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What we obtain too cheaply, we esteem too lightly; it would be strange indeed, if so celestial an article as Freedom should not be highly rated.
Thomas Paine

Typical Pine

Paper Birch This is about the max size I can grow. These are 1.5 to just under 2 inch caliper trees.

Buying Trees

Big Trees Lead to a Skinny Wallet.

I get a lot of requests for big trees -- 2 inch diameter leaf trees. Ten foot high conifers. A lot of people are impatient, and want an instant tree. Eventually I'll be able to supply you with this size. Right now I can't.

The downsides of big trees.

Right off the top, I have to declare a conflict of interest. I'm recommending the use of small trees over large ones. Guess what I sell, and what I don't sell. rueful grin So take the information here with a grain, perhaps two, of salt.

(But there is a limited set of trees I can get in up to 3 inch caliper. But I need to know in August for the following spring.)

A caliper tree (anything over 1.5 inch diameter) is almost certain to be field grown. This means that when you transplant it, you will be planting a tree that has most of its roots in the field where it came from. This will work if they took enough roots, (Rough rule of thumb: 10-12 inches of root ball per inch of trunk diameter) but since the top is now too big for the roots, you have to take extra care to water it.

It also means that the tree will concentrate most of its energy during the first year, perhaps two years to grow roots. In height it will only grow a few inches. The second summer also will be below average growth. By the third summer it should be established.

If you get caliper trees, hire the planting done. A 1.5” tree is typically a 15 to 20 gallon pot. At 2 inches it’s a 24” basket. Normally the hole you dig should be 3 times the volume of the root ball so you can spread the roots out some, and have a gradual transition between the existing root ball soil, and the local soil. Loosened soil around the roots also means better water holding capacity while the tree is getting established. A #20 pot holds about 60 liters. About 80 kg. Or not quite 180 lbs. This is a two wheelbarrow hole. (Ok, one real wheelbarrow, the kind used by concrete workmen, filled right up) Even if you want to plant them yourself, get a bobcat to come in with an auger to predig the holes. Your back will thank you. If you do it all yourself, your chiropractor may put you on his permanent Christmas card list.

For a 1 inch tree you want a 2-2.5 foot diameter hole. Most larger bobcats can handle an auger that big, but even a 16 inch hole that is several feet deeper than you want for planting helps a lot: It's a lot less work to widen a deep hole than to dig from scratch. And the deep hole gives lots of room for deep roots for trees that have tap roots. Warning: Pack the dirt in the bottom of the hole. Otherwise it collapses out from under the tree. Watering the tree fills the space, instead of watering the tree.

Some landscappers have a cone shaped auger that will give you a more useful sized hole.

In the Edmonton region, at least Brandt and Snowbird rent both augers and bits for bobcats.

Planting time

There are three things you can do with a field grown tree:

By contrast, a container grown tree can be transplanted almost any time that it isn't abnormally hot.

Leaves and needles lose water according to how hot it is, and to some extent, how windy it is. With a field tree, you have same amount of top, but fewer roots. The roots have a hard time keeping up. The tree will try to grow a bunch of new root hairs to keep up with the top losses, but it's a race against time. Spring and fall are cool. The tree isn't actively growing. In the spring, if it's short of water, it will just slow down opening its leaves. In the fall, it's already gone dormant, or is close to being dormant, so there isn't much stress. (The top goes dormant as soon as the average temperature is below freezing. The roots will continue to develop until the ground freezes.)

Which Tree

Start by looking at what other people are planting. Now, plant something different. Vancouver planted tens of thousands of cherry trees. The city was glorious during the annual cherry festival. Then some disease came through and wiped them out. Oh, not every tree. But most of them

Swedish aspen is The go to tree for privacy screens. It's skinny, grows fast, and is fairly cheap to grow. And now, a fungus is attacking it. Bronze leaf disease kills a tree a few years after it is infected. There is no treatment.

Do your homework

Recently we had to replace our stove. I probably spent a week of evenings only half paying attention to the boob tube reading about stoves. That's an appliance that will last 10-20 years, and takes 10 minutes to bring into the house and hook up.

A tree is a much longer time project. A short lived tree is 30-50 years. Most live over a century. Many live for hundreds of years.

Spend time on the internet. Sites such as "ICanGarden.com" have lots of people, some from your area who can give advice and answer questions about the suitability, needs, and habits of the tree or spot you have.

