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Healthy Root Development in New Trees: What You Need to Know

Young Plant

Nothing finishes and beautifies a landscape quite like a new tree. Unfortunately, it's common for trees to struggle or even die after they are planted because of a variety of planting mistakes. However, the most common reason new trees fail is that the roots do not adapt to the transplant fast enough to provide nutrients to the rest of the tree.

You can help foster better root development — if you know how roots work and what they need when you first plant a new tree in your yard. Here's how tree roots function as the foundation of a tree's health, and what you can do to encourage the healthiest growth after planting. 

Roots Are Essential

Most people know that roots are what hold a tree in place and provide water, but beyond these simple basics, many people overlook how delicate roots actually are.

Tree roots provide stability because they grow as the tree itself grows. If roots don’t grow this way, then the top of the tree will not live because the roots cannot support the demands of the canopy. Root development should be a homeowner's top priority, even before pruning or beautifying the existing foliage.

Roots are also the most sensitive to moisture loss. Before you see leaves begin to wilt, the roots below the surface of the soil will suffer. Without water, the fine root hairs begin to die, and the tree is not able to collect water and minerals for the rest of the tree. This type of root damage is common during transplant. 

Common Root Problems During Transplant

With the above information in mind, it's time to explore the reasons why roots might suffer before, during, and after transplant. This section discusses the most common reasons why roots may become damaged or why growth might be slowed.


Many trees sit in pots or in wrapped burlap waiting to be planted. The burlap or pot helps to prevent moisture loss, but the tree has finite water in these situations, and if they are above ground for more than a day, the root ball will need to be watered. Ideally, you should not have trees pulled until the transplant site is ready for planting. 

After planting, roots need deep watering to help them recover and grow quickly. You should make sure you extend the moisture out from the canopy to encourage roots to move beyond the hole and into surrounding soil for water. Don't just water at the base of the trunk. Remember, smaller, newer roots do most of the work, and you want these to get the water they need. 

Poorly Cut Root Balls

Sometimes, live trees are moved from farms with the help of a tree spade. The spade splices down into the soil and lifts the tree out. If the wrong size spade is used, much of the newest, youngest (most effective) roots are cut. This is a massive trauma for the tree and can take years to recover from. 

Poor Soil Preparation

Tree roots need oxygen and moisture to establish themselves after transplant. If you plant the tree in compact soil, then the roots will have trouble permeating the soil and they may suffocate as a result. A tree may still grow with difficulty, but root development will be stunted, resulting in a weaker tree overall. 

In order to prepare a site for a tree, have the soil aerated. If you have dense soil, you might even have the yard tilled before you have it graded, mixing in sand or peat to improve drainage and oxygenation. Don't pack in soil too tightly after your tree is placed in the planting hole. 


Your new tree should have room to establish itself. It should not be planted in a wire basket, with twine, or with any other type of material that will not break down. These materials can cut into the roots as they grow, and the roots can become girdled or cut. In a few years, a portion of the canopy may wilt or die because roots supporting that part of the canopy have been cut off. 

For more information on promoting root health, contact us at the Anderson Tree Company.