After you have learned about the growing conditions in your yard and spent some time browsing a few good gardening books for likely shrub candidates, you are ready to visit the nursery or garden center. The best time to buy deciduous shrubs is mid- to late fall. During this time, aboveground plant growth is minimal, but their roots keep growing until the ground freezes hard (about 2 months after they are planted). If planted at this time, the shrub will have time to develop a root system that can support renewed top growth and leaf-out in the spring. In contrast, the best time to plant evergreen shrubs is early spring, because they make little root growth in the fall.
Be prepared to tell the salesperson what you’ve learned about light, soil, and moisture conditions at your planting site. A knowledgeable salesperson will be able to steer you to some likely plant material. Be sure to ask if there are any disease-resistant varieties available. If this information is not immediately available, try your local Cooperative Extension office.
Big Shrub vs. Small Shrub
You may have heard the catch phrase "fall is for planting." It is not just a marketing ploy by garden centers, it is true. September and October are the best months to plant grass seed, trees, shrubs, perennials and ground covers. It is also the best time to transplant from one place to another.
It might surprise you to learn that planting larger, almost mature trees, or almost mature shrubs is in the long run often cheaper than planting those 6-footers from Home Depot. I'm talking about a tree that is more than 20 feet tall or a shrub that is more than 10-feet-tall. You might spend $500 for the larger tree and another $500 to have it transported to your home and planted by a landscaper.
Now do the math. A large tree will add $1,000 to $3,000 value to the selling price for your home. The small trees add nothing. A mature looking landscape can represent 10 to 25 percent of the value of your home. Mature-looking landscaping makes your home more valuable. Since the average stay in one house these days is about seven years, and it takes 20 years for that 6-foot tree to start adding value to your landscape, it makes more sense to go for the bigger plants.
Here is a strategy you might not have contemplated in finding large trees and shrubs for your landscape. Many nurseries that specialize in trees and shrubs will, from time-to-time will have a few trees and/or shrubs that for no reason have not sold for a number of years and just sit in their growing area getting bigger and bigger. As those plants get bigger, they are more difficult to sell. You can find some really fantastic bargains in large trees or shrubs if you are willing to pay for the digging, transport and planting of these trees.
I know someone who paid only $50 for a 22-foot-tall blue spruce that the nursery had been unable to sell. It cost about $1,000 to get it from the nursery and planted in the yard, but that tree offered instant landscape value probably more than $3,000; not a bad investment.
Use This Checklist When You Buy
ou can judge the quality of nursery stock by looking at a shrub through the landscaper’s eyes. Look for the characteristics and conditions listed below. The “ideal” shrub should have at least 5 of these points promoted by the HortSoft folks.
Growth is compact
Leaves are plentiful, with good color
Flowers (if present) are of appropriate size, color, and number
Fruits or berries (if present) are of appropriate size, color, and number
Overall size and form is appropriate for this plant
Plant does not grow too fast
Plant does not look too ugly or unkempt after it drops its flowers or fruits
No evidence of insect or disease problems
No evidence of aboveground damage (broken branches, bark wounds, etc.)
A clean, undamaged container
Rootball is undamaged and not rootbound (roots don’t wind around the bottom of the can)
Base of plant does not wobble at soil line
Overall appearance is attractive