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How to Choose Trees at a Nursery Tree

Planting a quality tree is one of the best investments you can make for your home or business landscaping. Healthy trees can outlast your property’s lifespan, and they only seem to get better with age. Trees improve your building's curb appeal, and you can also enjoy them from indoors through your front window. The key to having a beautiful, long-living tree is to begin with a healthy one.

choosing a tree from a nursery

There’s a lot that goes into choosing the right tree. Professional arborists spend years in school, then in the field learning their craft. They have experience in identifying tree species and understanding the idiosyncrasies of hundreds of different tree types found in yards and parks across the nation. These tree professionals know how to spot healthy trees that are disease- and pest-free. They also know what trees work best for your location.

Many arborists own or work in nurseries. Nursery professionals use their knowledge and skills to propagate and raise trees from saplings that grow to maturity without issues. Choosing trees at a nursery gives you the best chance of plantings that will survive post-planting without problems. Nursery trees give you great value and the best return on investment.

What is a Nursery Tree?

Almost all newly-planted trees start life in a nursery. They’re chosen from healthy parent stock that are naturally resistant to threats like disease, drought and damage from nature’s elements. Some nursery trees begin from seeds. Others are propagated from cuttings taken from a mother plant. No matter which way a tree is started, you’re sure to get a higher survival rate by picking healthy trees grown in a nursery rather than planting bare seeds on your lot.

When selecting trees from a nursery, there are three primary factors to consider. First, you must carefully evaluate your site conditions. You then have to be specific about your tree’s function or purpose. Next, you need a long-term vision of the tree’s mature shape and size. Combining these three factors gives you the best foundation for selecting trees from a nursery. Let’s look at each factor closely.

Site Conditions for New and Healthy Trees

Knowing where you’re going to plant your new tree has to come before anything else. You’ll be much better equipped to discuss tree selection with the nursery staff when you know what conditions you have in your planting location. It’s best to do a site analysis that includes the following considerations:

  • Sun pattern and wind direction
  • Light availability
  • View corridors and distance from obstacles
  • Interference with overhead and underground utilities
  • Property line relationships
  • Soil conditions like drainage and compaction
  • Water supply and future requirements
  • Complementing existing landscape and architecture




The climate is another major factor to consider when determining what species to select. The U.S. Department of Agriculture divides the United States into 11 plant hardiness zones based on a 10-degree Fahrenheit lowest temperature rating. For instance, in regions with a rating of two, the lowest recorded temperature is between -40F and -50F. A zone 10 rating temperature never falls under +30F to +40F.

choosing a tree from a nursery

Your local nursery staff will know your area’s climatic zone and will stock nursery trees that can withstand your winter season. You can also check your climatic zone on the National Arbor Day website by entering your zip code. Additionally, the Arbor Day site has an excellent online tool called the Tree Wizard where you can enter your site parameters. It will then recommend tree species that work in your location.

Your Tree’s Purpose or Function

Deciding to plant a nursery tree is straightforward. Knowing what you want it to do is another story. If you’re clear about the reason you’re planting a new tree, you’re on your way to positive long-term results. But planting the wrong tree for the wrong reasons leads to disappointment as well as a waste of time and money. In the worst case, it may have to be removed or destroyed.

The two main types of trees found in America are evergreens and deciduous trees. Evergreens have needles that stay on the branches year round. They’re a permanent addition and don't change from season to season. Deciduous trees shed and regrow their leaves seasonally. They provide beauty and shade through the spring, summer and fall then let light pass through on dim winter days.

Evergreens tend to grow faster and larger than deciduous trees. This quick growth causes their trunks’ annual rings to be further apart than slower developing leaf-bearers. Deciduous tree wood is denser than evergreen which is why they’re called hardwood trees and evergreens are referred to as softwoods.

