Well, I’ve seen this one happen a few times. A beautiful row of trees, often lining a sweeping driveway or at the border of a property, and one tree doesn’t make it – perhaps after a frosty winter, or because it was planted too deeply, or maybe a pest got at it.
Or you may simply have changed your mind about the tree you have and want to plant something different – more compact or attractive. It may be simpler to just plant in a different spot, but usually that spot was initially chosen for good reason – shade, symmetry or centrality.
As a general rule, you can plant a tree in the same spot where one was if the majority of old roots can be removed. If not, residual roots should be given one or two years to decompose. If the previous tree died, it is unwise to attempt replanting, especially with the same species.
Of course, all rules have caveats and below I’m going to explain the exceptions within the different scenarios. I’ll also let you into a few trade secrets of how to get this job done successfully.
Can you plant a new tree where a tree stump was?
This depends on what happens to the old stump. Whether it’s been there for some time or a tree has just been cut down, the first thing that you need is to have the stump removed. Unless the tree is very young, this means hiring a stump grinder machine (and a person to use it, unless you’re very confident in your skills) – while it may cost around $100-300 to get the job done, it’s an efficient process, and will remove the stump and the upper, central portion of the roots.
But when it’s done, the soil will no longer be hospitable to another tree – it will be a mixture of soil and sawdust, which means a high C:N (carbon to nitrogen) ratio that young roots won’t tolerate.
In addition, since stump grinding only removes that central root area, the rest of the old roots will still be there under the soil. If the old tree was a big one, you’ll find that even after stump grinding, the hole for your new tree will still be surrounded by dense wall residual root material. This will seriously impact your new tree, which won’t be able to grow decent outward roots.
If you’re taking the stump grinder option, your best bet is to mix in some topsoil from another part of your property, or even some organic compost to try to reset the nutrient imbalance. It’s going to work much better to then leave it for one or two years (to allow some decomposition of the sawdust and smaller roots to set in) before you have a go at replanting. A tree planted in two years, in a better soil condition, will grow better in the long run than one planted immediately in poor soil conditions.
A much better (but more expensive) option is to hire someone to use an excavator to dig out your stump, known as stump removal. This will leave a huge hole in the ground, but can very quickly remove the stump in its entirety, with a lot of the peripheral roots as well.
In any case though, it’s quite likely that the old tree will have depleted a lot of the soil nutrients and the soil won’t be the most fertile. So it’s advisable to mix some organic compost in with topsoil when refilling and replanting.
Planting a tree where a tree has died
Whether you can do this depends on why you think the previous tree died. Time to make a diagnosis.
If you think the tree died of a physical cause, you’ll likely be able to replant in the same spot. Physical causes would include poor root establishment, frost, damage to the branches or bark, over or underwatering.
Think – did the tree die after a drought, flood or heavy winds? Was there any stripping of the bark caused by a stake, or at the base of the trunk (check for grass trimmer damage)?
On the other hand, it may have died because of a non-physical cause– in other words, disease or pests. You may have noticed curling, yellowing leaves, spots on the leaves or bark or burrow holes. You can look for a clue here by checking other any other trees in the surrounding area to see if they look healthy. In general, trees which are native to your area are less likely to die of disease or pests. If your tree was planted in a row (such as along a driveway) look at the adjacent trees for any of these signs.
If this is the case, planting another tree of the same species may fail, as some pathogens live in the soil – and can do so for years. They can infect your new tree, sometimes years after the previous one died. Common soil-borne diseases are verticillium wilt, Phytophthora root rot and honey fungus.
And if there are neighboring trees that look diseased, they’ll transmit the pathogen to a newly-planted tree whether the infection is soil-borne or not. Consider a totally different species, if you must replant.
Make sure to completely dispose of any soil or organic matter removed from a site in which a diseased tree was growing. Ideally, burn what you can if this is permitted in your area, or take to a local amenity site.
Is replant disease a problem for trees?
A phenomenon in gardening replant disease. For reasons that are still not well understood, planting the same species of tree in the same spot a second time often don’t thrive, and a tree of a different species will fare better. This famously is a problem for roses, but happens in trees as well. It’s most frequent in fruit trees, such as apple, cherry and pear, so you may get away with it if you’re hoping to replant something different.
You can reduce the chances of replant disease issues by adding mycorrhizal fungi to the planting site, and it’s super easy to do. You can buy sachets or tubs of mycorrhizal fungi online – check the current price on Amazon (affiliate link).
How to replace a young tree with another young tree
You’re asking the right guy here. I’ve, uh, been known to plant a tree and then pretty soon afterwards, have a change of heart and decide it was the wrong tree. Arborists are always saying you need “the right tree for the right spot”, right? There’s no shame in making a change and it’s much easier if you do this early!
If the tree you are going to replace still has a stake, remove the stake and give it a wiggle to see if the roots are mobile. If so, you might simply be able to whip it out of the ground, possibly with the help of a shovel or fork.
You’re not likely to have many issues throwing a different tree in the ground here, and no difficult root removal will be required!
How to give a new tree the best survival chance
If I’m replanting a tree in the same spot, here are all the things you should do to give it the best start
- If possible, loosen more soil around the original hole – make it at least a foot wider than it was.
- Add some mycorrhizal fungi (Amazon paid link) to the planting site, if it’s the same tree species being planted again
- Add some organic compost and some soil from another part of your property when backfilling the hole
- Don’t plant it too deep – the root flare (the wider bit just at the bottom of the trunk) should always be visible, or an inch or so about ground level.
- Apply a 2-3 inch layer of mulch (such as bark chippings) around the tree. Often people only mulch out for a foot or so from the trunk, but for the best results, it should be about 3 feet out in every direction! It’s OK if it piles up a bit – just make a slight divot around the actual trunk, like a donut, so the root flare isn’t buried in it.
- Give the tree a good watering after planting, and continue to test the soil regularly, making sure it doesn’t dry out – just push your finger one or two inches down, and if the soil feels dry or doesn’t stick to your finger, give it a soak
PS: If your wondering what the right kind of mulch to use is, here’s an Amazon link (affiliate link) – or click the image below). This kind is organic, lacking the odd colorants that many others have, and will act as a kind of slow-release tree food. Perfect!
Even if it’s second time lucky, if you follow all these tips I expect your new tree will soon be thriving!