Buying a Tree from a Nursery

Tree selection does not end with choosing the appropriate species or cultivar for the planting site. You need to select the individual tree you want to buy from many in a nursery or garden center. Purchasing a quality tree can help ensure the tree’s success in your landscape. Good quality trees typically establish more quickly and live longer than poor quality trees. They are also more stable once established and more likely to survive hurricanes.

What to Look For

  • Smaller trees. Smaller trees are much cheaper than larger trees, and they are also often a better choice for other reasons. Smaller trees establish more quickly as well, requiring less irrigation.
  • Healthy roots. Smart buyers evaluate root systems thoroughly. They look for main roots that radiate straight out from the trunk. See the “What to Avoid” section below to find out more.
  • Good structure. Look for shade trees with one dominant trunk. (However, smaller ornamental trees like citrus, crapemyrtle, ligustrum, plumeria, and others can naturally have multiple trunks and still be healthy.)

What to Avoid

A tree with circling roots

Avoid circling roots

  • Diseased or dead roots. These are brown to black and often have a sour or rotting odor.
  • Circling roots. Don’t purchase trees with roots that circle close to the trunk because these are hard to correct. Circling roots can slow growth and girdle and even kill the trunk, and can cause a tree to be more unstable and thus more likely to blow down in high winds.
  • Kinked roots. These are roots that have been turned back on themselves. Kinked roots don’t provide good support for the tree, and water and sugars have a difficult time passing through their severe turns.  
  • Root-bound trees. These trees have many roots circling around the outside of the root ball, causing a physical barrier that can prevent a tree from spreading its roots into the soil after it’s planted.
  • Poor structure. Low-quality shade trees have two or more trunks. Multiple leaders can cause the tree to split apart as it grows.
  • Trunk wounds. Remove the tree wrap and inspect the lower trunk for damage; don’t purchase trees with trunk injuries.