Buyer Beware When Purchasing a Tree

Buyer Beware When Purchasing a Tree

This past Saturday, I helped a friend plant a tree.  It was an event worth recounting to anyone about to buy a tree, an example of deceptive marketing that is all too common.
On Friday, George visited a local nursery in search of a native red maple, Acer rubrum.  The tree in the back of his truck on Saturday morning was a Norway maple, Acer platanoides, the cultivar ‘Crimson King’, a tree often sold as a “red maple” because it’s leaves retain a purple-red color through the growing season.
George did not realize the severity of the mistake until I pointed to the weedy grove of Norway maple seedlings in his back yard, the offspring of a neighbor’s tree.  He did not need another one.
We drove back to the nursery and swapped the invader for a true red maple about six feet tall and one inch in diameter at breast height.  When soil fell out of the pot as it was laid on its side in the truck bed, the attending nursery worker pounded it back in place with his fist, asking, “How far do you guys have to go with this?”  Suddenly, I started putting the pieces together.
George had purchased a tree harvested last October from a production field in Minnesota and stored for six months in a warehouse at just above freezing temperatures and nearly 100% humidity.  In late April, the tree was shipped to the nursery where it was crammed into a compressed-peat pot (a “plantable” pot) too small for its root system, then set out on the lot, looking for all the world like a well established tree ready to leaf out.  In reality, if George were to plant his new tree in its pot, as suggested by the nursery worker, its chances for survival would be very low.
I know this from nine years as Horticultural Manager for a reputable mail-order nursery.  One of my responsibilities was storing field-grown bareroot trees over winter until they were shipped to customers in spring, their roots wrapped in damp sphagnum moss.  As far as plant quality was concerned, the buck stopped with me and so I made sure that each of our customers received written instructions on planting and caring for bareroot trees coming out of storage.
George was hoodwinked from the start.  He purchased a containerized tree, its root system out of sight.  He had every right to assume that the tree was established in the pot with a functional root system, and no one told him otherwise.  But as George struggled to cut away the pot with a box knife (I had advised him that planting his tree in its pot was not a good idea), all of the soil fell away from a dormant root system without any fibrous feeder roots, those fine white roots that absorb water.  Suddenly faced with the unfamiliar task of planting a bareroot tree, George looked to me for guidance.
The pot was too small to contain the root system and so the nursery workers had crammed the long woody roots into a circling mass within the pot.  Had it been planted in its pot, the roots would have continued to circle, eventually becoming girdled roots that would restrict water uptake like a crimped garden hose.  And remember that box knife – new fibrous roots would not have been able to escape that pot for quite a while.
Out of the pot, the root system was a lopsided pancake of woody roots.  We pruned away a couple of thick roots that were already starting to girdle other roots, then set about the process of planting George’s tree.
I give the new tree even odds to survive, but it will need a lot of attention this growing season.  George will need to make sure it receives an inch of water every week while hoping for a long, cool spring.  And I suggested that he stake his new tree for the first year, knowing that there was not much of a root system to anchor it against strong winds.
More and more, tree growers are transitioning from field production to container production.  In a hybrid growing method called “pot-in-pot production”, each growing pot is nested in a “socket pot”, a slightly larger in-ground container.  This method allows the grower to harvest a container-grown plant with a fully functional root system.  Roots are protected from winter freeze-damage by the warmer in-ground temperatures.  The grower gets to use his land for production without losing top soil.  Everybody wins, including the customer who buys the tree.
Other retail nurseries offer container-grown trees that have overwintered in their nursery, their root systems protected from extreme cold by an insulating blanket of mulch.  You may pay more for trees coming from these container-production systems, but your new tree will have a functional root system from the start, a much better chance of thriving in your garden.
When buying a tree, ask the important questions.  How long has the tree been in its pot?  Does it have an established root system?  Was it just potted after arriving bareroot from the grower?  What will I encounter when I take this tree out of its container?  Ask to inspect the root system BEFORE you purchase the tree.
Don’t be hoodwinked!  You should know when you are buying a bareroot tree, along with all of the potential problems that come with it.

(My new book, “The New England Gardener’s Year, a Month-by-Month Guide for Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Upstate New York”, will be published later this year by Cadent Publishing.  You can learn more about the book by visiting its Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-New-England-Gardeners-Year/187285218055676.)

If you knew that your tree would look like this after removing it from its pot, would you buy it?

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About Reeser Manley

I was born in Laramie Wyoming but moved to the southeast at an early age. I was educated through my B.S. in Biology in the Columbus, Georgia area, then crossed the Chattahoochee River to earn my M.S. in Botany at Auburn University. For the next ten years, I worked as Horticultural Manager for the George W. Park Seed Co. in Greenwood, S.C. At 40 years of age, I decided to return to graduate school and in 1994, I earned a Ph.D. in Horticultural Science from Washington State University, Pullman, Washington. Fast forward through 10 years at university (7 at UMaine, Orono) and you find me teaching high school science in Eastport, Maine, the edge of the world, and writing a weekly garden column for the Bangor Daily News. My new book, The New England Gardener's Year, a Month-by-Month Guide for Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Upstate New York”, will be published later this year by Cadent Publishing. You can learn more about the book by visiting its Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-New-England-Gardeners-Year/187285218055676.)