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How I go about Choosing Nursery Trees

My first choice is a container-grown tree; this nursery tree may be a little more expensive, but there is a very good chance of survival with a minimum of care. The roots in the container are 100 percent intact and the tree has not been stressed by having been dug up from the ground. Container grown are a bit smaller usually than balled & burlapped trees (see below), but smaller is better to insure the tree can spread out it’s roots and get on with the business of growing.

When there is less tree to feed, the roots can expend energy on developing themselves. You’ll be rewarded for your patience by a beautiful crown in the coming years if you allow the roots to grow.

When shopping for a nursery tree, please do be choosy. Check several nurseries, both large and small and develop a keen eye. See our list below of what to pay attention to.

Trees which are sold as balled and burlapped (B & B) require careful assessment of the quality of the roots before planting. These young trees were grown from seed in one location and then years later were dug up and wrapped with burlap (usually) prior to the season they were shipped to a nursery.

In the process numerous stabilizing and feeder roots have been severed. B & B trees are not my first choice due to the severely cut roots and packing in unfamiliar soil. If not sold the first season, roots continuing to grow are forced in a circle under the burlap and often girdle the trunk or become contorted and tangled.

If the tree you want, or the particular size you desire, is only available in B & B, shop around at your local nurseries and pick a quality plant.

Major root cut by spade

What to look for in nursery trees

Whether you are seeking out a container-grown tree or a balled and burlapped , look for the following: 

  • Little to no scarring on the trunk –from the limbs to the root flare
  • Minimal dead branches throughout the crown (hopefully none!) 
  • An overall healthy appearance—avoid a beaten-up looking tree
  • No blotches or holes on the leaves (pests or disease) 
  • A strong central trunk as the main feature. Avoid a double trunk. Branches can be pruned over time to balance the appearance or weight of the tree. 
  • For B & B, the string or wire around the trunk is loose enough to dig your finger underneath it
  • There are no obvious roots already circling the trunk at the soil level (gently examine with fingers). For B & B, check underneath the collar of the burlap/string. Prod a bit with your finger to see notice whether the trunk is smooth and flares out naturally without interruption.

Once you have selected your nursery tree

Take care with the trunk of your tree as you move it around. It can take a little wear and tear, but avoid nicks and cuts and scraping with tools or hard surfaces. You’ll want to limit how much recovering and healing the tree needs to focus on so it can direct it’s energy to the roots. 

Protect your tree from wind on it’s ride home. Secure it in the back of any truck to avoid it becoming damaged. It can handle being on it’s side for a bit if you must put it into your stationwagon or sedan. Grab a tarp to make your life easier and eliminate any clean-up! 

Bare root trees 

Bare Root Trees are usually very small and still require care, but have a very good chance of survival. Most likely you can find one or two foot tall trees from mail order or internet companies. Though you are taking a gamble when you buy without inspection, I like these because I can see the root structure which should be just about 100 percent intact.

Many of you are savvy internet shoppers, so I’ll leave this part up to you. When reading the specifications on the tree, you may either discover the age of the tree (2 year old trees) or the height (1 or 2 feet tall) I would select a vendor with older and taller trees in hopes they will handle the stress of travel and planting better. I have been the recipient of some beautiful trees from The Arbor Day Foundation and I encourage you to join and purchase their high-quality bare-root trees.

Bare root trees come shipped in a plastic bag, and should have some type of moss or other packaging material to keep the tiny roots moist during travel. It’s best to keep them out of sunlight or heat while you prepare the area for the tree.

If you require days for preparation, keep them on a cool back porch or the north side of your home. Refrigeration may also be recommended if more than a few days are needed. The vendor will usually advise you on procedure. Don’t wait longer than a few days—the tree will benefit from getting into the ground and getting some sunshine, and you don’t want any mold or fungus to set in.

Proceed to our step-by-step instructions on planting your new balled and burlapped tree, your container grown tree (page under construction), or your bare root tree. 

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