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This morning I was reading a seed catalog.

One of my most knowledgeable readers claims that much of her landscaping and plant knowledge came from reading catalogs.

I looked at horseradish. There were two entries, noting the benefits of each variety, and there was an inset, explaining the “culture” of horseradish. There was, however, no caution that horseradish should be planted in confined areas, even in planters, because as a vigorous root vegetable, it is likely to “escape cultivation.” And, once it is established, if you decide you don’t want to grow it anymore, you must remove every bit of every root, or it will come back. But the catalog omitted mention of this important disclaimer.

The reason I looked for the mention of horseradish’s negative invasive traits is because of a Penn State tree webinar I attended this past week.

The guest was a nurseryman, and I anticipated that because of this, the webinar had the potential to degrade into a mere catalog reading. The webinar targeted municipal tree boards, so it was billed as a basic and practical, but not academic presentation.

In his hour presentation, the nurseryman cautioned only against thorns, fruit, size and urban soil issues. But he steered away from other basic tree characteristics that impact the maintenance requirements of the trees: Suckering habits, decay resistance, branch attachment, dieback and adaptability to pruning.

In my opinion, tree board members need experts to provide an “owners’-manual-perspective” for select tree species, rather than endless distinctions among cultivars of the same species.

This brings us to sales ethics. OK, maybe it’s not an ethical question but a caveat emptor question.

It’s one thing to list the benefits of a product. The expected benefits are why goods are produced in the first place. Arguably, the unintended liabilities of a product are more important than its benefits. If the liabilities outweigh the benefits, the purchase or installation is a step backwards.

If an unwary gardener gets a yard full of horseradish, or if a municipality gets a forest of suckering trees or trees that split under the weight of snow, the result is not just a dissatisfied customer. Instead, the result might be someone who refuses to consider gardening again. There might be a municipality that cuts its budget for tree planting.

So what is the caveat for the emptor, the warning for the buyer?

The warning is that while nearly all products have benefits, some products should be avoided because of their liabilities. While all salespeople are trained to discuss product benefits, only few are aware of or are willing to discuss product liabilities.

In general, Americans have championed the free market. But the burden of the free market falls on the buyer. That doesn’t mean, however, that you and I can’t keep looking for a more conscientious salesperson.

Joshua Arp is an ISA-certified municipal specialist, Clarks Summit’s municipal arborist and an operator of an organic lawn and landscape maintenance business. Reach him at