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What to Look for When Buying Trees and Shrubs

Thom Morgan

By Thom Morgan
Springmoor Landscape Manager

If you have ever bought a used car, you know that there are a few things you need to check before you purchase it. When buying landscape plants, you should approach it like you would when shopping for a used car. Landscape plants have been previously handled: someone planted it before selling it to the nursery, and the nursery is in business to sell the plant to you. 

Here are some tips to kick the tires, so to speak, when buying a tree or shrub:
  • Look at the leaves: If the leaves are wilted, or off color, it can mean the plant has missed a watering or two. Most containerized plants will snap back from a missed watering, but may soon drop their leaves after you get it home, and plant it. In the case of needle leaf evergreen trees and shrubs, once the needles turn grey-green, then yellow, and finally brown–that is it. Needle leaf evergreens never recover once they dry out so don’t buy any pines, junipers or spruce that are off color.
  • Look at the roots: Some nurseries will allow customers to pull the plant out of the container. If the plant is root-bound, there will be very little soil left, and the roots will be in a circular shape matching the pot. There will even be roots growing out of the bottom holes of the nursery container, and the surface will be covered with roots. This is a good way to check if the plant is root-bound, and you don’t feel comfortable pulling the plant out of the container. 
  • Wiggle the plant: If the plant holds firm, it’s good to go. If it moves back and forth, it means it was just potted up, or it was replaced back in its container for some reason.  Do not buy any plants that are loose in their containers.
  • Check the bark and branches: Nursery plants go through a lot before they reach the customer. They are grown in fields for several years to become marketable, they are dug up, loaded onto a truck, then shipped to your local nursery where they are unloaded, and placed for sale. Check the bark, the tree or the shrub for scratches, or scars. Open wounds invite fungi and insect pests so stay away from any plants with damaged bark and branches.
  • The right fit: Don’t buy a tree or shrub just because it looks great when it is flowering. Think about the space it will be planted in, and do a little research on how big it will get, how much water it might need, and if it will get the right amount of sun or shade where you intend to plant it. If in doubt, ask the sales staff at the nursery. A quality-oriented nursery will have staff on hand to answer your questions.

Things to do in March:

  •  Fertilize fescue lawns: Use a fertilizer that also has a pre-emergent herbicide (this way you feed the lawn, and take care of potential lawn weeds for the next 90 days).
  • Fertilize any trees and shrubs you planted last year with 10:10:10, or 8:8:8 fertilizer (this should be your second application if you started in February).
  • Trim back liriope: The dead leaves on liriope ground cover can be trimmed back, and the beds fertilized. A lawn mower on a high setting can be used on very large beds of liriope.
  • Severely prune foundation shrubs: In a well-planned landscape you shouldn’t have to do this at all, but if you inherited someone else’s mistakes, and there are shrubs covering walkways, or windows, then now is the time to really cut back shrubs. They will look bad for a couple of months, but by summer they will look like newly-bought nursery plants (this is for deciduous plants, and broadleaf evergreens). Needle leaf shrubs do not respond well to severe pruning. It is best to remove overgrown needle leaf plants, and start over.
  • Take a soil test: If you plan to have a vegetable garden this summer, now is a good time to test your soil. Most county agricultural extension agencies will perform this test for free. They will provide a box for your soil sample, with instructions on taking the sample. If you reach them at a good time, you will not be competing with large agricultural interests to get your test back. The results show how much of everything you need to improve your garden soil. If you can’t reach an agricultural extension agency, most garden centers carry soil test kits which give fairly good results.

What’s blooming at Springmoor: 

Japanese Camellias in bloom at Springmoor

  • Japanese Camellias are at their peak
  • Flowering Apricot
  • Flowering quince
  • Star magnolia
  • Winter Jasmine
  • Winter daphne
  • Chinese mahonia
  • Lynwood Gold Forsythia (Forsythia x intermedia, known as ‘Lynwood Gold’)
Horticultural Notice:
Those of us who garden in the Carolina piedmont will not have impatiens available for summer annuals again this year. Two years ago a fungus infected everyone’s beds of impatiens. Garden centers and nursery suppliers have been asked not to sell impatiens in our area. It is hoped that the fungus will die off, and by next summer we should have impatiens available to us.

Next Month: Do anti-depressants work on weeping willows?

Springmoor Life Care Retirement Community is a continuing care retirement community in beautiful Northwest Raleigh, N.C. To find out more about Springmoor, check out our website and find us on Facebook.



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