Lets Grow

Trees – Shopping For Quality

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Published October 18th, 2010

We talked last week about successful tree planting and how important it is to pick the right kind of tree for your location. The next step is to actually shop for a healthy tree. A good place to start is a quality local nursery.

Things to look for are the overall condition of nursery trees and the way they are stored. Trees are dug in late winter before they have leaves and must be protected carefully to avoid transplant shock. Good nurseries “heel in” their trees under mulch and have watering systems to keep them moist. Trees that seem stressed in the nursery are more of a challenge to plant successfully. Trees displayed on hot parking lots or stacked too close together quickly attract pests or simply wilt in the hot sun.

Good nurseries stock shapely, well matching specimens that appear healthy. They also control weeds, pests and diseases in their inventory. You don’t need to be an expert to see the quality at a good nursery. Avoid merchants that try to sell you off-grade or “row run” material based on the cheapest price. Another risky proposition is buying trees at end-of-season auctions; generally the trees offered are the picked-over leftovers that no one else would buy.
“Row run” means trees bought and sold by the row, rather than selecting only good quality or matching trees. It’s much faster for wholesale growers to start digging at one end of the row and harvest every tree instead of picking out individual trees to harvest. This also allows nurseries to sell substandard and defective trees along with the good ones, for a lower average cost. Then it is up to the consumer to pick through and find the good trees in the batch. This is how discount stores can advertise nursery stock cheap.

There are ways to tell a good tree from a bad tree, and techniques to correct minor defects before they become major ones. Examples include bark-included crotches, girdling roots, improper pruning, insects or diseases, double leaders, truncated leaders, bad grafts and a host of other problems. The best growers routinely fix or cull problem trees. If you aren’t experienced in pruning and arboriculture, it’s best to invest in a larger tree that is already pruned and trained professionally by the nursery.

Professional nursery associations have a written quality standard they use to grade trees, similar to the USDA “utility”, “select”, choice”, and “prime” grading standards for meat. Arborists and retail nurseries use these standards to compare trees in the nursery. Homeowners usually don’t know how to judge trees so they often spend their money on inferior quality plants. Retailers focused on price often sell “row run” trees. Unless you’re an expert, dealing with a professional is the most likely way to get your money’s worth.

Once you’ve actually purchased a tree, the first step to success is getting it home safely. This means protecting it from drying wind or sun. Professionals use a special mesh tarp. At highway speeds any part of the tree that is hit by wind will quickly dry out and get “wind burn”, which shocks the tree and can kill it. If your nursery offers delivery it is well worth the cost, particularly for big trees. Buying trees in the fall reduces the stress due to wind burn, one reason why fall planting is recommended for most trees.

If you can’t plant your tree immediately, store it in a shady spot. Root balls of “balled and burlapped” trees should be protected with wet straw or mulch piled around the roots. Use a sprinkler to keep the roots wet, or set a hose to trickle water on the root ball. In next week’s column we’ll talk about step-by-step suggestions for successful planting.

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