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Hamptons Life

Sep 9, 2019 2:07 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Big Tree Wants To Sell You Services You May Not Need

An arborist would have spotted the rotted base of this tree trunk before it fell and took a power line and meter with it. The homeowner was clueless until the trunk fell during a gust of wind. ANDREW MESSINGER
Sep 9, 2019 2:07 PM

Over the past decade there’s been an interesting development in the tree business. No, not the growing of trees, but the care of trees. Need your trees trimmed so they are safe, and limbs don’t come crashing down on your car, house or your neighbor? Want to know why your oak trees seem to be failing or why your boxwoods have lost half their leaves and are nearly naked? Easy, call in an arborist, a tree guy. Nope, not so easy.I began to opine on this subject a few years ago when I wrote about “Big Tree.” It seems that about 10 years ago the business folk who buy up similar small businesses and ingest them — under the guise of making a larger company that can reap the rewards of economy of scale — discovered the tree care business. There were literally thousands of small family-owned tree care companies that had been established, and with the advent of plant health care business models, the tree care industry changed.

Gone were the days when you called the tree guy to take down a limb or just spray for a bug or disease. Welcome to the new world of plant health care (PHC) programs and tree service companies who sell programs where they make routine site visits throughout the season to “monitor” your trees and shrubs. They do a little spraying, a little feeding, and “monitor” your trees and shrubs. Part of the theory here was that, with these somewhat regular visits to your property, problems could be caught early, allowing the least-toxic solutions. It made sense. In theory.

But big business saw a cash cow. All these small tree care companies were selling annual contracts that resulted in a perpetual cash flow. And if they bought up enough of these small guys, they not only controlled the business, but the prices as well. Big Tree was born.

In the early 1990s I began using a company called Alpine Tree. It was a family-owned business that did well, but it was eventually bought out by The Care of Trees, which soon had territories from New York to Virginia and points west. Then Care of Trees was swallowed up by Bartlett Tree. Each time there was a corporate change the older and more experienced arborists were given buyouts. They either changed professions due to noncompete clauses in their buyouts, or they retired.

Out here we saw this when Eastern Tree, which was on Sunrise Highway in Shinnecock Hills, was gobbled up by SavATree, which was expanding from its Westchester location throughout the greater metropolitan area. About the same time, another company that knew little about trees, but lots about cash cows, heavily invested in SavATree.

So, you call one of these companies and a consulting arborist shows up and you have a chat. He or she tells you all about their program and how great it is, but in most cases this consulting arborist gets a cut of each contract he brings in and the larger the contract the larger his or her cut. So, there seems to be a preponderance toward selling programs that are way more than what is called for and needed.

And what about these consulting arborists who seem to know so much about your trees, shrubs and all those bad things that can go wrong? Do you know anything about their training? Do they have a degree in horticulture or arboriculture or have they simply been “in the business for years” or pass a certification exam? Just what are their qualifications to tell you what’s really going on with that oak or the defoliating boxwoods?

Last summer I had come to the end of my rope with the arborist and tree care company I had been working with for years. Since their last buyout and “management change,” their service had deteriorated, schedules weren’t being adhered to, and I had this very strong feeling that my four-page and very detailed Plant Health Care program was just lining too many pockets and not taking care of my trees.

This district manager, who was also a consulting arborist, had screwed up the management of a large tree we’d installed the year before and was now infected with a disease he should have been on the alert for. I had asked him to check some sick-looking boxwoods for boxwood blight and he assured me that it was a different problem. Samples that I’d sent to an independent lab proved it was indeed the dreaded boxwood blight. His spray crew would come in for routine insecticidal soap or oils on days that were way too hot for spraying and on days when the likelihood for rain was 100 percent.

Ultimately, Big Tree fired him, but I was already interviewing a new company. What I learned is that while big business now has its greedy claws into the tree service business, there are still some good providers around. But you need to be a wise consumer by asking critical questions and asking around to find out who local garden centers are recommending and who your friends and neighbors use.

Here are a few clues: If you have boxwood blight or declining boxwoods, they cannot be cured. There are no reliably resistant varieties and spraying fungicides can mask the disease but not cure it. If you find an arborist who advises to get rid of your boxwoods and not replant them, you may have a keeper.

There are also a number of issues with oak trees. I had noticed several oaks with pinholes in the leaves last spring and one arborist told me, without a doubt, that it was an oak shot hole fungus. An independent lab said otherwise. When an arborist tells you’ve got a disease problem that’s going to cost thousands of dollars to control, ask for a lab test and to see the results.

Tree companies love to feed your trees. Sounds good right? We feed our houseplants and our vegetable plants, so why not our trees? How about because they don’t need it? Have your arborist explain why every tree and shrub on your property needs fertilizer and then ask: Who does this in the woods?

Vertical mulching is also a big seller. Holes are drilled or air spaded into the ground around a tree and the holes filled with a mulch product that introduces organic matter, opens up the soil and may also add biostimulants. Does your tree need this? Maybe if it’s old, showing signs of decline, has been subject to soil compaction from construction or is in very sandy soil. Does every tree need it every year or two? Probably not.

And air spading has become a popular add-on. In this practice, air is forced through a deep probe into the ground around the tree’s root zone to open up compacted soil. It’s rarely useful in sandy soils but in clay soils or compacted organic soils it can be very beneficial, especially after nearby construction or other compaction.

In advance of a visit from an arborist, take a walk around your property and look at your trees. Pay particular attention to trees near buildings, property lines, utility lines, walkways and parking areas. Do you see any limbs hanging? Do you see any splits in the trunk or limbs? Are there areas of dieback or leaf loss that aren’t present on the rest of the tree? Are there concentric woodpecker holes around the trunk? Is there a stream of large black ants going up or down the trunk? Are there mushrooms growing around the base of the trunk or vertically along the trunk? It there an ooze coming from the trunk or limbs?

Choose your tree service wisely. Make sure they are properly insured and use proper safety equipment. And of course, keep growing.

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