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How to Choose a Tree Surgeon

February 3, 2020

Written by Dave G.

Over the last couple of weeks, we have been looking at tree care. Winter is a good season for this, because the lack of leaves makes it easier to see what needs doing, and if you are further north, the frozen ground protects your lawns from damage. We started with a look at deciding if you needed to trim your trees – what to look for, what trimming can achieve – and then moved on to some basic methods for smaller trees a fit gardener can tackle on their own. But when it comes to working on larger trees, the work becomes too dangerous, and too difficult for most people. If you don’t believe me, check-out the internet for all the hilarious videos of the disastrous and expensive consequences of over-confident amateurs deciding to take a chain saw up into a tree. (The videos of when they cut off their leg, or fell off with the cut limb have been deleted to protect children. . .) We recommend that when you need some work done on a larger tree, especially if it is higher up, or there are wires or buildings nearby, you should bring in an expert.

Yes, it cost money to hire someone who knows what they are doing, but remember the saying, “If you think it’s expensive to hire a professional to do the job, wait until you hire an amateur.” Nowhere is that more true than with tree care.

To start with, most professionals in tree care don’t call themselves ‘Tree Surgeons’ anymore – they are ‘Arborists’. This is because their work with trees (‘arbor’ is Latin for ‘tree’) goes beyond cutting branches, and includes pest and disease diagnosis, care and fertilizing trees, and helping with everything from choosing a suitable tree to creating the urban forest. They are different from ‘Foresters’, who work in rural and natural settings, with woodlands and commercial tree plantations, although there can be some cross-over.

What is an Arborist?

A good Arborist has followed a long career path. Most begin with a diploma or degree, either in general horticulture or arboriculture, forestry or perhaps in urban forestry. There the will have learned everything from botany to plant pathology, with soil science, pest control, and ecology thrown in. That’s besides the practical skills of learning to climb trees with ropes, using and caring for machinery, and first aid. They may have done a program with a job placement or internship, so they gained some practical work experience too.

From there they will have worked for tree care companies, or perhaps with landscaping companies, tree nurseries, or municipalities and cities. Arborists literally learn from the ground up, starting with general clean up on a work site, and then becoming a ‘ground man’, working directly with the arborist doing the actual trimming up above. They check ropes, send up and bring down equipment, ensure the site is safe, and act as an essential backup, while literally learning the ropes.

After at least three years’ experience, they can seek the formal qualification you should look for when hiring – a Certified Arborist. This is the key thing to look for when choosing a company or individual to work for you. Yes, there can be good people out there, who know what they are doing, and they might even give you a better price, but certification is proof of their basic abilities. There is also a higher-level qualification, called a Master Arborist, and while we wouldn’t expect the actual workers won’t have that, it helps if the boss does. There are also some specialized certificates, like a Tree Worker Safety Certificate, so check what you are being shown. These are valuable extras, especially, for example, if there are cables around.

In America, certification is done by the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA). That is the professional body for arborists, equivalent to the AMA for doctors, or the state Bar for lawyers. They hold conferences, fund research, and provide advanced training. The exam is, admittedly, only a theory exam, and practical skills are assessed by an employer, which is a weakness. But for the consumer, it’s the best there is, so it’s still very much work looking for when you come to hire. Not only is the exam intensive, needing lots of appropriate knowledge, but it also includes section of Ethics, so you know the person you are hiring will be up-front with you on costs, and not go padding the bill after the work is done.

What Questions Should You Ask?

Your concerns will be of two kinds. Of course, for you, it is your tree you are concerned about, but before you get to that, you need to cover the basics, so you can feel secure that the work will be done properly, safely and well. Even the best workers can have an accident, so you need to think about what happens if they do.

The first thing to look for is that ISA certification. Find out if only the company boss has it, or is the worker certified – it makes a big difference. Ideally the person up in your tree will be certified

The second question should be about insurance. All reputable firms will have it – ask to see their certificates, a good firm will be happy to show them. Without insurance any problems could be catastrophic, and If someone injuries themselves you could find them suing you – that’s right, it happens, and often successfully. If they damage cables, or your home, your own insurance will probably be voided, and you will be looking at paying the bill for that new roof yourself.

Then you need an inspection and quote – in writing. Discuss what you want done and listen to the feedback you get. The quote should be delivered in a few days. Make sure it covers clean-up and any necessary repair to lawns of big limbs are coming down. Does it include any follow-up inspections, or add-on services, like fertilizing? Weak trees often benefit from root-feeding, and this may be less costly if the crew is already at your home doing trimming.

Personal Recommendations

A good firm will be happy to give you a few recent clients to contact, and of course your friends might have had successful work done by a firm they can recommend. Another route is to stop when you see tree work being done on another property, and talk to the crew, and the homeowner too, if you can. Ask questions of the crew – their answers can give you a good impression of their knowledge and confidence.

Finally, Treat the crew well

If you are around when the job is being done – and we recommend you try to be, just so you can see that everything is done as you want it, then a round of coffee and donuts can work wonders. Nothing like having a grateful crew doing the final clean-up, and good work deserves an extra reward.