Perhaps you grew your own seedlings indoors, and planted them in the garden only to find they’ve disappeared overnight. Or you’ve spent a lot of money on a new tree or shrub from the garden center, and the leaves dry up and fall off. What happened?

Transplant troubles plague even the best gardeners. Here’s how to diagnose and treat your transplant troubles.

Seedling Transplants

What ails your seedlings? Glance down this list of potential problems and see if any describe your plant’s woes:

  • Seedlings look tall, thin, spindly and pale: This condition is often caused by starting seeds too soon inside the house or not giving them enough light. New gardeners often start their seeds too early, thinking that the sooner, the better. Unfortunately, just because you start your plants early doesn’t mean they will be larger when they’re transplanted outdoors. Tall, thin and pale seedlings are usually twisting or reaching up for the light fixture or window. They’re starved for light.

    • Solution: Adjust seed starting time to calculate the best window for starting seeds based on the recommendations found on the back of your seed package. Add a full-spectrum grow light to your seed starting light fixture if you must keep plants indoors for a few more weeks.

  • Seedlings fall or flop over when you plant them outdoors, and it takes them weeks to look better: Plants grown indoors live under very sheltered conditions. The wind rarely stirs; light appears on a set schedule; temperatures never vary. Suddenly, we thrust the seedlings into the ground in a new environment with wind, cold and rain. Is it any wonder they go into shock?

    • Solution: Seedlings exposed to environmental stressors turn into stronger plants. To prevent your seedlings from flopping over, they must be ‘hardened off’ or gradually acclimated to the outdoors. Begin by moving your seedlings outside during the day once the weather warms up and no frost is threatened. Bring them back indoors at night. Do this for a full week. If it’s warm enough outdoors, in week two let them spend the entire day and night outside. Keep them well watered, and gradually move them into sunnier locations until they’re used to full sun and wind. After two weeks of this treatment, you’ll have better luck transplanting them into your garden.

  • Seedlings disappear overnight, leaving just a stump. If you’ve planted your seedlings outdoors and return the following day to find just a stump, the cutworm has come calling. Cutworms chomp right through the stem at or slightly above the soil level. They can easily kill all of your seedlings once they get going.

    • Solution: When planting seedlings outdoors, especially vegetable seedlings, take a paper cup and cut off the bottom to form a little collar. Slide it over your seedling, making sure to cut down the collar so that the upper leaves are exposed. The rim of the paper collar should touch the soil. This creates enough of a barrier so that the cutworm can’t get to the stem. You can also take some newspaper or cardboard, fold it into a collar, and tape it into a ring, sliding this over your plants, too. The general idea is to create a barrier between the cutworm and your plant. Remove the collar when the plants have two or three sets of leaves; cutworms will leave them alone.

Transplanting Problems in Trees and Shrubs

Trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals can also experience problems after transplanting into your garden.

Transplant shock occurs when newly planted trees and shrubs are moved from containers and placed in the ground. No matter how careful you are, the roots can be damaged during the transplanting process. It’s easy to see the big roots and handle them gently as you remove a plant from its container, but it’s actually the little roots all along the root system that do the majority of the work transporting water, air and nutrients into the plant’s vascular system. When these little roots are damaged, the plant can go into shock.

Nurture all plants after moving them from a container into the garden. Water them well, and add mulch around plants to help retain water near the root system. Handle plants carefully during transplanting, and avoid pulling or tugging at the roots.

To avoid transplant shock:

  • Choose the healthier plants in the store. The healthier and more robust the plant, the better it will withstand shock.
  • Water plants well after planting them in your garden. Be very generous with water until the plant becomes established.
  • Know when you plant each species. Some prefer to be planted in the spring, others in the fall.
  • Plant in the morning or evening, especially during the summer months. Heat adds stress to the transplant process.
  • Learn how to dig a hole. That may sound silly, but knowing how wide and deep to dig the planting hole is critical. Burying a plant too deeply or in a too shallow hole can also cause transplant shock.
    Do not over-fertilize during the first year. The only fertilizer to use is a root-boosting fertilizer (higher last number).

If you’ve ever moved to a new house, you know how stressful it can be. Think of your poor plants with compassion. In a plant’s normal lifetime, it never moves once it takes root, yet we gardeners dig them up and move them without a second thought, then wonder why they’re unhappy. Coddle your newly planted seedlings and mature plants, and they’ll reward you with healthy, vigorous growth once they establish themselves in their new environment.