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Tackling Tricky Tree Issues

When the job's too big for you, who do you call?

What was she thinking?

My sister Amy, normally the coolest of customers, slipped up a few years back when an ice storm snapped the tops off some of the tall pines in her backyard in Chapel Hill, N.C. Although one 75-foot tree was alive, it was teetering.

That's when the "random truck filled with guys" happened by. "They asked me how much I would pay for them to take the tree down and then offered to do it for $150," she remembers. "I said 'Okay' because I'd already checked a few places in town that would probably charge much more than that."

Then they said, "We need cash," which she paid. She wasn't around to see how they took down the tree, but they left a huge stump and instead of carrying off the branches and logs as promised, they dragged them just far enough into the backyard that they wouldn't be seen from the house, and took off.

"I basically had to start all over again to get the stump taken out and the brush carried off," she remembers. "I guess I'm just lucky they didn't drop the tree on the house."

Amy's is one side of the tree-care story. My friend Susan in Knoxville, Tenn., took issue with a company on the other end of the spectrum. "We asked a tree company to look over a few mature trees and advise us," she told me. "They wanted us to pay them $150 a month just to come out and feed them."

Somewhere between those two extremes--hiring ne'er-do-wells and paying for Rockefeller-quality care--is a place for an arborist, a professional who cares for trees and other woody plants with tasks ranging from treating diseases to pruning to occasionally removing entire trees. But first, what can you tackle yourself?

You can probably cut lighter branches yourself with a pole pruner, says Bob Rouse, director of accreditation for the Tree Care Industry Association (TCIA). "It won't let you cut branches wider than about 1-1/2 inches in diameter, so you don't have to worry about dropping big branches on anyone or the weight of the branch stripping a large patch of bark. It takes an awful long time for a wound like that to close and it allows decay and deterioration into the trunk."

You may also be able to take out a branch or two of a larger tree with a hand saw, sturdy step ladder and a friend to hold it steady. "But it doesn't take a very big tree to get hurt," says David Nowlin, agricultural extension educator for Caddo County, Okla. "If a tree has more than a 7-inch diameter trunk, I'd say get some help."

Rouse also warns against using a chain or pole saw for a job over your head or climbing to work on a tree. "The pros use approved ropes and a harness or an area lift vehicle," he says. "If it's a hazardous tree, even an arborist will call in a crane rather than attempt it."

And if you decide to hire an arborist? That's when you should start really being careful, says Rouse. "Tree care and arboriculture seem to attract a lot of people with a pick-up truck and chain saw but without experience."

He and other tree care experts give this advice for arboriculture consumers:

  • Don't fall for the door-to-door approach. "The ones just trying to make a quick buck will say, 'I'll take that tree down for $800,'" says Nowlin. "Then when you say, 'That's outrageous!', they'll come back with, 'Okay, I'll do it for $100.' A certified professional is not going to peddle his services door to door, so run off the ones that come to you." Also keep in mind that a qualified arborist will spend some time trying to help you decide if you want to try to nurse a diseased tree, not immediately assume that a sick or tall tree needs to come down.

  • Beware of any practices that aren't industry standard. The most obvious tip-off that a wannabe arborist is really a hack is talk of "tree topping." That's just another phrase for cutting the branches back severely from the top, which is unattractive, destroys the branch structure and gives multiple points of entry for wood decay organisms. Another no-no: "Lion's tailing," or stripping the inside branches and leaving just the ends to resemble, yes, a lion's tail. While that might be fine for a boxwood topiary, on mature trees it's just a form of over-pruning that weakens branches, encourages weak-wood watersprouts and exposes the inner portion of the tree to sunburn. And if your potential arborist intends to use climbing spikes, spike the offer--unless the whole tree is coming down, spikes will wound the tree.

  • Look for accreditation. There are "locators" on the Tree Care Industry Association and International Society of Arboriculture websites to help you find a qualified arborist in your area. Or just ask if an arborist is certified by the International Society of Arboriculture or by a local certifying body such as a state arborist association. Certification is voluntary, so it's not a guarantee. "But it does indicate an arborist has safety training and is up on the latest practices, and knows current recommendations on things like the percentage of a certain type of tree that should be cut at one time," says Nowlin of the Caddo County, Okla. extension service. "If you cut off too much, about 40 percent of the time the tree will die, which is why we have a law against 'butchering' trees in Oklahoma."

  • Demand insurance. Always ask for proof that a company has business insurance that will cover any accidents on your property, says Luana Vargas, educational development manager for the International Association of Arboriculture in Champaign, Ill. "Otherwise the homeowner is liable for any accidents on the property, and homeowner's insurance will not cover it."

    "I would ask any arborist directly if he's got proof of insurance, is familiar with the ANSI A-300 standards, which cover pruning, and if he's certified," says Chip Murrow, community forest assistant for the Nebraska Forest Service. "And they have to show you the proof, not just tell you they have it."

    Stories like this one from TCIA's Rouse abound: "I personally dealt with a case where a would-be arborist was hired to take a tree down and it went in the wrong direction and fell on the house. When that happened, he and his assistant got in their truck and left and were never seen again."

  • Do the drill. Make sure to get references, check for a business license if it's required in your area (City Hall will know), get estimates in writing and insist on a signed contract regarding cost, dates when work is to be performed and precisely what will be done.

  • Expect to pay a fair fee. There's not a handy guide to local prices, and quality care varies according to the size of the job, the risk of the job and even the cost of living in your area of the country. To protect yourself, get three bids from reputable arborists, which should be free unless you require a report of some sort. "A professional arboriculture service pays very high insurance rates and such equipment as chippers and air lifts are also costly," says Rouse. "If someone offers you a price that's too good to be true, it probably is."

    And remember, you're getting a return on that investment. "Mature trees can add 15-25 percent to the value of your property, depending on their location," says Rouse. "If you were managing another asset--stock, mutual fund, a portfolio--you might hire an expert to avoid a lot of pitfalls and increase its worth. It's the same with hiring an arborist."

    But he can think of an instance when the investment won't pay. "I was hired many times to attempt a cat rescue. Oftentimes, as you try to climb up and save the cat, it jumps down on its own."

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