How to Buy a Vigorous Tree

Green Scene by Geri Laufer

Have you been planning to add a tree to your landscape? Whether a containerized Japanese maple for the deck or a giant oak to shade the backyard, every landscape can benefit from the prominent role a tree can play in the landscape.
October is the optimum time to plant! The leaves are falling, the air is cooling and yet the ground is still warm from the summer sun, so transplanted roots will grow quickly into the surrounding soil. Different from the common perception, spring is not the best time to plant trees, considering the spring nursery frenzy followed by the hot, dry summer.

Considerations When Buying a Tree

Size matters! Bigger May Not be Better
Although you might be in a hurry to get shade, buying a large tree in a massive container might not be the way to go. Extra-large trees both are more expensive and harder to plant. Trees in smaller containers (such as 5- or 7-gallon) are less expensive and easier to plant, needing less soil prep and smaller holes. These factors are both great, but the key reason is that typically smaller trees will root-in and grow more quickly, achieving a larger size in less time.

Ultimate Size
Choose the right cultivar based on how tall or wide your tree will grow when mature. This avoids having to fight nature and prune it back.

Single Trunk or Multi-Stem
The typical avenue tree has a single trunk that has been pruned up so people or cars can pass underneath, but the advantage of a multi-trunked tree is that you can look through it. If selecting a multi-trunked tree, choose one with upright trunks of equal size, resulting in a tree with better shape and strength.

Root Condition
Learn to check a plant’s health at the nursery to ensure you are making the right choice, because a tree that is robust from the start is more likely to thrive in your landscape.

When making an informed decision on an important purchase, take the time to check the roots of the tree you are thinking of buying. Ask an associate to pull it out of the container for you then look for strong, white roots filling the pot but not circling around and around. Reject root balls with brown, rotten roots or with dead roots in the half of the pot facing the sun. These may have been overheated (cooked) in their black pots in the nursery row. The potting soil should be moist but not soggy and not dry.

Examine the bark for a tight and firm fit. There should be no gouges at the base, nor vertical splits in the bark. If balled and burlapped, the ties should not cut into the bark.

Even though leaves are transitory, check for those with brown, scorched edges that may indicate previous drought due to uneven watering. Leaves should be free of spots and insect holes, too. Needle-leaves on evergreens should be abundant and green. Low soil moisture and intense sun cause sunscald, indicated by yellow or half-yellow leaves. Brown dropping needles are perfectly normal once a year, but the tree should have enough green needles to outnumber the brown ones.

Choose your new tree wisely. “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit.” ❍