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Saplings are items that can be used to grow non-fruit trees. They can be bought from Tom Nook's Store, or the Gardening Store in New Leaf. They cost 80 Bells. They can be bought in both oak or pine varieties, which will grow into oak and pine trees respectively over the course of three days. They can be planted by selecting them in the inventory.
At the beginning of the game in all games prior to New Leaf, Tom Nook's tutorial job includes planting saplings around the store supposedly to attract more customers. These can in fact be planted anywhere in town.
Saplings cannot be planted in any space that is covered in cement, bricks, patterns, or directly in front of the door to any building. Saplings can be planted in any other full square, but they will not successfully grow if planted directly next to a building, river, rock, bridge, cliff, ocean, or another tree. In addition, in all games exist certain spaces in which a sapling will never grow into a tree. If a sapling ever dies in a space when it would be acceptable to grow, all saplings will always die in that specific spot.
In addition to improving aesthetics and town ratings, in Animal Crossing: New Leaf, they play an important role in obtaining the Golden Axe. After the player has purchased 50 Cedar and/or Oak saplings, Leif will thank the player for their dedication to gardening with the tool.