Why is my newly planted tree dying?

FAQ
Question: 

Why is my newly planted tree declining or dying?

Answer: 

Unfortunately, there is not one standard answer to this question!  When trying to determine the primary cause of the problem, several factors need to be given consideration. Remember that dieback does not always occur in the first year. Some factors contribute to poor vigor over a period of years or cause tree death two to five years (sometimes longer) after planting.

Newly planted sycamore tree under stress
Often newly planted trees decline because of a combination of factors.

Planting Depth

Planting trees with the root collar below the soil line may cause mortality. The root collar is where the trunk meets the root and is usually indicated by a change in bark color and a flaring out or swelling at the base of the trunk. Depending on the species, problems may occur when trees are planted only a few inches too deep. It is common for trees to be in containers too deeply and the top portion of soil in the container needs to be removed to reveal the root collar.  Nearly all balled and burlapped trees will need soil pulled away from the top portion of the root ball to reveal the collar.  Planting holes that are dug deep and filled back in with loosened soil may lead to settling of trees, in effect causing planting that is too deep.

Planting Hole

A planting hole that is dug only large enough to insert the root system of the tree can lead to problems, especially if the soil is very compacted or high in clay content. These circumstances make it difficult for the new roots to penetrate the existing soil and grow.  The planting hole should be wide to give the newly planted tree a better chance of growing out of the original root ball and into the surrounding native soil.

Quality of Stock

A tree that shows good branch and foliage growth is not a guarantee that the tree will thrive. It is important to consider the root system. Examine the roots prior to planting. An abnormally high shoot to root ratio (extensive root loss) may lead to failure. Roots that are allowed to dry out before planting may die.  If an excessive number of roots are circling the root ball, they will likely continue to grow in their circular direction rather than out into the native soil. 

Water

Poorly drained sites and/or overwatering are common causes of tree death. Roots need oxygen. How often newly planted trees need to be watered is dependent on soil type and drainage. The soil should be saturated when watering, but allowed to dry out between waterings. Check trees frequently for adequate soil moisture checking both the original root ball and the surrounding soil.  Only irrigate if either (or both) are dry.  

Under-watering will also cause a decline in tree health.  Often the original root ball, where nearly all the roots for a newly planted tree are growing, will dry out sooner than the surrounding soil.  Most newly planted trees will need supplemental irrigation at times during the growing season for at least two, often three or more years after planting.  If water access is difficult, consider tree watering bags or other methods such as “leaky buckets” or drip hoses to more easily provide water when soil conditions are dry. 

Weather Extremes

Environmental extremes, such as abnormally low winter temperatures or late frosts can kill plant tissue causing dead branches or sections in the tree. Warm winter sunlight can also dehydrate tender tissue or cause sunscald on thin bark.  This damage weakens the tree making it more susceptible to other issues.

Insect or Disease Issues

Newly planted trees are under more stress making them more vulnerable to insect pests or disease issues that the tree would normally be able to ward off if it was more established and growing more vigorously.  In most cases, any insect or disease issue is secondary to another problem like overwatering or improper planting.  Addressing the pest or disease may eliminate the problem on the surface, but it does not address the underlying issue that allowed the insect or fungus to become a problem in the first place.  

Declining young tree
Improper watering, poor planting and many other factors can lead to decline in young trees.

Other Factors

Other factors can contribute to poor establishment and mortality of newly transplanted trees.

  • Girdling wires from tree supports can cut off vascular tissue and the movement of water and nutrients from roots to leaves. 
  • Piling mulch too deeply at the base of the tree burying the root collar creates issues that look similar to those that happen when the tree is planted too deeply.
  • Poor soil pH can make some nutrients like iron, unavailable causing chlorosis or die back.
  • Improper species selection may lead to tree decline.  Planting a species not well suited to the environmental conditions of the site (such as heavy, wet soils) leads to decline.  If a species more tolerant of the site conditions was planted instead, there would be fewer issues.   
  • Chemical injury from improperly applied herbicides in nearby gardens or fields or pesticides, fungicides, or other chemicals not applied as directed on the label or applied in improper weather conditions, such as too windy or hot, can lead to damage. 
  • Mechanical damage such as scrapes and broken branches during transportation; gashes, scrapes, or cuts during planting; or damage from mowers, string trimmers, or other maintenance equipment can damage vascular tissue or open trees up to insect or disease issues.

In many cases, several factors may be contributing to tree mortality.  Pinpointing the primary factors will be helpful in taking corrective measures in future plantings.

For information on planting trees, refer to the publication, "Community Tree Planting and Care Guide" (Hort 3054). This publication is available from your local county Extension office or from Extension Distribution at Iowa State University, Ames, IA 50011.