Urban Gardening: How to Buy a Tree or Shrub

Regardless of what tree or shrub you want to grow, the planting process is the same. If you don’t know which type of tree or shrub you want to add to your garden, consider your three options:

  • Bare root: These deciduous trees and shrubs are dug from nurseries in the late winter, before the leaves emerge in spring, and shipped to you, usually via the mail. (You can also buy bare root roses in the spring directly from garden centers.)

    Bare root plants have had all the soil removed from around their roots, making them fairly lightweight, but because they have no soil to sustain them, you need to plant them soon after you get them. Bare root plants tend to be less expensive than container or balled and burlapped plants.

  • Container: These trees and shrubs are grown in plastic containers in a nursery and then sold at garden and home centers. Generally, only small- and medium-sized trees and shrubs are sold as container plants. They’re usually more expensive than bare root plants, but they also tend to be more mature plants whose roots haven’t been disturbed, making them less likely to suffer from transplant shock.

  • Balled and burlapped: Balled and burlapped trees and shrubs tend to be larger than the other two types. They’re grown in a nursery and are dug up in spring, at which time their root balls (the soil masses around the roots) are wrapped in burlap to keep them together and moist.

    Balled and burlapped trees and shrubs are heavy, hard to move around, and expensive, but you get a mature plant without having to wait for it to grow.

While you can’t know what a bare root plant looks like until it arrives on your doorstep, you have more control over what you get when shopping for container or balled and burlapped trees and shrubs. Before you purchase either of these plants, look for the following signs to make sure you choose a healthy specimen:

  • Healthy trunks and branches: Beware of trunks and branches with dents or broken limbs.

  • Green, healthy leaves: Stay away from trees or shrubs with signs of disease or insect damage.

  • Healthy roots: A container tree or shrub with roots sticking out of the top of the root ball or with roots winding around inside the container and sticking out of the drainage holes is root bound and should be avoided.

  • Solid root balls on balled and burlap trees and shrubs: Don’t buy a tree or shrub that rocks independently of the root ball.

If you find the exact tree or shrub you want, but it’s root bound, don’t despair. You can still buy it and work to get it to grow strong in your yard.

Simply remove the plant from the container and use a sharp knife to slice down vertically 1 to 2 inches deep through the outer roots on two to four sides of the root ball. Tease the roots with your hand so they aren’t winding in a circle and then plant.

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