Buying True Container Grown ® vs Bareroot or Balled and Burlapped Trees and Shrubs.

Unless you are planning to start a tree or shrub from seed you are left with buying one of three basic products in the nursery industry: bareroot, container grown or balled and burlapped trees and shrubs. Each product has inherent positive and negative aspects and this information is an attempt to explain the differences between them. At Riverside Native Trees we grow True Container Grown ® trees and shrubs in special root pruning containers only.  This is a very different growing system than plants produced in smooth sided containers. Based on extensive research we believe that buying True Container Grown ® trees and shrubs offer the best chance for survival and growth.

True Container Grown Trees ® at Riverside Native Trees

potsOur production system uses specially patented pots to air root prune the trees and shrubs as they are growing. This has the benefit of creating additional roots within the pot which increases the plant’s ability to absorb water and nutrition. In essence, by using specially designed containers the roots are directed to grow through holes in the side of the  container. When the growing root tip extends just a few millimeters through the hole it is dried out by the air causing branching of the root back through the pot towards the trunk. The effect of all this air root pruning is to create a great mass of roots instead of a single tap root. Oaks are notorious for being hard to transplant because of that tap root.   If the taproot is damaged or cut during transplanting there is not much root left to support the tree and, commonly, it dies.  When the nursery was started in 2005 we decided air root pruning gave the greatest chance for successful tree and shrub transplantation. Our first priority has always been to develop a substantial root system first and when that has been accomplished the canopy of the tree cannot help but grow well.

Trees and shrubs grown in smooth sided containers can become pot-bound if they are allowed to grow too long in their containers. This can reduce their ability to grow and limits their overall lifespan.  As roots grow outward they encounter the plastic and turn, beginning to circle around the inside of the pot. You’ve probably seen pot-bound houseplants; tree and shrub roots growing in smooth sided containers behave in the same manner.  The difference is that tree roots continue to grow in diameter as the tree gets older.  Those circling roots get increasingly thicker and in time will strangle each other, killing the root and perhaps the tree.   It is important to note that simply planting a pot-bound tree will not solve the problem. Those roots will never unwind.  The only way to fix this is to prune the roots.  Remove the tree from the pot, stand the tree up and cut the roots down the side where they were against the inside of the container.  Cut them at 4, 8, and 12 o’clock around the root ball about 1″ deep.  Now it can be planted, but be forewarned:  You have just cut back the root system and the tree should get additional water during the first growing season.  This can be a lethal shock to the tree but it is better to try and correct it now rather than have it grow poorly for 5 to 10 years only to have it die later.  Buying True Container Grown trees and shrubs from Riverside Native Trees and Nursery can eliminate this problem.

True Container Grown Summary

Advantages: Roots can be modified during production to produce a better quality, large mass root. You get all the roots the tree ever grew.  Small containers are easy to plant and transplant shock is reduced or eliminated.
Disadvantage: Plant can sometimes become potbound but much less as compared to growing in smooth sided containers.  If it does occur it can be easily fixed at planting time while not shocking the plant.

Bareroot Plants

Bareroot plants are grown either in a greenhouse or field and are harvested and stored until they are planted again.  A large cutting blade is dragged under the tree at a certain depth to cut the roots and the trees are removed from the field.  Any remaining soil is removed from the roots and they are left bare.  Midwest nurseries generally plant bareroot material in the spring of the following year which necessitates storing the barerooted trees without soil for four to six months in a climate controlled warehouse.

Barerooting is destructive to a plant, plain and simple. Roots are delicate structures which, if damaged, severely restrict the ability of the plant to take up water and nutrition. Each root has very fine root hairs that act to increase the surface area of the roots. These structures are little more than single cell filaments and are extremely fragile.  Root hairs are tasked with absorbing the majority of the water the tree or shrub needs every day and when they are gone it takes a while to grow them back.  If they dry out they will not recover and the root has lost its absorptive ability.   The tree may even die before they have a chance to grow back.  Aside from absorbing water roots also store the nutrients needed to grow the first flush of growth in the spring.  As these roots are removed during the bare root process the tree has lost valuable nutrition and water absorption capacity which will not support good growth in the spring.

Big box stores often sell large trees in containers in the spring.  These are the trees that were harvested last fall and spent the winter in a warehouse barerooted.  They are trucked across the country to a nursery that puts them in a pot and fills the pot with mulch and are sold as a “container grown” tree.  These are not container grown plants.  These trees may initially grow rapidly on the few roots they have but they are quickly water stressed.  Assuming they survive that, they can become pot-bound within a few months.  When stores start to put them on sale in mid summer they are often pot-bound and unless you root prune them as indicated above they will not perform well in your landscape.  Pull the tree out of the pot and look the roots over before you buy it.  Check to see if it is pot-bound.   It’s no different than kicking the tires on a car prior to purchase!

Barerooting Summary

Advantages: Inexpensive to produce and ship
Disadvantages: Extensive root damage during harvest, storage and transport.  Often poor survival rates.

Balled and Burlapped Trees

At first glance balled and burlapped trees seem like reasonable way to grow a tree. A large tree with an even larger volume of soil presumably packed with roots…what could be wrong with that? Well plenty, unfortunately. First of all, most of the roots are not in that ball of soil, they are still back at the nursery.  Research suggests that upwards of 90% of the roots are left back in the nursery. With so little root mass remaining in the root ball, growth is stifled for the first few years. This is called transplant shock.  There’s even a rule of thumb for this in the nursery industry: for every inch of caliper, expect that same number of years of reduced or zero growth due to transplant shock.   So if you purchase a 3″ caliper tree you can expect it to grow very slowly until it regrows its roots which will take about 3 years.  These trees also have a characteristic appearance at least for the first few years after they are planted.   Leaves are only found along the main, heavy branches because the newest branches have died back. If the tree survives new ones will be regrown, but that will take time. Further, transplant shock in balled and burlapped trees can be so severe that the tree never recovers and dies. It may even take two or more years for the tree to die which generally exceeds any warranty. True Container Grown ® trees fare much better after transplant because of the better quality and quantity of roots associated with our production system.

When you compare the growth of a  3″ caliper balled and burlapped tree with one of our 5′-6′ True Container Grown ® trees, they can be grown to the same size in only 5 years.  With the information contained in this website you can fertilize, stake if needed and prune as necessary to grow them into large trees in 5 years.  When you consider that a single 3″ caliper tree can cost $300, and installation another $200 it’s easy to put hundreds of dollars into a single tree that might not survive.   A better value for your money would be to buy our 5-6′ True Container Grown ® trees at approximately $20 each, maintain them as indicated here and grow them into a young forest in just a few years.    They’ll have better roots, trunks, branching structure and canopy if you grow them this way.  We have test trees planted in our nursery so you can see how large they can grow if treated properly.

Balled and Burlapped Tree Summary

Advantages: Instant shade
Disadvantages: Heavy and difficult to handle if large. Reduced root mass resulting in transplant shock that will last for years if it survives.