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How to Pick a Quality Tree at the Nursery

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With my day job at a nursery, I find that many people who buy trees for the first time know very little about choosing a tree or getting it planted. This is not surprising, after all, since we have all been beginners in our first few visits to a nursery. Some common motivations for picking the tree often have more to do with unrealistic expectations than any understanding of how the tree will be in five or ten years. Here are some points to think about before you go.

  • Some very popular trees will not do well in some areas. My nursery feels obliged to carry them even though we do our best to steer clients toward better suited trees. Feel free to ask your nurseryman how the tree does in your area and if he tells you it doesn’t do well, ask him to explain why and then to show you something different.
  • The perfect tree you might find with an internet search is likely a new variety that is being heavily pushed with marketing. Most of the time this means the original producer is trying to create a greater demand so that more nurseries will ask for the new tree variety. Unfortunately, there are rarely enough trees to get to every nursery and every state. Your nursery would love to get you the tree, but they often cannot get access to the variety themselves. It is best to be prepared with a few substitutions that you think will work well and be willing to consider different options that your nursery already has in stock.
  • Bigger is not better. This is an especially hard sell when older folks are involved because they want to see a tree big before they die. The reality is that bigger trees take more care for more years to get properly established and most people do not want to take the extra time and effort.
  • Not all the trees are perfect, even in the best nursery. And those that are not up to standard should not be sold. Take the time to look at what you intend to buy. Are there dead branches? Do the branches cross more than what is normal for that variety? Is the trunk damaged? I do my best to catch these problems, but if you see them before your salesperson does you need to ask if the tree is healthy and then move on to a better tree.
  • Once you know which trees you want, many nurseries will mark and hold them for a period of time for you, even before you have paid. This is a courtesy and means that they are willing to take the chance of not selling them as quickly so that they can help you and keep your long term business. If you reserve a tree, get it paid for and moved out as soon as you can so that the nursery doesn’t lose money waiting for you to decide what you want.
  • If you insist on a really big tree, please be willing to hire a reputable crew to install it for you. Big trees are heavy all by themselves and when you add the root ball it will take more than you and a few of your buddies to dig the hole and even more than that to move the tree.
  • Ask questions. I never mind answering a question as long as the client accepts a reasonable answer. I cannot create a tree to order out of thin air though, and I have been expected to more than once!

When you are looking for plants, remember rushing usually leads to problems. A few trips to the nursery before making any type of commitment usually leads to a better long term experience.


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