When presented with a proposal for tree work, no one wants to review a hastily assembled bid. A thorough, well thought out piece not only addresses the needs of the site, but subconsciously transmits the message of respect, that the arborist cared enough to take the time to give their trees the proper consideration.

Prioritization of needs for the client

When drafting proposals for planting trees on a budget, consider using a three step approach:

1. Meet the customer on-site for a “walk and talk.” Carry a clipboard or PDA for note taking and sketching. Key in on hot buttons of the client. Largely, it’s a respect issue. If the eventual proposal contains ways to address issues or desires that are particularly important to the client, it carries the message that someone paid attention to them. Include new as well as replacement plantings. As you chat with the client, make sure you ask about absolute most important new plantings on the property.

2. Carefully assemble the plan. Allow for the eventual width and height of each specimen by drawing circles in the proper locations to the correct scale. Remember that plants grow under or over other plants in nature, and plans for incorporating trees should reflect this. Understory trees, such as redbud and serviceberry, should be included under shade trees to replicate natural settings.

To save money, shade or otherwise mark the understory trees with a “second phase” designation to indicate that the shade trees will be planted first, then after five to seven years or so, the understory trees can be installed, saving money and following the tenet of right plant, right place by placing trees that prefer half shade in the right location.

3. Present the plan to the client and explain how it will solve identified problems and address their specific interests. Draft some simple, but guiding, principles that are specific to the client’s property. In formal landscape design they’re called “program statements.” These are summarizations of input that the client put forth in the walk and talk. Typical program statements are “want trees that cast dense shade” or “need to reduce costs with future tree plantings.”

Damaged trees in the landscape should be replaced. Photo: John Fech

Tree function can dictate prioritization

As part of the prioritization process, especially when budget is an issue, the function of a tree should be considered as a high influence in placement and selection of species. Think of this as sort of a trump card, in that no matter if the rationale for using a particular tree is historical, aesthetic, functional or to maintain property value, the functional issue should be the primary factor. For example, if the walk and talk reveals that the client must have a shade tree on the southwest side of the house or patio, or else it’s unusable, then consider all other factors as secondary.

Develop Plan A and Plan B

There’s budget, and then there’s budget. In some situations, the customer may indicate that they want to keep budget in mind as they move along in the process. Other situations call for the absolute minimum in expense.

Because it may not be readily apparent which notion is the real one, hedge your bet by presenting bids to customers with price tags. If you don’t present a second, more extensive/expensive plan, you won’t get it.

Incorporating trees with features such as fall color enhance the quality and impact of new plantings. Photo: John Fech

Develop a master plan

It’s pretty unlikely that a budget-minded client will want to install everything in the first 30 days. More likely, a three to five-year time frame is what they have in mind. Some customers will think of this concept in the back of their minds, but will rely on the arborist or landscaper to help them see that a master plan will address their need for replacement trees, as well as the desire to save money.

A master plan is simply an overall set of plans that contains a yearly planting schedule. It’s useful as it helps customers see that they will eventually get all the trees they want, but it will just take a few years longer than if they had unlimited funds.

Sell with visual aids

The old adage of “a picture is worth a 1,000 words” is still true today. Decision makers are usually not well versed in what trees look like, especially trees with names like Japanese pagoda tree or amur corktree.

To overcome this lack of familiarity, assemble a simple picture book using photos of previous projects, as well as images downloaded from the Web. Botanic gardens are excellent sources for these photos. Some clients will respond better to an electronic version of a picture book; software programs such as PowerPoint make their creation easy.

When assembling these visual aids, keep in mind that some sources are public domain and others are copyright protected. Legally, you must ask permission before using the ones that are attributed to a company or person. Common courtesy and professional ethics dictate that crediting the source of public domain photos be done to recognize that the source of the photo is someone other than yourself.

Trees such as red horse chestnut add diversity to a property and are a welcome change to overplanted species. Photo: John Fech

Money-saving trees

When customers are focused on budget savings, keep in mind that it’s just good customer service and good environmental stewardship to include trees in the plans that are disease and insect resistant. In some scenarios, this might work against you in the long run, due to a lesser need for pest control agents to be applied. However, incorporating pest-susceptible plants could backfire on you. For example, if you suggest disease-prone crab apples, regular/weekly fungicide applications will be necessary to keep the foliage clean, which will help you earn money in the short run, but may upset the

Tree size can save money

As you assemble the project bids, if you’re trying to save money for the client, choose slightly smaller plants. For example, instead of 4-inch, try 2.5-inch caliper. This is effective as smaller trees cost less to ship, which lowers the price, and take fewer years to grow, which allows them to be sold less expensively.

Using 2-inch caliper trees is generally a better arboricultural practice than larger ones that offer “instant landscape.” Why? With 2-inch caliper trees, a proportionally larger percentage of original roots is transferred from the growing field, which results in higher establishment rates than with larger plants.


Regardless of whether budget is a primary concern, tree diversity remains a supremely important guiding principle. As you create and implement the master plan, resist the temptation to buy all of one species for new or replacement plantings. Sure, it’s wise to take advantage of available bargains, just make sure they are from a diverse group of choices.

Overall, endeavor to utilize less than 10 percent of any single genus as part of the master plan. This guideline adds visual interest and avoids problems when a pest species rears its ugly head.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in October 2010 and has been updated.