Network of Quality Trees

Network is a 1976 American satirical black comedy-drama film about a fictional television network, UBS, and its struggle with poor ratings. The film won four Academy Awards and in 2000, was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” ( The movie has one of the greatest quotes I know of, “in one impassioned diatribe, Beale galvanizes the nation, persuading his viewers to shout out of their windows “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”( Howard Beale’s frustration with life has me and others in the “Green Industry” relate his comedic line to our frustration with the lack of appreciation for quality plant material in the industry.  The gardening industry, like so many others today, seems to be driven by price first.

Recently my good friend, mentor and horticultural demigod, Stephen Schuckman introduced me to a study done by Edward F. Gilman, professor of Environmental Horticulture Department IFAS University of Florida. A fascinating study, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services speaks directly to the Grades and Standards for Nursery Plants. In 1955, a standard for plant material was passed and in 1965 the first edition printed helped articulate a more accurate dialogue between the buyer and seller. In 1998, a second edition was set up and a 10-step process for tree evaluation was in place. Speaking directly to the tree quality at planting time and its impact on the longevity in the landscape, four grades exist for nursery plants in Florida. They include, Florida Fancy, Florida #1, Florida #2 and Cull. Characteristics like trunk, branching, crown, leaf and roots are all thoughtfully looked at so communities can help prevent future problems that most likely will occur. Florida Fancy trees have a single trunk with no flush cuts or open injuries; a crown of full foliage and the root ball is appropriately sized. Florida #1 requires some pruning to develop good structure, has minor injuries and a double leader in the top half of the tree. Problems are evident but can be corrected by pruning once or twice within the first few years after planting. Florida #2 speaks to misshapen trees and those requiring major corrective pruning while Cull grade discusses defects that are not correctable. These trees lack vigor, have circling roots, open wounds, flush cuts and or a loose root ball. The study goes on in detail about the trunk of a tree and appreciating ones that are straight, less than a 5° bow, while pointing out character flaws like forks in the lower half of the tree, doglegs and bows greater than 15°.

Other considerations include the appropriate tree matrix, trunk caliper, crown spread, structural uniformity of the crown, downgrading factors and the trees roots. The caliper of a tree is determined by measuring the trunk diameter 6 inches from the ground, for trees up to 4-inch caliper, and 12 inches from the ground for larger trees. This is important to note as it directly relates to the age of a particular tree. The structural uniformity, for a near perfect tree, is described as branches evenly distributed around the trunk with no major branch located directly above another. The crown is full of foliage and gives the appearance of what most expect a full tree to look like. The antithesis to this would be branches that are not evenly distributed around the trunk, perhaps having several branches on the same side, giving a lopsided appearance with large voids. Root-bound plants are those with large roots growing around the outer edge of the root ball and those would be downgraded and dismissed by many nursery professionals. Roots larger than ¼” diameter, growing on the outer edge, qualify as root bound. Trees with a disproportionate height matrix, there is a minimum and maximum tree height for each caliper size of tree, are downgraded and will have marks against them.

In short, I’m sure most of you reading this article have a predisposed vision of what a near perfect tree or plant looks like. However, somewhere along the way price enters into the equation and sacrifices are made. Things like open wounds, poorly executed pruning, chlorotic foliage, stunted foliage, structural issues such as major branching touching, are all important, noteworthy and contribute to a trees long term performance. After all, “the bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten”-Benjamin Franklin.