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Tips When Buying a Tree

Tips When Buying a Tree

By Therese Ciesinski, GardenSMART

If you’ve made the decision to add a tree to your landscape, congratulations. Trees add beauty and value to a property, feed and shelter wildlife, create oxygen and clean the air. They are also a gift to the future.

But actually buying a tree can be a confusing process. Even when you know what kind you want, where to find it can be challenging, particularly if price is an issue. Here’s what you need to know.

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Where to Buy

Big box stores

These stores will only carry the most common trees: dogwoods, ornamental cherries, some conifers, maybe a Japanese maple. They might not be the best trees for your site or needs. These stores will have the lowest prices (usually $100 and under), but the trees may not have been taken care of very well. You get what you pay for. The trees will be a manageable size if transport is important.

Garden centers

Your local garden centers will have larger trees, and a bigger selection, including what you’ll find at the big box stores. They are also likely to be more expensive, usually $200 and up. A garden center is more likely to carry native trees such as redbuds and river birches, as well as beeches, maples, and fruit trees. A reputable garden center will take good care of their trees, and they should look attractive and healthy.

Their inventory will still be limited to their available space and what they think sells best in that area. But if you know what you want and they don’t have it, they may be able to order it for you.

Garden centers usually carry both container-grown and balled and burlapped trees. B&B trees tend to be larger than container trees – much larger. If it is too big to fit in your vehicle, you may need to have the tree delivered, which adds to the cost.

Mail order

For the largest selection and/or rare plants, mail order is the way to go. If you can find a website that specializes in the tree species you want, you’ll find lots to choose from, plus the tree is delivered right to your doorstep. Size-wise, you may be able to choose from trees in 1-, 2-, or 3-gallon pots. These are small trees, small enough to mail, but that doesn’t mean they’re cheap. Prices can range from $30 for a common tree species to well over $100 for something rare or hard to propagate. If you have the patience, a smaller tree is the best value.

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Ways Trees Are Grown

Balled and burlapped

Often referred to as B&B, these trees are called balled and burlapped because their large rootballs are wrapped in burlap and tied with jute twine. They’ve been grown in the ground for years, then dug up with rootballs that can be as deep and wide as two or three feet or more. Expect the trees to have been carefully shaped and pruned. Digging them up and transporting – often across the country – can stress them, so see below for tips on choosing a healthy tree.

These are usually the largest trees you can readily buy (for really big or unusual trees you usually need to work through a landscape designer or architect). Hand-digging a hole for rootballs this big can be difficult to impossible depending on your soil type, so when buying a B&B tree factor in the extra expense of hiring machinery (or help!) to dig the hole.


Container-grown trees are usually younger and smaller than B&B trees, easier to transport and easier to plant. Some experts advise choosing younger trees when possible. They may acclimate to their location more readily than a larger, more mature tree.

Also check the container. Trees are sold in gallons: 1-gallon, 2-gallon, and up. Sometimes a grower will pot up a tree with a smaller root system in a larger pot and try to sell it as a “larger” tree with a higher price tag. You are basically paying for soil rather than tree, so check to be sure you’re getting what you’re paying for.

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Recognize A Healthy Tree

Examine a tree carefully. It should look healthy and vigorous, with new growth. If leaves have emerged they should be plentiful and healthy-looking, not bug eaten or diseased. Also check that the leaves aren’t crisp at the edges or dried out completely. That could be a sign of underwatering. It sounds obvious, but the soil in the container or rootball should be moist.

Also, in garden centers and big box stores trees are sometimes displayed in locations that get very hot: on asphalt, near walls or surfaces that reflect heat. This can stress trees and dry out the leaves. Avoid trees that look like this.

There should be no – or very few – broken branches, and then only at the ends of a branch. Certainly there shouldn’t be branches broken or missing all the way back to the trunk. Look at the trunk. Are there any gashes to the bark, or is it torn away anywhere? Damage to the trunk of a tree often kills it.

The roots should be plump and healthy, not dry or withered. You won’t be able to tell with a B&B tree, but if a container tree is small enough, you can gently pull it up by the trunk and see how the roots look. There should be many, but if the pot is choked with more roots than soil, pass it by. Circling of some roots is probably inevitable, but the entire rootball should not be one mass of circling roots.

A tree is an investment of time and money. To avoid future headaches, start by choosing only those that are healthy and well cared for.

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