Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Pacific Northwest
June, 2009
Regional Report

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This healthy, happy weigela rewards us with ample growth and an abundance of flowers each spring.

Choosing the Best Landscape Trees and Shrubs

Going to the nursery to buy a tree or shrub is an adventure I really enjoy. I'm on the lookout for plants that will make steady progress and endure, not those that will cling to life for a season or two then have to be replaced.

Experience has helped me hone my detective skills and I've developed an almost fool-proof method of choosing the healthiest, most attractive specimens for my landscape. You can become a savvy shopper by following these same guidelines.

Signs of Health
The appearance and shape of a plant is a good indication of its overall health. Branching should be balanced on all sides and the foliage should be full. Make sure upright trees, such as pine and spruce, have a trunk with a healthy tip (leader). If the leader is dead, it will be difficult for the tree to grow straight and upright, though you can encourage a new leader by training a top branch vertically.

Good foliage color is another indication of health. The color should be uniform throughout the plant, except for new growth. Yellowing leaves, or brown edges or tips, can indicate root damage from improper watering or fertilizing. If whole branches droop, the plant may be dry, over-fertilized, or over-exposed to sunlight.

Another sure sign of good health is lots of new growth. Look among the plant's branches for soft, green tissue with tiny new leaves. The new stems should all be the same thickness and the new leaves should be about the same size and spaced at equal distances along the branches. If some of the leaves are smaller or farther apart, or if the stems are spindly, the plant is probably not receiving adequate care.

What Roots Say
You can purchase trees and shrubs in containers, or with their roots and a small amount of soil wrapped in burlap. These balled-and-burlapped plants are grown in the ground and are usually lifted every year and root-pruned. When it's time for them to be sold, they are dug up with a good amount of earth attached to the roots and wrapped in burlap. Because of the annual root-pruning, balled-and-burlapped plants develop a compact root system with lots of feeder roots. They aren't root-bound, so they're more likely to transplant successfully than root-bound container-grown plants. However, the labor involved in annual digging and root-pruning makes balled-and-burlapped plants more expensive.

Container-grown trees and shrubs have one potential advantage -- their roots are protected by a container and less likely to be injured or broken when the plant is moved. And, when the plant outgrows its container, the entire root ball is dropped into a larger container, eliminating transplant shock. As long as container-grown plants are transplanted into larger pots as required, they'll develop strong, healthy root systems. If they don't receive adequate care, they'll develop too many roots for the size of the container and become root-bound. When roots twist around themselves, they can strangle the plant. The best way to check if a plant is root-bound is to gently slide it out of its container. The roots should fill the container without being crowded, and the root ball should remain intact after being unpotted.

Check for Pests
Before you make that final purchasing decision, check trees and shrubs for diseases and insects. Look at the undersides of leaves and along the growing tips, then carefully check the branches. The plant's foliage and stems should be absolutely free of insects and disease. Check for holes and other signs of trouble, such as webbing on the undersides of leaves, black blotches, red or yellow spots, holes surrounded by discoloration, or mottled leaf surfaces.

Trust what the leaves, stems and roots tell you. Check the top growth first, and then examine the roots. If the roots aren't healthy, the plant will have a tough time adjusting. As long as the plant you like passes these health tests, go ahead and buy it. Your investment should provide years of beauty in your landscape.

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