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Trees: A buyers guide to tree nurseries

Published on September 2nd 2021

by Going.Local. All rights reserved

A plant in a garden
Buying a tree can be one of the most rewarding things you can do for your garden. Large trees are as important as hard landscaping when it comes to garden design because the garden will have to change with the tree.
Luckily, we are spoilt for choice as South Africa has everything from bonsai to mature tree nurseries in abundance. We supply you with a list of suppliers and a buyers guide to help you choose the best option.
A tree in a forest

What type of tree do you want?

It can be daunting selecting a tree, considering the multitude of trees that are on the market. Sometimes asking yourself a few questions at the get will save you money down the line. Here is a list that has helped many gardeners along the way.
Standard questions:
  • Do I want flowers?
A large Paulownia tomentosa tree in a park

Flowering trees

  • Do I like trees that lose all their leaves?
All trees lose leaves. Some do it all at once (deciduous), while others may lose them throughout the year or when new growth emerges.
  • Do I want a tree in a small space, container, near a swimming pool or wall?
Some trees do better in containers than others. The roots can be invasive and should be taken into account near water pipes, features and walls.
  • Do I want to shade out a large portion of my garden?
Canopy size or shape may shade a good portion of the garden or none at all. As the tree ages, so your garden will shift from full sun to shade.
A green plant growing out of a tree
Broad canopy trees will often bare flowers on the outside, away from view. You will be looking at the under canopy.
  • Do I want multiple different species? Maybe a mini-forest?
If you choose trees that grow at vastly different rates, one might choke out the sun resulting in stunted growth for other species of trees growing in odd directions to reach the sunlight.
  • Do I want a fast-growing species or rather a mature, slow-growing species?
You can get away cheaper with fast-growing species, but you do not have to wait ten years if you want a big tree.
Know your garden:
  • Do I have a full sun, semi-shade spot?
  • Do you have frost in winter? Temperature below -6C?
  • Do you have enough water? (Planting trees from your region will make this easier.)
Less common questions:
  • Do I want to create a topiary?
  • Do I want a hedge?
Some shrubs form a more compact structure and may suit your needs better than a tree.
A close up of a plant

How fast do trees grow?

Growth rate is by and far the most commonly asked question when it comes to buying young trees. As a customer, you want to know if you will be waiting a good portion of the next decade before having a majestic tree. Now, of course, the way you treat your tree affects this. How well you prepare the soil, water availability, exposure to frost/wind and sunlight can all stunt the growth. Given optimal conditions you may expect the following:
Growth rate:
  • Fast growth: 80 cm/year
  • Medium growth: 40 cm/year
  • Slow growth: 10 cm/year
Canopy size:
  • Large canopy: 30m across
  • Medium canopy: 15m
  • Small canopy: 3m
*Reference for sizes & growth rates: Evergreen, fast-growing indigenous trees
A close up of a tree
African hemp is a good example of a leafy, flowering, small canopy tree.
Dr Piet Stoker (PhD) wrote a comprehensive article on evergreen, fast-growing indigenous trees that is a must-read for any new buyer. It categorizes trees based on growing zones, size, growth rate and leaf litter.
What I will add to or stress in terms of his notes, is the importance of your specific minimum temperatures in selecting a tree. 2021 broke 19 low-temperature records, with Johannesburg, Kimberley, Bronkhorstspruit, Kroonstad and Orania dipping below -6C. Trees may appear to survive a cold spell, but the cellular damage will set them back in terms of growth. Choosing a tree that will withstand the dips in temperature may serve you well in the years to come.
For up to date information on your region's temperature minimum see last year's South African Weather Service annual report.
A large tree in a forest

Where to buy?

Here is a standard list of Specialised Tree nurseries that supply mature (250L and up), young (20-200L) and young saplings/bonsai (up to 20L). Remember that wholesale tree nurseries supply many of your average garden centers and that it is possible (in most cases) to request a particular tree. They might be able to source it for you. I have also included National Park nurseries, but I have to note that several botanical gardens stock indigenous trees (to your region).
Mature Trees (250L<)
Young Trees (20-200L)
Habitat Tree Nursery Service area: Wide, including International clients
Bonsai/Sapling (<20L)
National Park Nurseries
Skukuza Indigenous tree nursery Location: Skukuza, Kruger National Park
Diepwalle Indigenous Tree Nursery Location: Diepwalle forest camp site, Knysna lakes section of Garden Route National Park

If your local nursery stocks a large assortment of trees, please share it in the comments below!

A close up of a fruit tree

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