It is an arborist’s duty to properly inform customers of issues such as the presence of tree hazards and various defects.

The issue of tree hazards and defects is a difficult one. Leaving them in the landscape can lead to real damage to property, and, more importantly, to your clients and their guests. So, therein lies the rub – you must not only deal with the actual damaged tree, but its owner, who must be convinced that action is required.

To accomplish these goals, it’s helpful to revisit the art of communication, as well as its potential positive and negative consequences. Observation and documentation are critical to the success of the communication. It’s the arborist’s duty to properly inform his or her customers of highly consequential matters such as the presence of tree hazards and defects.

One-on-one communication requires patience, succinct messaging and an understanding of possible noisy channels.

PHOTO: JOHN C. FECH, UNL

Crafting the message

In consideration of the importance of observation and documentation, the basic message that a tree has a defect should be delivered using succinct but accurate information – for several reasons.

First, many customers are focused on dozens of other issues in their lives and prefer simple information about the condition of their trees. Second, simple is sufficient; if they need more detailed information, they can quickly search the Internet. Third, they’re probably more interested in what you propose to do to correct it and how much it’s going to cost.

In the creation of the message for each one of six big categories of defects, the following is some uncomplicated language that can be customized for the specific situation at hand:

Cracks: A separation of bark, sapwood and sometimes hardwood. They are relevant in that they create a structural weakness as well as an opening for decay organisms and insects to cause future injury to people and property.

Cracks are a separation of bark, sapwood and sometimes hardwood.

Co-dominant leaders: Terminal sections of the crown that are roughly equal in their potential to direct growth of the tree. At some point, as they expand in diameter, the bark of each is likely to impinge on the other and create an area of weakness.

Decay: The softening of sapwood and heartwood tissues as a result of disease organisms that invade through openings in the bark, such as from hail and pruning cuts. Some trees are more resistant to decay than others. When a substantial amount of decay is present in the tree, it becomes a hazard because limbs (or the main trunk) can break and fall.

Decay is the softening of sapwood and heartwood tissues as a result of disease organisms that invade through openings in the bark, such as from hail and pruning cuts.

Root plate injuries: A deterioration of the bark and sapwood at the point where the tree meets the soil. These usually are caused by deep planting and/or lawn mower injury over a period of years. When a significant portion of the area is compromised, the risk of the tree falling over is a real issue.

Leaning: This is just what it sounds like; the tree is not 90 degrees vertical, but growing at an obtuse angle to the sky. Leaning can be a serious problem or a natural consequence of the tree growing in an unnatural direction to take in more sunlight. Regardless of whether the tree is in full sun, inspecting it on a regular basis for root detachment is crucial to avoid tree failure.

Co-dominant leaders are terminal sections of the crown that are roughly equal in their potential to direct future growth of the tree.

Stem girdling roots: Roots that wrap around the tree trunk rather than growing horizontally away from it will, eventually, severely press against the conductive tissues, compromising their capacity to circulate water and nutrients. They usually result from not taking the time to spread them out laterally in the planting hole during installation.

Root plate injuries are a deterioration of the bark and sapwood at the point where the tree meets the soil.

Sending the message

When sending a message, it’s wise to consider the overall communication process. In a spatial context, it may be helpful to visualize a circular or elliptical process of back and forth messaging.

Sender with message speaks;

  • The message is carried through a “noisy” channel of assumptions (i.e., they’re not going to like this), distractions (i.e., the kids playing in the driveway) and competition from other ongoing messages (i.e., the radio, background noise);
  • The message is interpreted through a noisy channel (i.e., preconceived notions about price and honesty);
  • The receiver formulates a response back to the original sender (i.e., “what did you say?”);
  • The original sender interprets the response (through noisy channels) and follows up with another message.

As you can see, the communication process can be fraught with errors and misunderstanding, hence the need for creating a simple, easy-to-understand message, careful listening and patience.

Leaning is just what it sounds like. The tree is not 90 degrees vertical, but growing at an obtuse angle to the sky.

Delivering the message

Fortunately, there are many ways to deliver a message and communicate with customers about tree hazards and defects. A good one is a pre-emptive method, keeping them informed via newsletters and emails. A quality newsletter contains changes in company procedures, information about new pests or research results and, yes, specific information about common defects of trees in the landscape.

Stem girdling roots are roots that wrap around the tree trunk rather than growing horizontally away from it will eventually severely press against the conductive tissues.

Once a defect is noted, either by the customer or a technician when performing another service on the property, one-on-one communication can be highly effective. Either on the phone or in person, photos are very helpful. A good way to utilize photos is to send classic images of known defects to the customer via email, or vise-versa, for them to take a photo of their tree and then send them to you.