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Wheeler: Tips to pick healthy plants at garden center
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Now is one of the better times to plant new additions to our landscapes. Planting now gives trees and shrubs a better chance of getting established before the heat of summer hits like a ton of bricks.

Whether you need a new shade tree to cool the patio or replace a diseased shrub in the planting island of your front yard, always begin with a good solid plan and a list of plants needed. Selecting quality plants from the garden center will improve your success and the growth of trees and shrubs.

Quality plants at the garden center will have healthy roots, stems and leaves. Close examination of the plants is necessary to assure high quality. One of the least visible parts of a tree or shrub is the root system; however, it is extremely important.

The root system should be in balance with the top. Plants with a large, heavy top and a small root ball will establish slowly with spring planting. The limited root system must supply water and nutrients to lots of leaves on the branches.

Balled and burlapped trees should be balanced as well. Each inch of trunk caliper measured 6 inches above the soil should yield 10-12 inches of root ball diameter. That said, a 2«-inch caliper tree should have a 25- to 30-inch root ball.

Here are some more tips:

• Don’t forget to check the roots: Simply remove the plant from the pot and examine the roots on the surface of the soil mix. White healthy root tips are desirable. Avoid brown or black roots, which are soft and do not carry water and nutrients to the rest of the plant. A plant with lots of white roots means many roots are ready to grow in the landscape when transplanted.

• Look at the branches: Look at the form of trees and shrubs to avoid future problems. A well-formed shade tree will have a strong central leader or trunk with horizontal scaffold branches arranged every 12 to 18 inches up the tree. Shrubs should be uniformly branched in all directions and fairly dense. Avoid leggy shrubs, which have no lower branches. This leggy habit means these shrubs will likely remain bare at their base.

• Look at growth potential: The amount of growth a tree or shrub made in the last season indicates the vigor of the plant. Very short, thin twigs are a sign of a struggling plant with low vigor. Evergreen trees and shrubs with abundant foliage indicate last year’s growth and vigor.

• Pests: As you are looking at the selection, do not forget to be on the lookout for disease and insect problems. Look at the stems and under the foliage to see if any insects are there. Be careful not to bring home a problem to your landscape.

• Also look for broken or damaged branches or trunks. This would clue you in to how the plants were shipped and handled, which would just stress the plants making them harder to establish.

Be an educated consumer this spring as you add color and interest to your landscape. Demand top quality and you will be rewarded with a nice addition that will last several years.

Michael Wheeler is county extension coordinator for the UGA Cooperative Extension in Hall County. You can contact him at 770-535-8293. His column appears weekly and on gainesvilletimes.com/life.

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