Trees are not the sum of their parts nor can they be reduced to a simple math equation. Fortunately for us, trees are extremely complex and, in fact, they are so complex that caring for them has been described as being equal parts science and art.
To be sure, trees are biological entities, causing them to fall under scientific parameters. They also provide pragmatic, functional benefits that can be measured. Yet, trees also possess an aesthetic quality difficult, if not impossible, to quantify. As such, trees are sometimes best expressed by song or on canvas or a poem. Tree service professionals have the privilege of working with one of nature’s greatest wonders.
It has been said it requires 10,000 hours of work to acquire enough experience to be considered highly skilled. The 10,000-hour rule is explained in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “Outliers,” as, “the idea that 10,000 hours of appropriately guided practice was ‘the magic number of greatness,’ regardless of a person’s natural aptitude.”
I think the 10,000-hour rule applies for arborists and, interestingly, I also think the same rule applies to trees. It takes many years for an oak to grow “majestic.” It takes centuries of stress and competition for that Sitka spruce to “tower” over the forest. It takes decades for that woodland grove to mature enough for the understory trees, such as redbuds or dogwoods, to cause the forest to “glow” come springtime. “Majestic,” “tower,” “glow;” these are all artistic descriptions, and great art is not created in an instant nor are great arborists.
If there is a single attribute we most admire about trees, and tree workers, I believe it is endurance. Endurance implies long-suffering, and there is no denying the job requires a great deal of hard work. That sense of time-spent pervades everything we do. We understand better than most how many years and how much stress it takes for a tree to become a valuable addition to a landscape. Their maturation, as well as ours, requires some time.
That presents us with a problem.
We may well understand that it takes years to grow great trees, but customers don’t always understand that. One of the most difficult concepts to convey to customers is that we can’t fix their tree with a single service. One spray will not correct an aphid infestation. One pruning will not resolve decades of neglect. A trunk injection is not the same as a vaccination. Diseased trees need multiple applications and likely will require them for years. If it is a chronic issue such as apple scab or anthracnose or the emerald ash borer, the tree may require annual treatments indefinitely.
Even when we are pruning, which is one of the few services that provides instantaneous results, we are still cutting off branches (or should be) because we are picturing in our mind what that pruned tree will look like in the future, envisioning its appearance five years down the road, if not longer.
We sometimes forget that our customers are not on the same page as we are. Not meaning to, customers often look at trees as pieces of landscape furniture they wish would never grow any larger. We, on the other hand, look at trees as living, growing and moving structures. They can sway – violently. Their trunks, roots, limbs and twigs swell. The roots spread underground. Branch tips lengthen – all of them. Much like glaciers, a tree’s movement is inescapable, and when not taken into account, can be catastrophic when planted below power lines or over playgrounds.
As arborists, we understand that it takes many years to deliver proper tree care. We just sometimes forget to mention that. We need to help people envision the future, and unfortunately, it is an explanation we often leave out of the conversation. We mistakenly presume the client knows a prescribed service needs to be repeated, maybe even slip into selling the moment, which is not much different than buying that cheaper tool and complaining later it wore out in less than a year.
I recommend our pruning estimates provide a time projection for how long before a second pruning is needed. An estimate for pest control should also provide when the next treatment is necessary. When writing a management plan, provide a time projection for when the plan needs to be updated.
To help clients picture the future, I use neighboring trees as examples. The conversation typically goes, “Mrs. Smith, one day the red pine you just planted (within 10 feet of her home) will be as big as Mr. Jones’ pine next door.” Mr. Jones’ tree may be 80 feet tall with a 50-foot crown spread. As she gazes upward at her neighbor’s tree, the realization dawns in her eyes that one day she, or someone else, will have a big problem.
If we can remember that the public forgets that tree care takes time, our work will become much easier. And, easier would be welcome.