Much of the arboricultural profession involves providing up-to-date practices that encourage tree health in the landscape. Sure, marketing, customer service, staff management and training are equally important, but at the basic core, the principles of implementing the tree care practices capable of facilitating tree health are what separates the professional arborists from the hackers — also known as “2 Guys and a Chain Saw.”
In terms of existing trees of mature size on a property, the three-step procedure of “Review, Repair and Replace” is common-sense protocol that can go a long way toward your company’s success and building long-term, lasting relationships with customers.
To stay on the cutting edge and move forward in a positive manner, taking a step back and implementing an honest site evaluation will pay big dividends.
This is a four-part procedure. First, a revisiting of planting plans is called for, both on large (campus grounds, estates, shopping malls, etc.) and residential properties.
This should be completed in consultation with the property owner, noting the planting dates, species installed and projected future plantings.
Keeping diversity in mind as a guiding principle will help provide desirable features of fall/winter color, spring/summer blooming, disease resistance and reliability of adapted trees.
Next, a thorough inspection of the current plantings should be conducted. Insect infestations and disease infections are obvious items to note, but carrying the endeavor to the next level of hazard awareness will help to create support from the property owner — for example, pointing out defects and “almost” or “soon-to-be” defects that are present and should be dealt with soon.
Cracks, rubbing branches, decay, codominant leaders, basal root plate issues, leaning and stem girdling roots are flaws to identify and discuss with the tree owner.
After documenting flaws, hazards and defects in the trees themselves, it’s logical to point out the potential nearby targets of valuable objects and human occupation or activity.
The consequences of trees or tree parts falling on the targets can be substantial. It’s the duty of a professional arborist to do both. Fortunately, making these specific conditions known is not only an observational activity, it’s also an opportunity to provide profitable tree care for the client.
Review also extends to an evaluation of the current plant health care treatment program being provided for the customer. Is it a call and respond approach, where you just sit back and let the work come to you? Or is it a proactive, pest scouting, soil modification and moisture monitoring approach? The latter is much more proactive and conducive to overall tree success.
Some trees can be repaired, others fall into the “watch and monitor” category and some fall into the “remove” group. In general, the sooner a tree defect can be identified, the better.
The ones that are most appropriate in this classification are co-dominant leaders in the first three years of a tree’s life, crossing and rubbing branches and control of certain pests, such as borers and apple scab. A program of monitoring with frequent scouting activities is an integral part of tree repair, with the goal being spotting these defects in a timely manner.
In addition to the pruning of defective tree parts, temporary stabilization of weak branch structure should be considered on a short-term basis, generally one year or less. Cabling and bracing procedures and installing rods can aid in certain situations. The most common scenarios are ones where funds to remove or repair a tree are not immediately available, or where a party or wedding is going to take place in the weeks following an inspection – the mess that a tree removal can make is not acceptable in these cases. Here, it’s the duty of the arborist to inform the property owner that temporary actions are short-term solutions and the very act of this type of tree work puts the owner and the neighbors or visitors on notice that a hazardous tree exists in the landscape.
Repair also includes vital underground structures as well. The rhizosphere is crucial to the overall health of a tree and appropriate measures taken to bring it as close to a forested condition are very helpful. One such action is to aerate the soil and turfgrass surrounding a tree and apply compost and/or mulch. Several passes of the core cultivator are the best procedure, especially if the tines are 4 inches apart or greater. Applications should be made in a frequent, light manner, such as every season with 0.25 inches of compost or 1 inch of wood chips. Expanding the area of mulched surface to separate trees from turf and improving soil organic matter and other soil conditions as mulch decomposes over time are additional, positive steps.
Unfortunately, tree repair can’t solve all problems in the landscape.
Defects such as basal root plate injuries, leaning trees, heartwood decay and cracks simply can’t be repaired. Once these have crossed the line of safety for leaving them on the property, they must be removed. The most effective approach in the long term is to inform the client as to why the removal is necessary using unbiased and third-party resources, such as ones from the International Society of Arboriculture or Nebguide G2111 from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, “Tree Hazard Awareness.” These can be printed and left with the customer and discussed with them at the appropriate time.
Another step to soften the blow of tree removal is the arborists’ willingness to work with a certified landscape designer to select the right tree and location on the property for replacement. In these situations, taking the purpose of the tree into account, positive and negative attributes of a species, pest resistance, choice of species that promote diversity in the landscape, adequate space for the eventual size and willingness to partner with them on a long-term basis for the health and benefits of the replacement tree will go a long way toward amelioration of the loss.
Once the appropriate species has been chosen, proper planting procedures are critical to success. These include extensive loosening of soils, modification (if feasible) to the entire eventual root system and depth of planting at, or slightly above, grade.
Good follow-up care in first year is not only a profit center for the business of tree care, it’s an important set of actions for long-term successful tree establishment. These steps include irrigation for moist soils, proper depth of mulch to reduce weed/grass competition, keeping mowers and other equipment away from trunk and pruning to remove crossing limbs only.
I’m often asked about fertilization when it comes to early-life tree care. My response is almost always probably not, as growth doesn’t equal tree health. The goal is not growth – it’s establishment of a laterally spreading, extensive root system that will support the tree structurally and have the capacity to extract nutrients and moisture as the tree grows.
When trees are fertilized in the first few years of establishment, they tend to use up precious stored carbohydrates and sugars at the expense of retaining them for long-term pest resistance and drought tolerance.