Here are some things to look for when buying trees

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By Dennis Morgeson



Now that we have had rain and the weather is feeling like fall it is a great time to add trees to the landscape, but there are some very important things to look for before actually purchasing a particular tree.
The first thing to consider is the mature size of the tree. It is very difficult to maintain a large plant in a small space and pruning is not a great option for the long term. Plant a tree that will have the appropriate mature size into the right size space.
Second, consider the characteristics of the site - sunny, shady, wet, dry and well-drained vs. poorly drained soils and pH of the site and plant a tree appropriate to that site. Is the area always damp or wet? There are tree varieties that do well in those sites. Beginning with the best plant in the best site will save you so much in time, frustration and maintenance.
And remember, your favorite plant may not be the best one for the site.
So now that we are ready to venture to our local garden center, what are some things we are looking for?
Well, trees are generally available in containers, balled-and-burlapped (B & B), or bare root.  Most often, bare root trees come from mail order and are not available at commercial garden centers.
Balled-and-burlapped trees are grown in a field similar to growing any other row crop and are then harvested. The soil ball is wrapped in burlap and occasionally is in a wire basket, depending on tree size so these are called B & B for balled and burlapped.
Container trees can be field raised then potted into containers for resale or are grown in containers throughout their production. No matter what form your tree is in, considerations for quality are the same.
Let’s begin with the bark. Check the trunk for mechanical injury from harvesting, shipping, etc. These are generally bark scrapes. Also look for environmental damage such as sun scaled areas or animal damage.  Trunk wraps may hide this so remove the wrap to inspect.
Avoid trees that show signs of damage or cracks. 
Broken branches are a sign of rough or poor handling.  Branches should not cross or rub and ideally should be spaced 8 to 12 inches apart on all sides of the central leader.  Avoid trees with branches that have been excessively pruned back.  Avoid v-shaped branches, which occur where two branches or a branch and a trunk squeeze together. As the v-shaped branches grow, they put pressure on each other and one or both will often times break off in a storm or high wind.
If you are purchasing a tree with needles, be sure they are of good color and not wilted or discolored. A healthy root system is critical to a tree’s ability to survive and thrive in the landscape.  They should be white in color and there should be no musty odor or mushiness when inspecting container plants.
In B & B plants, most of the root system was removed when the tree was dug.
However, the root ball should be firm, trees should not move or rock within the root ball and there shouldn’t be any cracks in the soil or big loose clumps.
When loading trees, they should be carried by the root ball, NOT the trunk since the weight of the soil ball can damage the roots. 
On deciduous trees (ones that lose their leaves), branches should be flexible with buds that are full, not dried.  There should be no signs of shriveling wood and branches should not be brittle.   Check the spacing between the bud scale scars to see how much growth the tree has put on over the last few years.  Bud scale scars on branches appear as a set of small rings that circle the branch. Starting at the branch tip, follow down the branch counting scars and looking at the distance between where these bundles of scars occur.  Very little growth between the scars may be a sign that the tree has been under stress and not grown well. 
Other things to consider:  Small trees adapt quicker to planting than larger trees; so don’t overdo.  Over time, the small tree will catch up with and surpass a large tree. 
Watch for trees left over from spring.
In some cases, these trees have not received the best care.
Watch for named cultivars of plants if you are buying for a specific purpose. For example, a tree labeled red maple may be a seedling that does not have the bright red color you desire. Purchase those with a name such as “October Glory” or “Red Sunset.”
There are also certain varieties of trees that prefer and will do much better planted in the spring.
At this time of year, at most reputable nurseries, you will find these in the clearance area. Those out in the sales area are probably fine for fall planting. But if a clearance deal seems too good to be true, it may be.
Often times these trees have difficulty rooting in and surviving winter. Purchase these with caution.
Now, plant some trees!
Happy gardening!