How to Avoid BEING CLIPPED by a Tree Trimmer

By Steve Sandfort and Edwin C. Butcher

Steve Sandfort is a registered forester, and urban forest manager for the City of Cincinnati, Ohio. Edwin C. Butcher is president of Madison Tree Service, Inc. in Cincinnati.

You hear a knock on the door. The person standing there explains that his tree company is in the neighborhood and he noticed a problem with your tree. He says he does good work at a low price. He might even produce a business card saying "Fully Insured." Should you have him work on your trees? If so, both you and your trees stand a very good chance of getting the clipping of your lives.

According to numerous studies, your landscaping, especially trees, contributes up to 20 per cent of your property value. Your trees are valuable and deserve all the professional care you can provide. Before you pay a fly-by-night tree service to mutilate your trees, you would be dollars ahead paying a real professional tree service. Remember, you get what you pay for!

Selecting a professional tree service can be difficult. Here in Cincinnati, the Yellow Pages list about 65 companies doing tree work, and there probably are that many more unlisted, but cruising the area. As a general guide, reputable tree service companies do not solicit business door to door. They stay too busy with repeat business or recommendations from satisfied clients. In our city the well established professional companies all report about a six-week backlog in the summer and two weeks in the winter, emergencies excluded.

Suppose you see problems developing in one of your trees. How do you choose a tree service that will do the best possible job? First, ask friends or neighbors to recommend one based on their experience. If they cannot suggest a company, look under Tree Services in your Yellow Pages. Some cities have a local or state Arborist's Association you can call for recommendations. Usually only the best firms are members of this. The National Arborist Association is another organization allowing membership only to qualified and proven ethical companies whose work has passed the scrutiny of fellow companies. This association works at national and state levels to establish professional standards, and develops home study courses for employees of tree service companies.

Finally, there is an International Society of Arboriculture open to persons professionally engaged in tree work. It coordinates a network of state chapters, which sponsor training sessions for those interested in professional tree care. The insignia of any of these organizations in their advertising or listings should steer you toward good workmanship.

As with members of any profession, there may be disagreements about what is wrong and what to do about it. If a lot of money is involved or the tree in question is very valuable, it pays to get a second or third opinion from other tree service companies, or from a professional tree consultant. There are members of the American Society of Consulting Arborists who do not sell or perform any actual tree service work, but for a nominal fee will advise you about a problem. Sometimes professional city foresters, utility foresters or other professionals do consulting in their spare time. They can provide you with an unbiased opinion.

Reputable companies provide all types of tree care in addition to pruning and removal -- fertilizing, installing cables and braces, lightning protection, applying pesticides. Their efforts are always directed toward saving the tree, with removal only a last resort. If the tree is alive but dangerous because of uncorrectable root rot or a structural problem such as a large hollow or a split, they will recommend removal to protect life and property. If the problem is not serious and needs no treatment, they will tell you.

Rarely do reputable companies recommend or perform topping of trees. Only if the tree has suffered drastic damage to its form, such as from a tornado, would a professional recommend topping (also called pollarding or stubbing off). Any company that advertises topping or suggests doing it to your tree should get no further consideration.

The routine topping practiced by some in the tree service industry often results ultimately in the death of trees or large branches that cannot ever callus over the extensive wounds. The large stubs begin to rot while small sucker sprouts begin to grow around the edges. These sprouts are only weakly attached to the recent wood, and as rot spreads the weakened wood can no longer support their weight.

Another thing a good company will never do is let their employees use boot spikes (gaffs) to climb a tree that is to remain in the landscape. If you see a tree worker wearing gaffs to get around over a tree to prune it, call him off and disallow that firm any more of your business.

Insurance Considerations

Tree work is dangerous. Check to be sure the company you hire has a valid certificate of insurance and state workman's compensation. The certificate of insurance proves there will be coverage in the event of any damage to your property. Get the name of their insurance carrier and phone them before work starts to be sure the insurance has not been cancelled.

State workman's compensation pays medical and disability costs of any employee injured on the job. In some states, if an injured employee of a non-covered company cannot get enough money from his employer to pay medical bills, the worker can turn to the property owner for compensation. Your own homeowners insurance may not cover it. The company you select should not mind providing you with a copy of its certificates of workman's compensation and of its liability insurance. Do not rely on the "fully insured" business card or line in the Yellow Page advertisement.

It's true, the itinerant tree trimmers are likely to quote you a cheaper price than the reputable company. The essential insurance is very expensive. It costs over $100,000 to hire, equip, train and insure a three-man crew. It is wise to get more than one estimate. At the same time, do not expect companies to engage in a bidding war. Most have established hourly rates, and their estimates are based on them.

Finally, when you settle on a firm to do the work, get all the promises in writing. Professional companies will submit a written proposal stating when the work will begin, what is to be done, the extent of clean-up afterward, date the work will be finished, and total dollar amount you will be charged. Never pay in advance. All good companies will bill you.

Good Ways to Economize

Schedule tree work for fall and winter if possible. Except for spraying, most tree work can be done as well in winter as in summer, and often the companies offer slightly better rates then to encourage slow season work for their employees.

It is a good idea for neighbors to cooperate in getting tree work done. If several in a neighborhood have been thinking about having it, they could get bids from several reputable companies for all the neighborhood work at the same time. By avoiding the need to have several costly calls made to the same neighborhood, the cooperative idea might save as much as 10 to 15 per cent.