dig a hole, fill it with water, and then refill it after an hour. Observe how quickly the water dissipates. If it drains within a couple of hours, you have excellent drainage. However, if water remains after 24 hours, there’s a drainage problem.

To enhance drainage, you can mix sand into the soil, place rocks at the hole’s base, and drill holes at the bottom and sides of the hole to aerate the soil. In severe cases, consider installing a drainage pipe to divert excess water away from the palm

7. Preserve Palm Roots

When transplanting palm trees, it’s essential to consider the unique characteristics of their root systems. Depending on the palm species, some may lose some or all of their roots during transplantation.

Palms that have been grown in containers often develop roots that wrap around the interior of the container. There’s generally no need to trim these roots.

The palm will rely on its existing roots to access water while the development of new roots takes place. It’s worth noting that field-grown palms tend to have less root mass than their container-grown counterparts because their roots are trimmed when extracted from the ground.

Most palms have numerous small, thin roots that don’t spread as far as the roots of woody trees. When removing a palm from the ground, make an effort to preserve as much of the root ball as possible.

For instance, if you’re dealing with a single-trunk palm that is less than 15 feet tall, leave about a 1-foot radius around the trunk.

While a larger root ball can help minimize transplant shock, consider that the increased weight and transportation costs may not always justify the effort. The choice of root ball size should be based on the specific type of palm you are transplanting.

Queen palms, for instance, can often do well with a 6-inch root ball radius from the trunk, whereas palms like coconuts and Sabals may tolerate smaller root balls due to their unique root branching patterns.

8. Retain the Existing Soil

Even if you plan to provide improved soil at the new planting location, it’s a good idea to leave as much of the old soil on the root ball as possible.

This practice helps minimize the exposure of the roots to air and sunlight, reducing stress on the palm. You can use the better soil mix you’ve prepared when backfilling the hole.

Once you’ve excavated a hole at the new location, position the palm inside it and backfill with either the native soil or the soil mixture you’ve prepared.

Ensure that the palm is planted at the same depth it was previously growing. Planting it several inches deeper, a practice recommended by some gardeners, may lead to nutrient deficiencies.

9. Hold off on Fertilization

Avoid fertilizing the palm immediately after planting, as this can actually increase stress during the critical early period.

It’s best to allow the palm time to establish itself and develop a new root system. You can safely wait for approximately two months or until you start to see new growth.

It’s worth noting that container-grown palms are accustomed to high levels of nitrogen (N) present in the potting soil.

When they are transplanted into the ground, they benefit from a fertilizer with a high nitrogen content (N). A deficiency in nitrogen can lead to slow establishment and nitrogen deficiency during the first six to twelve months following transplantation.

10. Water A Lot

Ensuring that both the root ball and the surrounding soil remain consistently moist is key to minimizing transplant shock. For the initial phase, water the palm daily during the first week after transplanting and then every other day during the subsequent week. Afterward, you can transition to a regular watering schedule.

Because their roots are kind of out of commission right after moving, it’s a good idea to give them more water, and do it more often until they start growing new roots.

I always recommend doing deep watering, which is a slow and deliberate drip of water rather than a sudden drenching.

Here’s a handy trick: consider installing a 4-inch plastic drain pipe right alongside the root ball when planting a palm.

This type of pipe, typically used for basement waterproofing, features small holes that collect water and channel it to a sump pump. By placing it next to the palm, you can ensure that water reaches the roots effectively!

How Long Does It Take for a Palm Tree To Recover from Transplant Shock

Typically, it takes about a year for a palm tree to bounce back from the shock of being transplanted. However, a palm tree is only considered fully settled and established after three years or three growing seasons.

It’s quite common for a palm to shed a lot of its older leaves shortly after being transplanted due to this transplant shock. Y

ou might also notice wilted, yellow, or brown leaves dropping to the ground before they dry up completely, which are clear signs of the shock.

But if you spot new, healthy growth without any of these symptoms, your palm should be on the road to recovery.

How to Help a Palm Tree Recover from Transplant Shock

In the first year, a newly planted palm tree primarily directs its energy into developing a fresh root system.

So, don’t expect a flurry of new foliage during this time. Here’s what you can do to assist your palm tree in recovering from transplant shock:

  • Keep the soil consistently moist but not waterlogged for the first 4-6 months by providing ample watering to the roots.
  • Spread a layer of mulch to help retain soil moisture.
  • Administer a fungicide drench to the root zone 2-4 times during the initial months.
  • Around 2-4 months after planting, apply a high-quality slow-release fertilizer. You can also opt for a foliar fertilizer spray since root absorption might be limited at this stage.
  • Ensure protection from cold weather during the winter months until your palm is fully established.
  • Regularly inspect the palm for any signs of insects or diseases, as they tend to target weaker, stressed plants.

Related articles:

How To Care For Indoor Palm Trees And Not To Kill Them
Expert Advice: How to Prune a Palm Tree (with Pictures)
Expert Tips: How To Water Palm Trees The Right Way
How To Plant A Palm Tree In 10 Easy Steps (with Pictures)

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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