Whether an evergreen or deciduous nursery tree is right for you depends on your overall situation. You need to consider what you want from the tree as it grows and matures. You might decide to plant a tree to meet any of the following goals:

  • Making landscaping a focal point
  • Providing summer shade and winter brightness
  • Offering year-round privacy and security
  • Making a windbreak or defining property lines
  • Growing edibles
  • Creating wildlife habitat

Tree Form and Size

Determining the proper size and shape for your tree is vital for selecting the best addition to your property. The right height and shape will complement its function when mature. Trees species that grow tall and remain slender, for instance, play a different landscape role than stocky and robust trees.

size and shape of trees

Tree size and form also impact maintenance. It’s necessary to envision how a newly-planted tree will appear decades later as well as what challenges it will present with pruning, shedding and encroachment on other plantings or structures. Picking the proper tree form and size is equally important for future appearance. You also need to know your site conditions before picking the right nursery tree.

Nursery Tree Terminology

Before heading off to the nursery to pick out trees, it’s helpful to learn a bit of tree terminology. The tree business practically has its own language. Nursery staff will be fluent in it but won’t expect you to converse at their level. However, it’s nice to be able to read tree tags and have some understanding of what they mean. Here are the basics you ought to know:

  • A family is a group of trees that are close in appearance
  • Genus refers to what each species fundamentally have in common
  • Species narrows down trees that have similar traits but appear different
  • Variety narrows down the species through small variations
  • Hybrids are cross-bred trees that aren’t found naturally
  • Clones are trees propagated through cuttings off one parent plant
  • Caliper is the tree’s trunk diameter

How to Select a Healthy Tree

By this point, you have a sound idea of what type of tree you’re looking for and the conditions you’ll plant it in. Those are the first questions someone on the nursery staff will ask when you arrive. It’s helpful to have an idea of the species you’re interested in. That will let the staff member pick out trees to look at.

Here’s where it’s important to know how to tell if a tree is healthy. Tree health starts with how the nursery cares for and attends to their new trees. The first thing to notice is a tree’s general appearance. A healthy tree will have the following traits:

  • Nice overall look — not beat-up or shabby
  • No signs of water deficiency such as brown, curly leaves or needles
  • Little or no scarring on the trunk and branch wood
  • Absence of blotching or holes on leaves that indicate insects
  • Uniform bark that’s not wounded or blemished
  • Minimal dead branches and twigs
  • Well-developed top leader, the vertical stem located at the top of the trunk
  • Single top leaders — avoid multiple leaders and trunks
  • Trunks that taper uniformly
  • Well-distributed branches spaced between eight and 12 inches apart
  • Wide angles in the crotch area between trunk and branches
  • Evenly rotated branches around the trunk

These attributes indicate a tree’s structural health above the ground. What’s even more important to consider is what’s going on below ground in the root system. It’s easier to correct structural defects than underground problems. Roots are crucial because they anchor the tree and provide nutrient and water passage from the soil to the tree.





Nursery Tree Preparation

Root health starts with how a nursery raises and readies a tree for transplanting. There are three primary methods nurseries use to prepare trees for permanent planting. You’ll have these to choose from:

1. Bare Root Nursery Trees

Bare root nursery trees are the least expensive. They’re also the smallest. The term means exactly what it says — the sapling’s roots are bare and not encased in any soil or medium. They’re dug up shortly after sprouting and readied for shipment by keeping the bare, dangling roots wet and enclosed in plastic or damp paper.

Bare root nursery trees are commonly used where multiple plantings take place like hedges or row-farms. Nurseries invest limited time and effort in bare root trees. This transfers into economies of scale for large plantations. But there’s a high failure rate in bare root trees as the shock from transplanting often can’t be absorbed by the young tree. Most nurseries don’t recommend bare roots for single tree applications.

2. Balled and Burlap (B&B) Nursery Trees

The most common method of raising and readying nursery trees is the ball and burlap method. These trees are more mature than bare root varieties and have more established root systems. They’re grown in fields or ground plots then excavated with their roots in a ball that’s proportionate to the tree size.

Wrapping the root ball in wet burlap keeps the root system intact and damp longer. There’s a drawback to the B & B transplant method. When the tree is dug up, much of the expanded root system is severed. This puts the tree in shock. Be careful about choosing a balled and burlap tree when you’re considering something expensive, exotic or finicky.

3. Container Nursery Trees

Container nursery trees are usually the healthiest types to buy. That’s because the tree started life in a container and its roots were never disturbed. These trees are never shocked by root damage. Bigger trees in larger containers likely have been transplanted in progressively larger pots as they got older. But as long as the contained tree is not root-bound, it’ll easily transplant into your location.

