Very little in this life is more distressing to a gardener’s heart than a new planting that fails to thrive. This is especially true of roses, which can represent a financial as well as sometimes an emotional investment.
If your newly planted rose bush looks like it is dying, it is likely experiencing transplant shock. Transplant shock is a general term for the symptoms of distress that a plant displays after being transplanted. Symptoms can include wilting, browning or yellowing leaves, and even leaf drop.
This shock is a result of several possible factors, including root loss from being dug up, improper timing of the transplant, disease or pest pressure affecting wounds incurred during the transplant, lack of water after transplanting, and inadequate soil preparation.
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It also often happens to plants that have spent their prior lives in a sheltered nursery environment. This shock can be treated, with varying degrees of success, by pruning, staking, proper placement in the soil, and side-dressing the plant with a specialized starter fertilizer to encourage root growth.
What causes transplant shock?
When roses that you have bought at the nursery show signs of transplant shock after you put them in the ground, it’s because their new environment is very different and indeed harsher than their old one.
No matter how rich your soil or well-tended your garden, it still probably isn’t as comfy as a heated greenhouse or as sheltered as a nursery lot. If you live in a windy area, in particular, a nursery plant can be shocked by the strength of the moving air as well as be dried out by it.
Transplant shock is also very likely to occur when you dig up and move a rose from one place in your garden to another. During this process, it loses quite a few of its roots, including feeder roots, which are responsible for obtaining most of the plant’s nutrients from the soil.
When its means of feeding itself are literally cut off, no wonder it goes through some stress!
And roses that are dug up and transplanted during late spring and summer, their usual growing period, are more likely to experience severe shock after transplanting. Transplanting during these times is a rude interruption to their normal growth pattern, and they don’t take too kindly to interruptions.
This is especially true if the transplant occurred during a period of hot weather, which causes more stress to the plant’s tissues and compounds the stress of the transplant.
How long does transplant shock last?
Expect the general malaise of transplant shock to last at least a couple of weeks. If temperatures are high, or the rose did not receive enough water before or immediately after being transplanted, it may last longer.
In the most severe cases, the rose will produce leaves and flowers that are smaller than usual, and may have reduced growth for one or more years after the transplant.
Buy rose bushes online (Link to Nature Hills Nursery)
How to treat a rose bush in shock
If your newly planted rose bush has the symptoms of transplant shock–displaying wilted or discolored leaves, or even dropping leaves–there are some measures you can take to nurse it back to health.
People are often reluctant to prune a rose before or after a transplant operation, either because they don’t want to lose any height off a showy plant or because they’re afraid it might stress it more.
But in fact, pruning is an important part of this procedure that helps reduce stress on a transplanted rose.
Pruning up to a third of the growing material accomplishes a few things:
- It redirects the rose’s limited energy reserves to fewer growing points.
- Helps shape the rose and remove any dead, dying, or diseased canes.
- Reduces the rose’s water needs and moisture-related stress.
- Encourages the growth of well-positioned buds.
When you go to prune your shocked rose, remember to sanitize your tools and don’t let their blades touch the soil–this will prevent the inadvertent introduction of bacteria or fungi into your rose.
Selective pruning is not shearing your rose to the ground. Instead, make thoughtful cuts that remove dead wood, crossing canes, and promote the growth of outward-facing buds. While you can take up to a third of the plant’s material, make sure that you leave plenty of leaves for it to keep photosynthesizing with.
We mentioned before how wind can exacerbate transplant shock symptoms in roses, but it can also impede its recovery long-term. When a newly transplanted shrub is pushed back and forth by the wind, its root ball is also shifted.
This movement and the friction caused by the soil around it shears away many of the new rootlets that it tries to put out, setting back its recovery significantly.
Staking or otherwise supporting your transplanted rose will help to immobilize the root ball, allowing it to send out new root hairs and eventually full-size roots. It’s a lot like putting a cast on a broken leg, allowing it to heal by keeping it aligned and immobile.
Plan to keep the stakes in place for one full year after the transplant. After this, the rose will have grown enough roots for you to safely remove the stakes, and allow the rose to develop further structural integrity without the support.
Adding a layer of mulch around a transplanted rose has a number of benefits (source):
- It keeps the soil below at a consistent temperature, which helps reduce heat-related stress on the root ball and the growing tissues.
- Mulch helps the soil to retain moisture, which means the transplanted roots have more time to acquire needed water before it evaporates. Transplants are usually very thirsty, but overwatering can lead to a soil that is so waterlogged it has no room for oxygen, which is bad for root health and also breeds fungus. Using mulch this keeps the rose hydrated without needing to swamp it with water.
