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One man's theology is another man's belly laugh.
Robert A. Heinlein

Buying Trees

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.

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 bobcats can't 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.

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

Planting time

There are three things you can do with a field grown tree: 1. Lift it and plant it that spring. 2. Lift and hold in a large pot, or basket, or ball, and water frequently, while keeping in partial shade. Many of the box store plants are ones lifted earlier this spring and stuffed in a pot. 3. Lift and transplant it in the fall.

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.)

Do your homework

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

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. One landscape contractor who I get used pots from said 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: * They have been growing this tree outside (not in a greenhouse) for at least a year. OR * They brought this tree in from a local grower who had it for at least a year.

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 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.

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. Better to 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.


Got something to say? Email me: sfinfo@sherwoods-forests.com

Want to talk right now? Talk to me: (8 am to 9 pm only, please) 1-780-848-2548


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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.