Buying: trees and shrubs

Buying a new tree or shrub can be very exciting, but also confusing.Whether buying a bare-root, rootballed or containerised plant, it is important to consider factors such as size, root and canopy health, suitability for the garden and retailer guarantees.

Trees in containers, ready for planting.

Quick facts

Suitable for: all trees and shrubs
Timing: Autumn to late winter for bare-root plants; year-round for containerised trees and shrubs
Difficulty: Easy

Suitable for...

Follow these guidelines when buying any tree or shrub, no matter how big or small, deciduous (losing their leaves in winter) or evergreen, and bare-root, rootballed or container-grown.


When to buy trees and shrubs

Autumn is a great time to buy and plant a new tree or shrub, as you can choose from container-grown and bare-root plants.

However if pushed for time, you can plant at any time until early spring as long as the soil is dry enough to work (if it sticks to your boots or tools it is too wet).

Container-grown trees and shrubs can be planted at more or less any time of year, but need thorough, regular watering after planting to ensure good establishment. If planted in spring or summer it can be very challenging to keep them alive during hot, dry spells.

How to buy trees and shrubs

Selecting and buying a tree or shrub is not always straightforward. The following are some appropriate points to consider.

  • Decide on your requirements before going to the nursery or garden centre: what final size are you looking for, is the tree or shrub to be deciduous or evergreen, single or multi-stemmed, vigorous or slow growing?
  • Examine your site conditions: is the soil dry or moist, rich or poor, in a sunny or shaded position? 
  • If buying specimen trees, check the practicality of bringing a large tree into the garden; confirm access and proximity to drainage channels
  • Decide between a bare-root or container-grown plant; bare-root plants are cheaper but only available in autumn and winter, while container-grown plants are more expensive and available all year around. Rootballed plants are halfway between the two: field grown but lifted and the roots tightly wrapped in fabric, usually hessian. Hedging plants and specimen trees are often sold rootballed
  • Beware root girdling of containerised trees and shrubs, or dead fibrous roots, indicating poor irrigation. For bare-root trees, avoid those with main roots that are torn, split, or stripped of fibrous growth
  • Don’t be shy about checking the roots of container-grown plants. Although it is unreasonable to look at the roots of every plant, checking those you intend to buy is acceptable. Ask the garden centre staff for help in the case of large trees
  • Never accept any tree or shrub where there are signs of pests, diseases, wounds to bark, dead or distorted foliage and especially uncovered or dry roots
  • Avoid buying trees with weak, flimsy stems that depend upon a long cane to keep them upright. Trees should be robust enough to be planted with just a stake, see our guide to staking trees.  
  • Check your guarantees. These may be limited and further reduced if you do not pay for an additional planting service. You may be required to follow specific planting instructions if you are not to invalidate guarantees
  • Never carry trees on roof racks or in open trailers unless they are wrapped in polythene sheet, the fast moving air quickly harms them
  • Plant as soon as possible once you get your purchase home


As long as the plants you buy are healthy, there should be relatively few problems afterwards. However, there are a few things to watch out for, including brown or ailing leaves.

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The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.