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Got Trees? Tree Availability in the Southeast United States


Remember back to the market crash of 2008-2009? At that time, everyone from the liner producer to the finishing grower had to make very hard, but strategic choices to destroy large amounts of nursery stock. It got so bad, that plants were selling for less than the cost of harvesting them. Folks could not even give them away, because there was still a cost to getting them out of the ground.

Well, we are reminding you of that crash now, because as the housing and financial markets have rebounded so has the need for plant material- particularly trees. We’re not telling you something you do not already know. But what you may not realize is that we are in the midst of a serious shortage of plants. A shortage that is likely to go on for many, many years. The bottom line- certain items and quantities are simply impossible to find at any price. Many nurseries are completely out of many plant species or have such low inventories that they cannot fill large orders. This leaves many buyers in a tough spot.

What does that mean to you? First, prices are naturally higher- maybe by as much as 50% on average. Because nurseries are selling their inventories sooner than they would like, smaller plant specifications are necessary. According to Timothee Sallin – President, Cherry Lake Tree Farm, during the oversupply, materials were held much longer than their typical ready date that allowed trees to add size. This resulted in what Mr. Sallin referred to as “spec buster” items such as 14’ tall 30-gallon bald cypress. Buyers have come to expect these larger plant materials. Now, however, the reality is quite different. Plants are shipped earlier, and may even be below industry standard minimums. Basically, according the Mr. Sallin, “the price is high, the specifications are small, and in many cases the material is simply not available at all”. This can cause serious issues for landscape contractors, in particular. For example, if a contractor bids for larger size containers to meet a height specification for a shrub, they will likely lose the job in a competitive bid situation. Or, they purchase the smaller container material, that doesn’t match the specification, and may get rejected at inspection.

There are many possible approaches to these shortages. City foresters will likely choose trees 1½” to 1¾” caliper trees, because they establish quickly and are easy to manage during installation. Another option, that may appeal more to landscape architects and large landscape contracts, is to go big- 4-4½” to over 6” caliper. These sizes are great for an immediate impact, but will take longer to establish in the site (thus subjected to possible stressors for longer periods) and require larger equipment to handle. However, having an option to use larger-caliper trees over the “zero” tree option, you just may have to Go For It! One other option is to use bare root trees, but this possibility also offers numerous obstacles. As many of you know, bare root trees are not available in as many species or size options, have a limited seasonal availability, and typically require immediate planting.

Writing sound specifications that are realistic to availability and how plants grow is key to getting what will work.  In addition, you can go ahead and plan for the future. Pre-tag for next year’s projects and hold with a deposit. This may mean tagging a young (or undersized tree) crop (maybe an inch smaller than you really want). Recognize it will cost more when they are dug later. Another option is to put a deposit on a quantity and a size, but go in to the nursery and tag the trees within one year of digging.

With every challenge though, comes opportunity. Urban foresters, landscape architects, landscape contractors, and anyone else who needs trees can take this chance to meet their local nursery growers (if you don’t already know them, that is). These folks know their stuff! They will help you find trees, guide you when you can’t, and can help you plan for the future. Ever thought of contract growing or planning your planting projects out 1-2 years ahead? You may not have considered this in the past, but may need to consider it now. Before you finalize any plan, contact some local growers to see if they have what you want.

Maybe you need to fulfill plant needs for a contract that has already bid out? Then you need to be flexible not only on size, but also on species. You may need to accept park-grade trees. As a note here, quality growers do not really want to sell you these trees for street trees, but they could be used for buffers or reforestation, or in low impact areas. A park grade tree can be considered a place holder, so it is better than no tree where you absolutely must HAVE a tree. They want to sell you their best stock, because they want you and others to keep coming back for more. Know, though, that if you HAVE TO HAVE IT you will need to address canopy and root issues that are what typically qualify trees as “park-grade”. Current arboricultural practices encourage some pruning at planting as a standard now, especially if you do not expect to get back to train the trees within the next 3 or so years. Take care of serious structural and root issues at planting so they do not become a bigger issue in the future.

These shortages are complex and affect everyone in the landscape development process. We must all increase our understanding of the market, adjust expectations, and educate our clients to the new reality. It is likely we will not readily get back to the days where 2-2½” caliper trees are available like candy, but there are ways to handle the challenges, as long as you are open to opportunity. Do what you can to plan ahead, be flexible on planting stock type, species, and sizes. Most importantly, work with your local nurseries. They can help!

Written by Barbara Fair, NCSU Landscape Extension Specialist, PhD, Certified Arborist

Danny VanDevender, NC Licensed Landscape Contractor and CEO Landscape Design and Jericho Farms Nursery