Watering newly installed landscape plants

Watering trees and shrubs during the first year is critical to plant survival

By: Sandy Feather ©2010
Penn State Extension

Q. I just started planting a landscape this spring and have invested a lot of money in trees and shrubs. I know they need to be watered when there is no rain, and have watered them daily during the hot, dry spells. I usually take the nozzle off my hose and allow it to trickle around the base of each plant for 20 to 30 minutes, moving it as needed to water the circumference of each plant deeply. In spite of my best effort, some of the plants appear to be dying. They wilt as though they need water, but water does not perk them up. The plants are mulched with two to three inches of shredded hardwood bark, but I was careful not to let it touch the plants. Any thoughts as to why these plants are dying?

A. You were right to want to take care of your investment during the hot, dry weather. Newly planted trees and shrubs do require more frequent watering than established plants, but perhaps you watered a little too much. Even newly planted trees and shrubs, particularly those that are mulched, should only require water every two or three days. How much water they require depends on the texture of soil in the planting area, how hot and windy the weather is, and how large the plant’s leaf surface is.

New growth vs Old growth

Tender new growth uses more water than mature, hardened off leaves. A ballpark recommendation is to provide 15-20 gallons of water per inch of trunk diameter weekly during the growing season for the first two years after planting.


Proper Watering of Plants

When you water newly planted trees and shrubs, you must be careful to wet the area around the stems and trunks of the plants well to make sure the original rootball is watered along with the native soil surrounding it. Western Pennsylvania’s clay soil tends to hold moisture more than loamy or sandy soils. Most container-grown plants are grown in artificial soil that consists of peat, bark, vermiculite and perlite in varying quantities. It is quicker to dry out than the surrounding clay soil and often requires more frequent watering.  However, the clay soil surrounding the original rootball can hold too much water, leading the roots to rot.

decorative watering can


Slight wilting can be a signal that it is time to water, but you do not want to stress young trees very much immediately after planting. The best way to know if it is time to water is to feel the soil under the mulch near the base of the plants. Are the top couple of inches moist or dry? If it is moist, do not water. If it is dry, go ahead and water.

Since you have nothing to lose, go ahead and dig out one of the dying plants and examine its root system (already dead plants are not as useful for this). A healthy root system is firm, white and vigorous. One suffering from root rot will be limp, brown and dead. Pieces of it will break off easily. If the entire shrub is dead, it is unlikely to recover. Plants just beginning to exhibit symptoms may recover when you quit overwatering.

Damage from Rodents

Another possibility to check for is rodent damage. Sometimes mice, voles and even chipmunks will feed on the bark of trees and shrubs. Your well-watered, mulched landscape beds created an easy place for them to dig tunnels during dry weather. I have seen very large, established shrubs killed outright by rodent activity. Check the bark around the base of the plants for rodent feeding while you are examining the roots.


How to water new shrubs

How to water new trees

Facade greening



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