David Kantner loves trees. Matter of fact, his life’s work as an arborist is a labor of love; he works for the nonprofit, Conestoga House and Gardens in Lancaster, and sits on the board for the Louise Arnold Tanger Arboretum, also in Lancaster. Further, Kantner does some freelance tree work on the side, as his time allows.

“I decided to become a certified arborist because of the accessibility, quality and value of the certification program offered through the International Society of Arboriculture. I also have the desire to learn more about trees and their care,” says Kantner.

The evolution of an arborist career

Kantner didn’t start working with trees right away when he graduated from college. In fact, his undergraduate work wasn’t even in the green industry. Kantner has a bachelor’s degree in communication arts from Juniata College in Huntington, Pa. Yet, he sees where his degree has helped him with his tree work. “Arboriculture is, in fact, the art and science of tree care. Art, aesthetics and science direct our pruning care, and communication with customers and the general public occurs daily for most arborists,” Kantner says.

Kantner is the horticulturist/arborist at the Conestoga House and Gardens. He also uses his arborist expertise at the Tanger Arboretum and as a freelance tree consultant. Photo: Wendy Komancheck

Kantner entered the lawn care industry in 1989, working as a lawn care specialist for Chemlawn Services. In 1990, Kantner got a job as a horticulturist at the Conestoga House and Gardens. He learned about tree care by taking courses, workshops and symposia through Penn State University. “I am one who has an inquiring mind, and I enjoy going to lectures and learning about related fields of interest to arboriculture. There is so much to learn within our discipline as well, from soils to sawflies. I enjoy talking to others to see how they approach various tasks, and I often incorporate new ideas into my practices,” he says.

Kantner wears many hats as a landscape horticulturist and arborist at the Conestoga House. He cares for many tropical plants in his full-time position and cares for the grounds, as well. “As a historic estate, we also get involved in many of the maintenance responsibilities of caring for our unique setting. Preparation for tours and watching for hazardous conditions in areas accessible to the public are ongoing activities on the property,” he explains.

The Conestoga House and Gardens is located on 20 acres of land broken into 5 acres of formal gardens and buildings, 5 acres in meadows and floodplains, and 10 acres of cultivated and native trees. “We probably have over 70 different [species of] trees on the property and over 1,000 trees in total,” Kantner says. “The Tanger Arboretum has approximately 100 different [species of] trees, with many of the specimens having multiple examples in the arboretum. For example, we have three Chinese firs [Cunninghamia lanceolata], two Franklin trees [Franklinia alatamaha] and two tricolor beech [Fagus sylvatica ‘Roseo-Marginata’].”

At the Tanger Arboretum, Kantner monitors trees for safety, storm damage, preventative care and weed management. He is also responsible for hiring outside contractors, as well as overseeing volunteers, paid staff, fundraising efforts, and coordinating social and educational events on the grounds. “I see the point of an arboretum as an attempt to connect people with a public space for trees and other ornamental and native plants,” Kantner says.

In 1996, Kantner became ISA certified. Kantner believes that his ISA certification is worth it. His experience working with trees has taught him a lot about tree growth and a tree’s aging process. “Practical experience and making thousands of pruning cuts followed up with a return visit to monitor how the tree responded to those pruning cuts is one of the best ways to learn about trees. Because I work on some of the same properties repeatedly, it is interesting to look at a pruning cut made 20 years ago and see how the tree has been altered and how it responded. These observations can figure into future pruning work I either propose or perform,” he says.

Kantner respects all kinds of tree owners, even if their methods of tree care don’t match his own. “A big challenge in arboriculture is to overcome stereotypes of what arboriculture means to different people. We have to embrace the person who wants to cut down a tree because it is blocking their view as much as the tree hugger with 200 trees on their property who will not allow a chain saw within 100 yards of their driveway,” explains Kantner.

Kantner backs up his open-minded perspective by pointing out that arborists do need to fix problems that their clients have created. “Yes, it is true, we have to straighten out many problems created when tree care is done by inexperienced workers, but at least we get to meet a lot of appreciative customers who quickly realize the expertise ISA promotes, not to mention, the culture of safety, which undergirds much of our efforts,” he says.

Kantner is responsible for tree care at the Conestoga House and Gardens. Photo: Wendy Komancheck

Unique work setting

Kantner enjoys helping the volunteers at the Conestoga House and the Tanger Arboretum realize that their help at the nonprofits are valuable. “I have seen so many people rise to every occasion and need in the nonprofit sector. It takes the coordination of the talents and resources of many volunteers, ‘friends,’ tour guides, board members, patrons and interested local leaders to sustain a public garden or arboretum,” says Kantner.

Likewise, in his consulting work, Kantner finds that helping to prevent a tree-related problem or fixing a problem that seemed overwhelming to the client are rewards unto themselves. “Many times, when a tree suddenly sheds a large limb or fails unexpectedly, we can point to the cause of the damage created a decade before the existing owner inherited the condition from a former caretaker of the tree. As arborists, we can work with our clients to prevent a similar fate from occurring to other trees they are stewarding,” Kantner explains.

If Kantner could change one or two things about the tree care industry, it would be to help organize arborists’ use of tree byproducts in their local service areas. For example, Kantner could see several arborists coming together in their market area to support a new, small, state-of-the-art sawmill by supplying it with timber of mill quality. A similar networking could occur with wood products suitable for use as wood pulp for papermaking, wood waste for fuel pellet production, and unusual wood could be made available to artisans and craftspeople for various purposes through regional artisan guilds. These efforts could increase the value of wood waste and accelerate these secondary industries.

A horse topiary at the Conestoga House and Gardens. Photo: Wendy Komancheck

What is his advice to other arborists working in the nonprofit sector? “Never underestimate the power of a message on your phone that says, ‘I am a volunteer and I want to meet with you, get involved or help in some way.’ They are your pathways to success. They can weed, stuff envelopes, pick up other volunteers, arrange a workday, start a lecture series or start a friends of the arboretum group,” says Kantner.

Kantner also believes that getting teens and young adults involved helps an organization. Since they’re likely to also get their friends to sign up, thus bulking up an organization’s volunteer base.

“Never underestimate or discriminate,” suggests Kantner. “We get some of our best volunteerism from someone with a physical limitation, social stigma or who is well ‘past their prime.’ Volunteers are often like fine wine: they get better with age.”

Safety in tree care is a big issue with Kantner. He advises other arborists to be flexible and willing to halt work on a tree if it’s not safe, if they need more help, or if conditions arise or suddenly change. “It matters not which of a hundred different safe ways you choose to do tree work,” Kantner explains. “It only matters that you follow the many safe ways outlined in the American National Standards Institute Safety Standard for Tree Care Operations.”