Balance … it’s one of those givens in life, like moderation or use common sense. In the world of arboriculture, you have to balance the need to stay in business and make a decent profit with the obligation to provide a valuable and legitimate service. After all, property owners have needs; trees get sick, especially disease-prone species such as crabapple, sycamore, ash and maple. The role of a qualified arborist is to determine whether the need is real or imagined. When you get down to the nitty-gritty, unless a legitimate need has been established, it’s not only poor arboriculture, it’s downright dishonest, bordering on fraudulent, to apply fungicide to a tree. One size does not fit all, and no two landscapes are the same. Using a protocol where every customer on the route that day gets the same treatment is not good for the trees.

Inspect regularly Photo: John Fech

Start with inspection

Automatic applications are not justified for tree fungicide programs, but inspections are. They determine the history of the site, identify which diseases are problematic, and help lock in scheduled maintenance for future years.

Let’s not get the cart before the horse. Before getting a customer to approve a fungicide program, consider other options to improve tree health. For example, in the case of powdery mildew, removal of nearby undesirable trees to increase airflow may be a possibility. Another might be to replace it with a disease-resistant species or a different cultivar of the same species.

When in doubt, integrated pest management (IPM) is a set of considerations that can serve as a common sense guiding force. IPM encourages consideration of all factors that are necessary for a tree to be healthy, such as soil nutrition, pH, planting depth, soil compaction, spacing, hardiness, competition from turfgrass or other trees, inherent disease resistance and soil moisture. Even though it was introduced a few decades ago, IPM is still a good vehicle to ensure that trees are provided with all inputs necessary to thrive.

A close look on the foliage may reveal scale insects as well as diseases.
Photo: Robert Childs, University of Massachusetts

The best news about inspections is that they are good for the trees and the rest of the environment, good for the customer and good for the tree service company. Good for the trees and the rest of the environment, because the potential for spray damage from carriers or “inert” ingredients as well as drift to nontarget items, such as fences and cars, is reduced. Good for the customer because they get to learn about the actual problems in their landscape instead of just have a fire put out. Really good for the tree service company as the opportunity to observe all woody plants in the landscape is realized rather than just the tree in question, plus charge a reasonable rate for time, knowledge and effort.

When approaching your customers about setting up tree fungicide programs based on actual problems and regular inspections, the narrative might go like this “Sure, we’ll set you up for a monthly inspection. We’ll walk the property, evaluate the health of each woody plant in the landscape and provide a concise written report of current and possible future problems.” Depending on the customer, you can point out that the need to make big cash at their expense on minor issues will be eliminated, as a modest profit is being made each month on the inspection. Some customers will understand, some won’t. It will take a little collaboration between the spray techs, the accounts receivable staff and the owner of the company to determine which customers to implement this strategy with.

Close-up of teliohorns of cedar apple rust, a good observation for an inspection report. Photo: John Fech

Inspection sets you apart

When property owners go looking for a tree service, how do they choose? They ask their friends, look online, look in the phone book, ask their real estate agent, or consider one they heard about at a recent party. Other than a catchy name, what does your firm have that sets it apart from all the rest? Hopefully, it’s qualified people. In the world of tree care and arboriculture, it’s the certified arborist.

Coupled with years of experience and apprenticeship with a veteran arborist, arborists certified through the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) have demonstrated the ability to conduct honest, straightforward inspections of woody landscape plants. Your ISA certification shows customers that you have the training and knowledge required to properly care for their trees. The tree service business is competitive, and ISA certification is a great tool to gain an edge on the unqualified or underqualified competition. When you inform your customer that an ISA-certified arborist will be conducting the inspections, they’ll know they’re getting value for their dollar.

After inspection

Once an inspection routine has been established, customize a spray schedule for each customer based on the inspection notes. Typical reports would include comments such as, “OK, these three crabapples are susceptible to apple scab and cedar apple rust, and in order to keep them fully foliated and healthy (and for you to enjoy them) we’ll need to make three applications of a fungicide to prevent infection. The price per application will be $XXX, and we’ll make them in early, mid and late spring.”

Classic non-disease maladies such as herbicide drift damage should also be noted. Photo: Robert Childs, University of Massachusetts

The benefits of good reporting and note taking cannot be overstated. Good record keeping can be an effective marketing tool for future treatments, especially if a strong pattern of a disease is documented. Speaking of marketing, it’s wise to at least quickly inspect the neighbor’s landscape as well your current customer’s, as they could be the source of existing problems and, thus, future diseases for your clients. If Sphaeropsis tip blight is evident next door, it would be wise to inform your client in an attempt to prevent damage to their trees. These observations would be well-placed in the “future problems” section of the invoice.

All customers won’t like it

As forward-thinking and plant health care-esque as customized fungicide programs based on regular inspections are, some customers are shortsighted and won’t see the value in it. All is not necessarily lost with these folks. With the proper education and repeated efforts, some will eventually see the light. Others never will. For them, continue with the “treat ’em as you see ’em” approach, being sure that the proper timing is followed for each disease.

The key to success with tree fungicide programs is to perceive them as they are – a tool, an opportunity, an offering – not an end-all be-all gravy train. They must be customized to fit the need of the client, not created to be “one-size-fits-all” services that all the clients in your database receive.