Choosing Plants from a Nursery

For garden lovers, few pleasures equal roaming the aisles of a nursery. Here's how to make the best use of your time and get the biggest bang for your buck.


Types of Plants in Nurseries

As you walk through the nursery, you'll discover that plants are available in three forms: balled-and-burlapped (typically bigger trees and shrubs with burlap wrapped around the root balls), bare-root (usually hedge plants and roses), and in containers (annuals, perennials, and smaller shrubs and trees). Plants are also grown differently: Some are kept in fields, some in containers; some start out in fields and are then transplanted to containers to be sold.

Nurseries often grow trees and shrubs in their fields, where the plants are generally easier to maintain and can grow to a larger size than if they are kept in containers. Field-grown stock needs to be dug up in winter and early spring (before breaking dormancy), wrapped in burlap and twine (and even metal cages in the case of large trees), then shipped to the sales center. These balled-and-burlapped plants may lose up to 90 percent of their root systems, but this method is the only way to offer very large plants for sale.

Once you've chosen the best plants, learn the importance of soil to their growth.

Before choosing trees, make sure to read the tag, which will list the mature height and spread of the plant.

Bare-root stock is dug from the fields during its dormant season (late fall to very early spring) and placed in cold storage. Because there is no dirt surrounding the root system, bare-root trees and shrubs are light and easy to transport (as well as transplant), and they cost less than either container-grown or balled-and-burlapped plants.

In early spring (or late fall in temperate zones), nurseries may offer bare-root plants in batches of 50 or 100 for hedges such as lilacs. As a general rule, however, bare-root stock isn't offered at nurseries because the plants break dormancy and begin growing when removed from cold storage. Bare-root plants are ideal for mail-order nurseries, where they are kept in the "suspended animation" of cold storage and shipped to you in time for immediate planting. Buying roses as bare-root plants from a single source means there's less chance of bringing home a fungal disease.

Container-grown stock starts life in a container. As the plant gets larger, the grower transplants it to larger containers. The more years spent in containers, the more time and money the grower has spent on the plant, which explains why some container-grown plants are very expensive. For example, dwarf conifers, some of which are notoriously slow-growing, spend several years in containers before they grow large enough to be sold.

How to Select Nursery Plants

You can learn a lot at the nursery merely by comparing the available plants. Let's say you want to purchase a river birch (Betula nigra), and your nursery has 10 of them in the size you want. They're 8 to 10 feet high and feature substantial trunks that are beginning to show the peeling characteristic of a mature river birch. At $229 apiece, they aren't cheap, but they offer immediate landscape satisfaction.

Examine the 10 trees. Some may have only one trunk, whereas others may have two, three, four, or five (or more). Let's say you want a classic three-trunker, and six of the trees meet this criterion. One might feature pale green leaves, whereas the others are a healthy midgreen; disregard the pale green version (it is probably nitrogen-starved). Two of the trees might have root balls smaller than the other three; disregard them. Perhaps one of the remaining three trees has a large root protruding from the burlap and seems rather dried out and distressed; disregard it. Look at the remaining two river birches. Either choice is probably right, but one will simply whisper "Take me home!"

Nursery staff members are a valuable resource when choosing the right plant for your needs.

If you want to know whether a tree will grow too tall for your yard, here's a quick rule of thumb: To keep trees in scale with a house, they should be no more than one-fourth to one-third taller than the roof. If you have a ranch house or other one-story design (with a height of 12 to 15 feet), the mature height of trees planted nearby should be no more than 15 to 20 feet. A two-story house (with a height of 18 to 22 feet), however, can handle taller trees, about 22 to 30 feet at maturity. Plant the taller trees you desire on the periphery of your yard, where they will not overpower your house.

Of course, you may decide you'd rather purchase the next size smaller river birch at $149 so you can spend the $80 difference on three azaleas to plant around the tree! (By the way, try to limit purchases to the number of items you can plant in one day. If you don't succeed, group the plants in a shady area and make sure to water them until you can finish planting in another day or two.)

A quality nursery will always back the plants it sells. If you buy a healthy, promising tree or shrub, plant it properly, and mulch and water it diligently, it should thrive and flourish for you. If not, contact your nursery. Most will replace the plant or refund your money. You will need your receipt, and you may need to bring in the dead plant.