Container trees in nurseries are usually healthy provided they’ve had adequate water and nutrients. If it’s in your budget, you should lean towards selecting a potted tree. They’ll be more expensive than balled and burlap trees but will likely provide a better return on investment.

Nursery Tree Root Condition

choosing a tree from a nursery

You can tell how healthy a nursery tree is by its root condition. There are several main things to watch for. Any of these could indicate a potential health problem:

  • Root ball dimensions should be proportionate to the tree height. It’s rare to see too large a root ball for the tree trunk size, but too small is a sign of trouble down the road. As a rule-of-thumb, a root size 32 inches in diameter should have a 12 to 16-foot trunk with a 3-inch caliper.
  • Root collar or flare is the top mass of roots that join the trunk base at exposed ground level. The topmost roots must be no more than one inch below or above ground level for a tree to prosper. If you can’t see the root collar at the top of the soil or if it’s too high above, that’s a sign of poor health.
  • Circling roots occur when a tree is too large for its container. Outward expansion with nowhere to go forces the roots to circle the pot looking for more space. This is a sure sign that a tree has outgrown its container and will need root pruning before it’s transplanted.
  • Stem-girdling roots form when roots are cut and then grow perpendicular. That causes the roots to go straight up, which can wrap or girdle the trunk and strangle itself. Trunk indenting from root girdle breaks the bark and opens the wood for disease and insects.
  • Root bound trees aren’t necessarily unhealthy, but they've likely haven't received enough professional attention. A root bound tree is a red flag that may indicate other health problems lurking under or inside the tree.

Other Factors to Look For in Healthy Nursery Trees

If the tree you’re holding has passed every test so far, you probably have a tree that will remain healthy for a long while. You’ll get your money’s worth. But before cashing out, here are a few additional things to look for:

  • Canopy uniformity is important. This will be obvious to your eye. Branches will be evenly spread and foliage well-distributed. This will depend a bit on the species, as well as the season you’re currently in.
  • Pruning cuts make a difference as well. Many nursery trees, especially older ones, may have been pruned. Watch for signs of professional pruning. A properly trimmed tree will have branches snipped perpendicular to the branch length. This leaves a round cut exposure. Amateur or careless cuts made flush to the trunk will appear oblong.
  • Staking is another thing to watch for. Larger or delicate nursery trees are often staked for support. This is another sign of quality care and reassurance that you’re getting good value.
  • Use the flex test, which is a simple and accurate way to estimate root strength. Hold the ball or container and push on the tree trunk. If the root stays firm and the trunk bends or flexes, that’s a good sign. But if the trunk remains rigid and the roots flex, take that as a warning and look at another specimen.
choosing a tree from a nursery

Carefully Transport Your Nursery Tree Home

Now that you’ve purchased a healthy nursery tree make sure you keep it that way while transporting it home. Damage from wind and rough handling can easily ruin a perfectly good tree. Don’t let that happen to yours.

Putting a new tree in the back of a pickup comes with potential dangers. Even slow driving can create enough wind force to strip leaves or snap branches. Laying a tree flat is not the best practice. Tying one upright also has faults. And shoving a live tree in the back of a car or SUV makes it hard to get out without reversing limb spread.

The nursery may have an enclosed delivery truck or van. Some nurseries might offer free delivery for a large or expensive order, but even if you have to pay extra, it’s cheap insurance. Your investment needs protection right from the nursery to your planting site.

The Key to Keeping Nursery Trees Healthy

Once you’re satisfied you’ve picked a healthy nursery tree, make sure you take the right steps to plant and care for it. Your nursery staff will recommend appropriate starters and fertilizers as well as offer planting tips. The main point in ensuring long-term tree health is the proper planting depth, staking support, mulching and irrigation.

The real key to keeping your tree healthy as it grows and prospers is using a professional tree service to maintain its health. At Richard’s Tree Service, we're experts in keeping trees healthy throughout the Northern Virginia area. We’re full-service commercial and residential tree specialists, and we’re here in case of emergencies. Read more about our services and explore our other free resources here.

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