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Tree Buying Tips

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When a Bargain is Not a Bargain (or What to Look for When Buying a Tree)

We all want to save money while getting the best value for our dollars, but a bargain is not a bargain if the savings are going to result in spending more money in the long run. Spending a little time learning what to look for before shopping for a tree can save you hundreds or maybe thousands of dollars in future tree care or replacement.

Most of the time we can compare products and prices at different retailers, but when it comes to trees it is hard to compare. As you tour tree nurseries or speak with your landscaper, you may be overwhelmed by the choices even if you know what species of trees you want. The best way to know if you are getting a good tree for your money is to know what questions to ask, what to look for and what to avoid. The following tree-buying tips will help you to be an informed tree buyer and improve the quality of your tree purchases.

Florida tree grades-and-standards

The State of Florida has an optional grading system for nursery plants. If the nursery has graded the trees, you should always buy a Florida Grade Number One or Florida Fancy.

Many nurseries are unfamiliar with the current grading system and most trees are not graded unless called for in a sales contract. So how can you determine if you are getting a Florida Grade Number One or a cull? Follow these six steps.

Know a little about the tree species you are considering.

This can be done by checking a tree reference book or calling a professional. "Is the tree species a single trunk or multi-trunk variety?" and "What is the mature size of the tree?" are two important questions to answer before going to a nursery. Use our GYR Tree Directory as a start, and then reach out to experts. Local arborists, our City Forester, the Florida Forestry Service and Broward County Agriculture Extension are all excellent sources of tree information. See contact information on our Learn More About Trees webpage.

Decide whether you are purchasing from a field nursery or a retail store. 

Both have their advantages and disadvantages. A field nursery will usually have a larger selection of trees and species. The trees will come in at least two types - field grown or containerized - and there will be a wide range of quality. A retail store will have only containerized trees. Usually there will be less of a selection of both trees and species, but the quality of the overall collection is better. Prices will tend to be higher at the retail center.

Study the structure.

The tree that you are purchasing should not look like a small replica of a mature tree of that species. It is just a sapling, in most cases, and has many years to grow before it is mature. But the sapling should have good structure even at a young age. If you are buying a species that will become a large shade tree, look for a strong central leader (single trunk) that is relatively straight with evenly spaced branches. Multiple branches should not originate from one point on the trunk. The main trunk should not have been topped at any time.

Inspect the trunk and bark.

Inspect the trunk of the tree for wounds, flush cuts (pruning cuts made flush with the trunk), fungus, discoloration, and swollen or sunken areas. If the trunk is protected with wrap, examine under the wrap. If possible the trunk should be strong enough to support the tree without staking.

Check the roots.

Encircling roots can result in the premature mortality of a tree many years after it is planted. Unfortunately, containerized stock that outgrows the container usually develops encircling roots. When purchasing a containerized tree check to see that the roots fill the pot but have not started circling it. If you happen to find encircling roots after you purchase the tree, you can do the following (a) cut the spiraling roots vertically on opposite sides of the container, and (2) cut roots extending out of the container. Use a clean sharp knife when cutting the roots. When purchasing balled and burlap stock, inspect and make sure that the soil is moist and that no roots larger than 1" in diameter have been cut. This will help ensure a higher rate of survival after planting. The roots should have about 10 inches of root space for every one 1 inch of caliper (trunk diameter). Our instructions for planting your tree provide guidance on handling roots during planting.

Observe the foliage.

The tree should have a uniform crown with the proper size and amounts of leaves. Insect and disease damage should be limited to a few individual leaves. There should be evidence of recent growth. No more than 10% of the leaves should be chloritic (yellowing of normally green foliage).

More Information

The Arbor Day Foundation offers tips for Selecting a Healthy Tree.

The Florida Department of Agriculture offers Plant Industry Grades & Standards publications. (Scroll about half way down the page.)

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