Smart Tree Shopping

Evaluating Trees At The Nursery

After you have learned about the growing conditions in your yard and spent some time browsing a few good gardening books for likely trees, you are ready to visit the nursery or garden center. The best time to buy deciduous trees is mid- to late fall. During this time, aboveground plant growth is minimal, but tree roots keep growing until the ground freezes hard (about 2 months after the trees are planted). If planted at this time, the tree 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 trees 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 tree varieties available. If this information is not immediately available, try your local Cooperative Extension office.
Tip: Don’t be tempted to buy the largest tree specimens you see. Because larger and older trees often become rootbound in their containers, it’s smarter to select trees that are younger and smaller than the big, impressive “floor models.” Experts know that seemingly undersized stock actually will grow more vigorously–and every bit as large—as the big stuff, because the smaller plants’ root systems are in better condition.

Use This Checklist When You Buy

You can judge the quality of nursery stock by looking at a tree through the landscaper’s eyes. Look for the characteristics and conditions listed below. The “ideal” tree should have at least 5 of these points.
Tree characteristics:
 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 tree
 Tree does not grow too fast
 Tree does not look too ugly or unkempt after it drops its flowers or fruits
Tree Condition:
 No evidence of insect or disease problems
 No evidence of aboveground damage such as broken branches or bark wounds
 Strong central leader, few narrow crotches (where the limb meets the trunk)
 A clean, undamaged container
 Rootball is undamaged; roots not growing out of container or burlap wrapping
 Base of tree does not wobble at soil line
 Overall appearance is attractive

Balled & Burlapped or Containers?

Trees are sold in 3 ways. Most are grown in plastic or metal containers, or balled and burlapped, or “B & B” stock. B &B plants are grown in the field, dug up, severely root-pruned, and the surviving root systems wrapped in large balls of field soil with burlap to keep the roots moist. To a lesser extent, some small trees are sold as bare root stock, in which the plant’s roots have no soil around them but are packed in damp organic material such as sphagnum moss. This method is much favored for mailorder plants such as fruit and nut trees.

About Brown Plastic Burlap

Although balled and burlapped plants lose most of their original roots when initially dug up, the flexible burlap and soil ball allows new roots to spread out more naturally, downward and outwards. The B & B technique is favored for many large shrubs and trees over 6 feet tall and for most evergreens. The burlap should be completely removed at planting time. (Some burlap is actually a plastic fabric that does not decay in the soil.) Containers are popular because they are smaller (up to 15 gallons capacity) and don’t weigh nearly as much as a soil ball. More importantly, the root system is intact. Therefore, container plants are less easily damaged in the nursery and they are more likely to withstand transplanting. One drawback to containers is that the plants can become severely rootbound if left to grow in the confined space for too long. With the salesperson’s permission, gently tap the rootball out of a container to check for this. If the roots go round and round, look for another plant, because those roots will continue their dizzying journey in the planting hole, increasing the risk of transplant failure.
For more information see file on Planting Trees.

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