There are lots of city or regional gardening facebook groups. Try a search for your state or city name and either the words garden or horticulture.

Look at pictures. Make an internet scrap book, or your very own pinterest page with trees you found cool. Now look them up. What diseases do they get? Is that disease a problem in your area.

Your city may have a list of trees they recommend. Also may have a list of trees they don't recommend either due to bad habits, or potential disease problems.

Be cautious about bargains

The large box stores get the cheapest supplier they can, frequently non-local. The combined stress of transport, severe root pruning, and their first Alberta winter can produce high mortality rates. I know one landscape contractor says that they expect 40% mortality from coastal grown trees, even if they are species known to work well here.

Get your trees from someone who makes most of their money from trees and shrubs, and has been around for a bit. Walmart, Superstore, Home Depot, Canadian Tire and their ilk run garden centres as a sideline. Most of their people are not well trained. (There's an elderly gent at the Leduc Canadian Tire who gives exceptional service to his trees, his customers and his employer.)

Some of them only have trees and shrubs on consignment. It's not their problem if they neglect the poor thing. It's the grower's problem. Now you know why I don't deal with the box stores. I can't afford to.

A garden center with more area devoted to trees than to bedding plants is betting their reputation every year that they can supply good trees. It's not a guarantee, but if they have been in business for several years your chances are pretty good.

Ask them questions. If the sales person is young, they won't know a huge amount yet, but see if they are honest enough to say, "I don't know. Let's ask Bob." If Bob doesn't know, then you may want to keep looking. Tell them about the space you want to use, what kind of sun it gets, what the soil is like. Ask them what trees are suitable for that space.

Ask them "How long have you been growing this shrub -- note the difference between "This shrub is three years old." and "This shrub came in as a liner two years ago." Ask where they got it. You want to know that one of two things is true:

Read the label.

Check the label. Many trees have both a seller tag and a grower tag on them somewhere. A grower tag may have a town or city name on it. If it isn't local it should come from a similar climate. A tree that comes in from Manitoba or Saskatchewan is far more likely to settle in here than one from Kamloops or Langley B.C. or the Niagara peninsula in Ontario.

If you are overwhelmed by information snap a picture front and back of the label, and the tree. Now at home you can google it, and learn more. A tree is the same sort of time commitment as a child. Just not as expensive. No babysitter.

If they can't assert the winter hardiness with one of these two facts, find out if they have a warranty. This is not as valuable as you may think: Many box stores count on you losing either the tag off the tree; the receipt for the tree. Or forgetting where you bought it. Also make sure that it is a year plus warranty. Some trees leaf out late the first year after they are transplanted.
With a conifer it's not obvious until June that it died over the winter.

(When you do buy a tree, write the date on the tag and put it in a drawer. Staple the sales receipt to the tag.)

Remember too that while the tree may be under warranty, the planting isn't. Planting is either going to be a fair amount of of money (maybe about 1/2 the price of the tree) or it's a lot of work for you. To claim your warranty, you have to get them back out of the ground. And a replacement has to go back INTO the ground. If you can, find one that doesn't need a warranty.

If you want to hedge your bets, plant a mix of large and small trees. This can be a true win-win. You have some large trees so the place doesn't look like a lawn-bowling pitch. And the little trees are cheap and easy to plant.

Landscape Deposits.

Common practice right now is to add a landscape deposit onto the price of a new house, that you get back if you jump through enough hoops.

I recently had a talk with a gal who had a 6 foot space on one side of her driveway -- zero clearance on the other side. Her landscape deposit required that she have a 2 inch caliper tree, and 6 shrubs, some lawn, and a rock garden area in this 6 x35 foot area. They don't get their landscape deposit back until they do this.

Some developers are reasonable about this, and if you have room they will allow combinations like 3 1.5" trees and 4 shrubs instead of 1 2" tree and 6 shrubs.

I have an idea for her: Don't bother. Give serious consideration to telling them, "keep it, it's too much hassle" You are going to spend that to get it back, so instead do what you want.

Here's another idea: Rent a 2" poplar from me. You come, and buy the tree for $300. Plant it, in the bag. Get it inspected. In the fall dig up and bring it back for a $200 refund.


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Sherwood's Forests is located about 75 km southwest of Edmonton, Alberta. Please refer to the map on our Contact page for directions.