- It adds valuable organic matter to the planting area. A mulch layer will slowly decay and subside into the dirt below it, adding organic matter to the soil, building its structure, and acting as a delayed-release fertilizer. This decay process is helped along by beneficial insects like earthworms, who like to live in the damp, sheltered environment that mulch creates as well as eat it!
You can mulch your rose with wood chips, straw, or even grass clippings. The mulch should be about three to four inches thick, but don’t place mulch right up against the stem or crown of the rose.
Fertilizer is not a silver bullet for transplant shock, but it can be helpful when applied judiciously. For a new transplant suffering from shock, don’t reach for the general all-purpose fertilizer or chicken manure.
Instead, choose specialized starter fertilizers that are engineered to trigger root growth in new transplants (source). Re-establishing a vigorous root system is what will do the most to restore your rose to health.
Here are some of our favorite starter fertilizers (links to Amazon):
Down to Earth Starter Fertilizer Mix
Ocean Harvest Fish Emulsion (smelly, but effective!)
How to avoid transplant shock
If you have not yet transplanted your rose, here are the steps you should take in order to prevent or mitigate transplant shock.
The risk of transplant shock or death is lowest when the rose is in a dormant state, as it is in winter and early spring. If possible, plan your transplant operation during this time.
If that’s not possible, then pick the coolest, cloudiest evening in your weather forecast to transplant.
If your rose is one you have purchased at a greenhouse or nursery, then wait a few days or even a week before you plant it. This time allows the rose to “harden off,” or acclimate to the light, wind, and humidity patterns in its new environment, before it also has to deal with the stressors of transplanting.
This one seems obvious, but since water is critical to plant health, it’s worth stating anyways.
A few days before you make the transplant, you’ll want to deeply water around your rose, and also the hole where you are going to be planting it. Increasing moisture beforehand hydrates the rose, reduces the effects of shock, and also lubricates the soil, making your job a little easier.
After you have transplanted the rose into its new home, water generously and apply mulch for moisture retention. If you have transplanted the rose during its dormant season, then water it every seven days. If you have transplanted it during a growing period, water it every day for the first week, then reduce to watering every two to three days, then once a week.
In arid areas that don’t receive much winter precipitation, plan to water your transplanted rose once a month through the winter. This will ensure that the rose stays hydrated as it continues to make roots and recover from transplant.
Get the root ball
If you’re digging up a rose to move it, make it your goal to take up as much of the root ball as possible with it. A diameter of eighteen to twenty-four inches will get many of the major roots and a majority of small feeder roots, as well.
When you have to cut through roots, make those cuts as clean as possible. If necessary, go back over the root ball once you have dug it up and trim the roots using sanitize pruners. A clean-cut wound is more likely to seal over, and less likely to incur infection or pest damage, than a ragged or frayed cut.
To dig up a root ball without incurring extra damage or losing too much of its soil, try this strategy recommended by the Iowa State University Extension:
- Dig a trench around the root ball about twelve to fifteen inches deep.
- Use your shovel to cut beneath the roots, creating a freely moving ball.
- Tip the ball onto its side into the trench, and lay down a piece of burlap on the other side of the trench. Then tip or wiggle the root ball onto the burlap.
- Use the burlap to wrap the root ball, and then carry the plant by the wrapped ball, and not its stems, over to the new hole.
And if you’re planting a rose purchased at a nursery, take some time to loosen any roots circling in the pot and cut off any roots that are brown or mushy.
Dig a good hole
Make the hole for your transplanted rose twice as wide as the root ball, but no deeper. It’s a good idea to dig the hole a few days ahead of time and thoroughly water in and around it.
Often people make a hole deeper than the root ball of the transplant, but this is problematic for a couple of reasons:
- If the stems are buried too deeply, they will become more susceptible to soil-borne disease and will likely begin to rot.
- If the hole is dug deeper than it needs to be and then backfilled to make it shallower, the loosened soil at the bottom of the hole will likely compact over time, slowly making the root ball sink down in the earth. This leads to the same disease and rot problems as above.
Root tissue and stem tissue are very different, and it is important to treat them in accordance with their needs. Roots need to be below ground, but stems need to be above the soil line in order to be healthy and strong.
Transplant shock is stressful, not only to your rose but also to you! But a little extra work from you can help your rose recover fully, or even protect it from the worst of the shock entirely.
It’s important to remember that plants are living organisms. Your role as a gardener is to learn to effectively meet their needs so that they can live healthy, beautiful, blooming lives in your garden.
Using proper transplanting techniques will ensure that your rose thrives in its new spot and continues to bring you its blooms for many years to come.
Buy rose bushes online (Link to Nature Hills Nursery)
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