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Garden Variety: Tips For Finding the Right Tree for Your Garden By RON SULLIVAN

Friday February 24, 2006

We’re nearing the end of bare-root tree season, but we can buy and plant a tree any time of the year here, lucky us. But picking out the right tree in a nursery can be confusing, and a tree is (one hopes) an investment that we’ll be living with for years.  

It’s always tempting to grab a bargain tree at from the warehouse store, along with that gallon of paint. But it pays, especially for beginners, to buy from people we can trust. A good nursery that values its client base and reputation will be careful to steer you right. Even there, it helps to be informed.  

Choose a tree with bigger caliper—the diameter of the trunk—over a taller one, even if Shorty costs a bit more. Look for healthy green foliage. 

Leaves, if they’re in season, shouldn’t be yellow-edged or mottled (unless it’s a variegated cultivar!) or brown-tipped. A yellowing conifer is a bad gamble: conifers tend to be dead before they even look sickly. The nodes that buds and twigs and branches emerge from should be relatively close together.  

It’s OK if it’s been pruned a bit to establish shape, but there should be no stubs, big scars, or torn bark. Unless you’re looking for special bonsai-type effects, a tree should be fairly symmetrical, and not conspicuously topped. All its twigs should be plump, resilient, and unwrinkled.  

Touch it; its leaves should be a little cooler than the air around it. This is subtle, and it helps to touch a lot of trees to educate your senses. Go ahead and fondle the foliage every time you’re in the park. (You do know what poison oak looks like, right?) 

If it’s a conifer, feel for needles as stiff and prickly or pliable and bouncy as its particular species ought to be. (Research that, too.) Broad leaves shouldn’t be drooping or, in most plants, sticky. Look underneath them for bugs.  

We don’t bother much with balled-and-burlapped trees around here, and we buy bare-root trees mostly because they’re cheaper, not of necessity. Nursery plants of all sorts do just fine in containers in our mild climate, so we have lots of choices. We still have to pay attention to the rootball.  

There should be no visible gap between the soil and the sides of the container; a gap allows water to run off without wetting the roots and suggests that the plant was allowed to dry out a lot at some point, which hurts and shrinks the rootball. 

It shouldn’t be easy to wiggle the tree in its pot, either; that suggests a very newly potted-up plant, “a four-inch plant in a gallon pot.” There are exceptions—some trees and others resent having their roots even slightly crowded—but you should get the size you’re paying for.  

Comparison shopping helps, and so does learning what’s healthy for the species you’re buying. The best idea is to find a flourishing individual of the species you want, in the wild or in someone’s garden, and have it in mind as a benchmark.