What Size Container Stock Should I Plant in my Landscape?

Bigger Plants Are Not Always Better

Because we are coming upon the best planting season of the year, fall, let’s talk about container plant sizes. Plant material comes in a range of container sizes, 1, 5 or 15 gallon, 24″, 36″ 48″ boxes and up, and some species come bare root in the winter.

The natural human instinct of instant gratification leads many clients to ask for larger sized container plant stock at initial installation. I can see why, you get an instant landscape without the wait. Many think, why plant a small tree when I can just get a more mature one installed without having to wait for it to grow?

For sites I consult on, I encourage clients to use the smallest container size possible. Here’s why…

  1. Establishes a supportive root system in native soil early on. Plant roots will leave the initial planting hole and seek water and nutrients in their permanent environment a lot faster and more efficiently from a smaller sized container.
  2. Research has shown that plants and trees from smaller container stock establish quicker and their growth outpaces larger container stock in a matter of 2-3 years.
  3. Less foreign material (potting soil) which is of different texture and moisture holding capacity than native soil.
  4. Less root circling and girdling from growing in a container for too long. These common maladies of container stock often spell a slow, painful decline and eventual death of the plant or tree.
  5. Easy to inspect the root systems in order to accept or reject the plants selected.
  6. Pruning and training plants and trees from a young age to develop a strong form, structure and shape. Nursery pruning of container stock often leads to growth defects and necessitates corrective or restorative pruning.
  7. Initial installation costs are much lower. Plant replacement cost years down the road are much lower from decline and death. And who does not like to save money in both the short and long term?

I have inspected many sites where I can just pull out the plant from the ground, where the roots never left the planting hole. Or sites where the tree just wiggles back and forth in the planting hole, with no structural or supportive roots venturing out into the native soil. These were all plants of large initial container size.

On the other hand, I have also planted bare root and 1 or 5 gallon trees and their growth 3 years after planting is far superior to any larger plant.

So, choose your species wisely to match the soil conditions of your site and plant the smallest plant possible. Be patient, your efforts will be rewarded with healthy, aesthetically pleasing and well shaped landscape trees and shrubs!

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