So I walked into my favorite plant nursery (you know the one) in early spring, and saw this strapping, young Stewartia pseudocamellia, just popping with flower buds. Stewartia trees are generally not easy to find, and worth their weight in gold to those of us who love its form, bark, and blossoms. Of course I brought it home, thinking I had the perfect spot for it. And it certainly seemed that way until the last week of June, when the leaves started frying in the mid-afternoon sun. My calculations of direct sun exposure were off by nearly two hours, meaning that this typically understory tree that doesn’t like extreme heat, especially when young, is being exposed to Deep South Afternoon Death Rays. What to do?
There are several schools of thought on how best to plant new trees and shrubs, and there’s not much chance they’ll ever agree on anything except to disagree. Some experts recommend planting only in the fall, and some say that if you’re willing to put in the extra effort required, you can plant nearly anytime, providing the ground’s not frozen solid. I’ve planted in every season, and so far, have not yet identified a clear best time that guarantees success. There are just too many variables to be considered. Some trees and shrubs that appear to have been transplanted by feral cats thrive despite adverse conditions. Others, having been given the greatest care and attention, die during the winter, or worse, sprout robust new stems and leaves in spring, only to wither and die in summer.
The most important thing seems to be recognizing the signs of stress in newly planted trees and shrubs, and
minimizing that stress as much as possible. In our region, the most likely source of stress is scorching heat and afternoon sun in the summer. If I had thought to put a screen canopy over the Stewartia, the leaves would probably still be dark green and pliant like they were just three weeks ago. Misting the leaves while the tree was in shade didn’t seem to help. Unfortunately, I didn’t read up on all the potential hazards of transplanting Stewartias until after I had bought the tree.
Before bringing home specimen plants, learn how they react to transplanting. How can transplant shock be minimized? What different needs does this new tree have in the first few years to ensure that it continues to thrive in subsequent years? What peculiar characteristics of this shrub work against survival after transplanting?
Ensuring that adequate water is always available to the roots without drowning them is critical. There are a number of ways to provide deep watering, but the simplest involves the use of five gallon buckets with one or two nail holes punched into the bottoms, then filled to the brim with fresh water. The water slowly leaks out, saturates the soil around the base of the tree or shrub. This provides a more accurate measurement of how much water a tree is getting than by watering with a hose.
Here are links to sites that provide more information on planting and watering techniques, including the bucket strategy. There’s bound to be something here that will give new trees and shrubs a better chance at survival.