Determining goals for tree care is key when New Way Tree Services in San Diego, Calif., begins working with a new customer. “Are we making things look like Disneyland or do I just need to get trees out of the parking lot because tenants are complaining?” asks Evan Sims, a certified arborist and tree worker in charge of business development for New Way Tree Services.
For some companies, customer input ends there. Some trees are trimmed, maybe a few are removed and that’s about it. But in other cases, the work continues, as the contractor seeks to educate customers about their trees and get them actively involved in the tree care process.
Before putting a tree into the ground, educating customers about planting trees that are compatible with the hardiness zone they live in is important, says Scott Jamieson, vice president of Bartlett Tree Experts in Grayslake, Ill.
“It’s not good to plant a tree from a nursery in Tennessee in the ground in Minnesota,” he says. “You want to source your trees as locally as possible for soil and climate reasons.”
Calling on customers.
Enlisting customers to assist with tree care doesn’t mean setting them loose to prune on their own. But they can serve as extra sets of eyes on alert for potential tree problems. “I don’t expect a client to look for defects and certain things we are trained to see,” Sims says. “I tell them, just be aware and, if you see a trend occurring, let us know early on.”
In particular, tree pros might rely on customers to assist with:
“Watering is the most important factor early in a tree’s life. Customers can help make sure the tree has the appropriate moisture in the soil,” Jamieson says. Particularly during drought conditions, it’s important to give the actual trees – rather than just the turf or perennials around them – plenty of water.
Turf, hardscapes, or other materials surrounding the base of the tree aren’t enough, says Jamieson. Mulch is valuable for insulating the soil, retaining water, reducing weed infestations, preventing soil compaction and reducing lawn mower damage. Even if you don’t ask customers to mulch the trees, Jamieson says they can at least maintain mulch as needed between visits.
Because customers see their trees a lot more than contractors do, they are often the first line of defense against pests. That’s why Jamieson educates customers about seasonal pests and keeps them updated when an outbreak strikes. “Notification right away is key,” he says.
In Portland, Maine, where Lucas Tree Experts is located, hemlock woolly adelgid recently began to devastate hemlocks and spruce trees in the area by sucking their sap. Marty Folsom, consulting arborist for Lucas, asks homeowners to look out for the egg sacs of the pest, which look like small cotton balls on the underside of the branches, so they can notify him immediately if they spot any.
Jamieson encourages customers to let him know right away if their trees are changing color or dropping leaves at times of year they don’t normally do that, which may be a sign of serious damage or problems. Often, such a signal doesn’t come until weeks or months after a problem has presented itself, but it’s still important for customers to let Jamieson know so his company can do anything they can to save the tree.
“If clients see any signs that don’t look right, I encourage them to contact me early, because there’s very little we can do once a tree is in severe decline,” Sims adds. “That’s often when I get a call, and it’s too little too late.”
Folsom says most people think big trees have roots that go way down in the soil, but the roots most important to the sustainability of the tree are located in the top eight to 12 inches of soil.
More than counting trees
People regularly have management plans for their turf, irrigation systems, or swimming pools. But Scott Jamieson, based in Grayslake, Ill., as vice president of Stamford, Conn.,-based Bartlett Tree Experts, argues that more people need to consider the benefits of conducting a tree inventory and management plan, particularly for customers with a large number of trees on their property. “Preventive, proactive management takes out the guesswork. It’s the best way to head off any problems,” he says.
“The most common question we get is ‘Hey, what’s wrong with my tree?’ But often, by the time we get that call, the damage happened weeks or months ago and may be irreversible,” Jamieson says. “Once you know what the potential issues are, you can schedule maintenance based on the trees,” he adds.
New Way Trees also offers mapping, using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology to note exactly where a tree is located and what its species, size, condition and maintenance requirements are. Such long-term planning is particularly beneficial for New Way’s large clients, such as homeowner’s associations, which may have limited budgets with which to address ongoing maintenance and long-term planning for their properties.
“They don’t realize that equipment, compaction and filling in around them can make a difference in the health of the tree,” he says.
Because home contractors may not realize the impact they can have on nearby trees, Folsom reminds homeowners of this fact whenever he can. “Home contractors say, ‘Oh yeah, your trees will be fine,’ fill in an area and all of a sudden three years down the road people are calling and asking why their trees look terrible,” he says.
In many cases, landscape contractors are also enlisted to assist with tree care. Supplemental irrigation or fertilization may be out of the control of tree workers or arborists on the large commercial properties Sims' crews work on. “That can really affect tree health,” he says. “So any soil fertilization or water around the trees needs to be closely monitored by the landscape manager.
“When I give presentations to our in-house people or lunch-and-learns for clients, mostly what I encourage is just to have an awareness, to look up every once in a while,” Sims says. He jokes that arborists are always looking up and, in doing so, they trip over irrigation and step on plants, whereas landscape people are always looking down.
No matter the audience, education about tree care comes in a variety of forms. Jamieson and Sims often hold workshops for other contractors or for customers. In addition, New Way Tree Services includes an “education” section on its website to provide customers with additional seasonal information or advice. Lucas Tree Experts send flyers to all customers three or four times a year notifying them of prevalent disease or insect problems. Some contractors also direct people to quality resources that can supplement the information they provide. For instance, Sims refers customers to the International Society of Arboriculture website as well as local university extension offices or agricultural schools for additional information on topics such as pest problems.
“I try to convey to my clients that their trees are assets,” Sims says. “They’re valuable. Trees provide a host of benefits monetarily and environmentally. I really try to convey all those benefits and that paying attention to your trees is worth it.”
The author is a freelance writer based in Lincoln, Ill.