BUYING TREES AND SHRUBS
Dr. Leonard P. Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
If you're buying trees and shrubs this spring, there are a few considerations while shopping to help you have success with your choices. These include both choosing the right plant for your site and, once you've decided on a specific plant, choosing a healthy one.
One of the first considerations for our northern gardens is of course hardiness. This is a good first step to narrow your choices. If buying from a local garden center or nursery, this may not be an issue, but check the plant labels or knowledgeable staff to make sure. If buying from a chain store or catalog, do your homework first. Often chain stores have a central buyer in some other part of the country, with similar plants being sold in a wide range of states. Even many local retailers buy from nurseries nationwide, and unless they have knowledgeable buyers that have done their homework, you need to.
Often catalogs have varying hardiness listings, some more accurate than others. Who do you believe in this case? Consult a knowledgeable source such as a local master gardener hotline, reputable local garden book, or several catalogs and take the more conservative hardiness rating to be safe.
After hardiness, also determine (as above with hardiness) the growing conditions for your plant choices. Place a plant in a site it prefers, such as for sun or soil moisture, and it will thrive with little care.
With trees and shrubs in particular, compared to perennials, they often will grow much larger than when you buy them. So also determine their growth rate, and ultimate size. Putting plants too close together will give you a more instant effect, but result in much more maintenance in pruning and perhaps more disease and pest problems.
Many gardeners just look at the flowers or other plant characters when choosing plants, and you may do this first. But if so, just make sure the plant you like and want fits the other criteria above. Once you've chosen a specific plant, how do you decide if it is good value and quality?
Price is often a good indication of plant health, the less expensive plants often being less vigorous, smaller, and often grown under less than ideal conditions. If so, this will result in plants taking longer to mature, and more susceptible to pests and diseases while doing so. Or they may already have problems.
Make sure there are adequate roots for the tops, either in pots or root balls. A ten-foot plant with a root mass one-foot across will likely be too small to support the tree while it is getting established in your landscape. More expensive plants often have more roots, and so establish more quickly when planted with less stress.
Balled and burlapped plants should either have treated fabric to keep the roots from drying, or be held in a moist medium such as woodchips. If the soil ball dries on the surface, the new roots just underneath will be killed, resulting in a plant that takes longer to establish or may even get root rot diseases.
Look to see if there are broken branches, indicating poor or rough handling. Look to see if branches are of good substance, not very thin unless appropriate for the plant, and not crossing or rubbing. Buds and stems should appear plump, not shriveled or even dead.
Finally, beware of local peddlers of cheap evergreens such as cedars or other shrubs, often sold for hedges. These have often been dug from the wild with no root pruning, no prior care, and have traveled down the road blowing in the wind and drying out. They may look good when you buy them, but often end up losing many leaves, getting straggly, and many even dying.
To get good quality plants you may end up spending more money in the beginning, but you'll spend much less over the long term either in plant care or even in replacements. Consider a good quality plant a good and safe investment!