Taking Stock of Nursery Stock
Posted: November 22, 2011
By Annette MaCoy, Consumer Horticulture Extension Educator, Cumberland County
Each of these production methods has advantages and disadvantages which may influence your decision to select one form over another. The site conditions, the variety of plant, the time of planting, your budget, the number of plants to be planted, and the after-care you can provide, will all factor in to which type of nursery stock you choose.
On any plant you are considering, there are three areas you should examine carefully: the roots and root flare, the trunk, and the overall form. Look for defects such as kinked or girdling roots, multiple leaders, poor branching structure, or lopsided form; and injuries such as torn or crushed roots, bad pruning cuts, trunk wounds or cracks, or insect feeding. Sometimes, a problem can be corrected; but if it is too severe, you should reject that particular plant and look at another specimen.
Bare-root stock is often found in mail-order or online catalogs; it is less common at nurseries and garden centers. You may find bare-root fruit trees, brambles, roses, strawberries, and asparagus crowns, with the roots packed in damp wood shavings and plastic, at garden centers, while bare-root ornamental trees and shrubs are usually only available through mail-order or online catalogs.
Bare-root stock is the least expensive; it’s light-weight and easy to move; the plants are smaller, and the roots adapt and establish more quickly in surrounding soil. It’s easy to examine the roots at planting time and trim away damaged or defective ones. For large-scale plantings with less expense and work, bare-root is the way to go.
The disadvantages of bare-root are that the variety selection is more limited; generally you can’t examine plants before purchasing; plants can be planted only during dormancy, usually in early spring; small plants are more vulnerable to animal damage; the roots must never be allowed to dry out (you can use hydro-gels to keep them moist until planting); and plants often need staking.
Balled and burlapped (B & B) trees and shrubs are field-grown plants that are dug while dormant. The roots are dug with an intact ball of soil which is then wrapped and tied in burlap and often enclosed in a wire basket. For large specimen trees, B & B is often the only form available; and with proper planting and aftercare, survival rates are good, particularly for evergreens.
Disadvantages are the size and weight of the root ball can be very difficult to handle; and a high percentage of the roots (up to 95%) may be lost or severed when the tree is dug, so that the plant suffers a longer period of transplant shock, often several years. It is critical with B & B stock to remove all twine, wires, and synthetic burlap at planting; and to find the root flare to ensure it is planted at soil grade.
Container-grown plants are the most readily available form of nursery stock and can be planted throughout the growing season. They are grown in the container, so that all of the roots are present, which is an advantage over B & B, but also a major disadvantage if left too long in the pot, forming circling or girdling roots or root-bound plants. These problems have to be corrected, by loosening and slicing into the root ball from top to bottom, if you want the plant to survive and thrive.
Other advantages of container stock are its lighter weight than B & B, and a better survival rate than bare-root if planted properly. The use of soilless, often peat-based, mix in the pot can be a problem; it is different than the surrounding soil and can be hard to keep moist. As with B & B stock, it is essential to identify the root flare and plant it at soil grade; it is often buried deep within the container mix, which you have to gently remove until you find it.
With nursery stock, bigger is not necessarily better. Smaller trees, by whichever production method they are grown, overcome transplant shock and establish new roots in surrounding soil much better and faster than larger trees; so much so they will outgrow and overtake in size a larger tree still suffering from transplant shock several years after planting.
Ed Gilman, University of Florida professor, states that “Planting and establishing trees is all about managing air and moisture in the soil.” Take the time to correct root defects at planting; make sure the root flare is at soil grade; and water properly as needed for several months or longer, for a plant that will return your investment with a long life of grace and beauty.