Transporting Plants
Be sure to securely wraptrees and other plants forthe trip home.

You've selected your plants and paid for them. Now how will you get them home? If you've purchased large trees, it's best to have the nursery deliver them, although you usually have to pay extra for this service. In the fall, however, nurseries often run specials. They are trying to sell a lot of stock so they don't have to provide winter care, and they may include delivery in your trees' purchase price. Here's another tip: If you've just bought $1,000 in plants, ask if the nursery will deliver gratis -- it never hurts to ask!

If you are hauling your own plants home, make sure you bring along a tarp and rope to cover them. Wind damage -- even if you only drive a few miles home at a very slow pace -- can permanently damage or kill your plants. Evergreens, especially, cannot tolerate dehydration of their needles.

Selecting Balled-and-Burlapped Plants
Avoid plants that have largeroots protruding from rotting burlap.

What to look for:

  • Green and healthy foliage. The tips of branches should be supple.
  • Branches that feature fat flower and leaf buds prior to leafing out.
  • Living branches. One or two dead ones will not harm the plant, but more than that may indicate a problem.
  • Conifers that show signs of new growth in spring. "Candles" should be bright green, soft, and flexible.
  • Shape that is appropriate for the species and cultivar of the plant.
  • A solid root ball. It should feel moist and firm.
  • Properly wrapped and tied plants. Burlap should be new-looking; twine should be snug but not choking the trunk.
  • A root ball that is 10 to 12 times the diameter of the trunk.
  • Mulch around the root ball.
  • Evidence that a watering system has been used. Look for puddles in the walkways or muddy earth aisles at the nursery.

What to avoid:

  • Leaves or needles that are curling or turning brown.
  • Diseased foliage.
  • Numerous broken branches.
  • Limp end branches perhaps with dried-out leaves, which indicate water deprivation.
  • Plants showing no signs of new growth when others of the same variety do show growth (conifers especially).
  • Branches that have leaves only at the base of the plant, indicating that other branches may be winter-killed.
  • A dried-out root ball. Tip-off: Burlap or twine is loose.
  • Large exposed roots. Roots can protrude through burlap, but avoid ones that seem large in proportion to the plant.
  • Rotted burlap. This indicates that the plant may not have sold the past season. If the plant has been properly cared for, this needn't pose a problem, but inspect the plant carefully.
  • A lopsided root ball, which may mean the plant was dropped.
  • A trunk that moves easily while the ball remains still. This may indicate the roots have broken from the trunk.
  • Twine gripping the neck of a plant.
  • A badly skinned trunk.
  • A tree that tilts when the wind blows (indicating it is not supported).
Selecting Bare-Root Plants
What to look for:
  • Healthy, evenly distributed basal roots that have numerous feeder roots.
  • Moist roots.
  • Ready-to-burst leaf nodes.
  • Well-formed stems.

What to avoid:

  • Lopsided roots.
  • Roots that are twisted into a ball.
  • A root system that is too small to support the plant.
  • Broken roots, especially large taproots.
  • Broken stalks on multibranched plants, such as roses.
  • Unfurled leaves, especially if they appear white and sunlight-starved. They indicate the plant has broken dormancy.
Selecting Container Plants
A light mulch helps retainmoisture in these container-grown shrubs.

What to look for:

  • Sleek, healthy-looking branches that aren't dried out.
  • Leaf and bloom nodes that are ready to burst if it is early season.
  • Plants with foliage on most of the branches. The leaves should also be a uniform color.
  • Well-established roots surrounded by firm soil. If possible, gently pull the plant from the container to inspect the roots.
  • Uniformly moist soil.
  • Shape that is appropriate for the species and cultivar of the plant.

What to avoid:

  • Pot-bound roots. Pull the plant from the container to check. If roots encircle the plant, that indicates it has grown too long in the container.
  • Large roots emerging from the container.
  • Roots that are exposed on the surface. This may indicate a plant that didn't sell last season; vital soil and nutrients have been lost.
  • Broken branches.
  • Diseased foliage.
  • Healthy foliage on top, but brown foliage underneath.
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