A LANDSCAPE MAINTENANCE contractor has just finished work on a residential yard. The homeowner asks the contractor to take a look at one of her trees while he’s there. Several large branches are growing into an overhanging balcony and the owner wants the tree cut back a few feet.

The job looks like quick work and the contractor thinks about it . . . it’s a slow afternoon. There’s a ladder and a chain saw available and, besides, he’s pretty good at climbing trees. There are power lines nearby but they don’t seem to be interfering with the branches to be cut, so maybe. . . .

Hold everything! Most landscape contractors have no business doing work of this nature. There are way too many risks and dozens of ways this scene could turn ugly.

First, the contractor shouldn’t even think about operating a traditional chain saw from a ladder or over his head. He also shouldn’t think about using a ladder anywhere near a power line or climbing a tree without proper training and harnessing equipment. Even without power lines, ladders and tree-climbing, there are huge liability issues to consider. A branch could fall on the house, on a car, on a passerby or on the contractor himself.

Taking on pruning or trimming work without proper training or certification is asking for serious trouble. Not only are there immediate safety and liability issues at stake, poor pruning practices can mutilate a tree, leave it open to disease, kill it and even cause dangerous hazards down the road. 13_1.jpg

TREE PRUNING CAN BE A PROFITABLE component of a maintenance service but it’s critical to follow some basic principles:

•Take only those jobs that can be safely done with both feet on the ground, unless you are also a trained arborist.

•Use proper, well-maintained equipment for the safety of operators and health of the tree.

•Make sure anyone doing the work is thoroughly trained in the safety and arboricultural aspects of proper pruning.

•Make sure you have the right insurance coverage for the work you plan to do.

•Establish a good working relationship with a certified arborist to handle jobs your company isn’t qualified for.

•Most importantly, don’t hesitate to turn down a job that’s beyond your expertise or comfort level.

The whys of pruning

Tree pruning is done for safety, for the health of the tree and for aesthetic reasons. For example, pruning may be done to remove dead, diseased or broken branches or undesirable growth, to reduce overall size, to encourage a particular shape, to stimulate flowering or foliage, or to remove hazards like branches that are blocking road visibility.

Before going in indiscriminately with the saw, trained professionals take a good look at the tree to understand the pruning goals and the long-range plan. Generally, the larger the diameter of the limb and the bigger the tree, the more risks involved to people, property and the tree itself. Therefore, it’s best to prune a tree while it’s still young to avoid future problems. The removal of large limbs from a mature tree calls for pretty compelling reasons. And it usually calls for an arborist.

Even with small trees, though, every cut matters, because each one can change the growth of the tree. Proper pruning of young trees can help establish a strong scaffolding pattern with a sturdy trunk and well-spaced branches. Improper pruning can do irreparable damage or ruin a tree aesthetically for many years.

“Pruning is one of the most important aspects of landscape management, whether you’re dealing with shrubs, small trees or larger trees,” says Greg Stefani, president of Stefani Landscape, Cincinnati, Ohio, and a certified arborist and horticulturist. “Selective pruning is key. Typically, you remove the damaged, diseased wood, the overlapping branches, and branches growing into the center of the tree. You always want to maintain the natural shape of the tree or shrub. With a nice pruning job, the average homeowner or person walking by would not even know the work has been done.”

While pruning isn’t difficult, it isn’t a job for everyone and contractors should be cautious about whom they choose to do the job. “It really depends on the skill of the employees and their qualifications,” says Stefani. “Some landscape cowboy can come in and say he can do it but then go and destroy the appearance of a nice ornamental tree.”

Stop topping

One of the most common and damaging mistakes people can make when it comes to pruning is “topping.” Topping is the indiscriminate cutting of branches to stubs in the attempt to reduce the size of the tree.

In the example above, the homeowner needs her branches cleared away from the balcony. There are appropriate ways to do this, but simply cutting “each branch back a few feet” as she requests isn’t one of them.

Hacking off branches like this will give her an odd-looking tree filled with weak stubs. These stubs are typically unable to close their wounds, so they’ll be prone to decay. Worse, they’ll sprout numerous unsightly shoots under each cut. Not only will this create an ugly tree, these shoots are typically weak, fast-growing and prone to breakage. Thus, with this treatment, the homeowner’s original problem will probably be much worse in a year or two.

“Topping any tree only amplifies your problem,” says Lee Evans, president and arborist with Certified Arbor Care, Austin, Texas. “For each branch you cut, five or six sucker branches will come out from that point of origin. Where you had six or seven limbs, now you have thirty or forty, only creating more work.”

Careful cuts

To avoid this, branches should be cut to strong lateral limbs or to the parent limb. Cuts should be made just beyond the branch collar without leaving long stubs. It takes training and a careful eye to know which branches to cut and where, in order to leave an attractive, healthy tree. “Improper cuts are one of the biggest mistakes made,” says Evans. “It takes years and years for trees to mature. An untrained person can come and ruin the tree in about fifteen minutes.”

Knowing the ideal time of year to do the job is another aspect of proper pruning. While pruning in the wrong season won’t typically kill a tree, there is often an optimal time to prune any given species, based on its flowering, fruiting, growth habits and its tendency to bleed. It’s important for those scheduling the work to take this timing into consideration.

The average property owner doesn’t understand tree care and is often looking for a quick fix for a nagging problem. Contractors who are well trained in tree care can offer their expertise when responding to clients and point out any potential problems with the services they are requesting. Sometimes educating clients on alternatives is better than simply giving them the first thing they ask for. “For example, maybe a business is dealing with a tree blocking the line of sight to their sign,” says Evans. “You may suggest that they lower the sign for the time being. In four or five years, when the tree grows up it may not be a problem any more. Or maybe it’s simply not the right place for this tree.”

Sometimes removing a tree altogether is better than fighting a losing battle with one that was planted inappropriately in the first place. Andrew Hall, who with his wife Jennifer Hall owns Mountain Road Tree Service and Landscaping in Montpelier, Virginia, says remembering simple tree planting basics can save property owners years of headaches down the road.

“A tree will grow toward the sun,” says Hall. “So if a house is between the tree and the sun, that tree will typically grow over the house. Or the tree may be simply planted too close. We’ve taken out trees that were four inches from the house. Also, certain trees like poplar and pine tend to break and snap more easily.”

Make friends with an arborist

For reasons of safety and quality, landscape contractors need to know the limits of the tree pruning they can take on. They should also know who to call for help. “When you do tree work, you’re doing one of the most dangerous jobs around,” says Hall. “If the pruning is from the ground, most landscape companies can offer that, but if there’s any climbing involved, you will need someone with special training.”

“The key is to keep people on the ground at all times,” says Patrick Minor, Sunterra Landscape in Austin, Texas. For anything that requires climbing, Sunterra contracts out to Lee Evans and Certified Arbor Care. “I have a degree in forestry,” says Minor, “and I could become well-versed enough to do that type of work, but the insurance rates are drastic.” Stefani recommends that contractors look at the liability and insurance implications for their company and have a clear understanding of the rules and limits. “A lot of landscape companies assume that since their staff is insured on the ground, their guys can just shimmy up that tree to get that branch down. But when you get up there and the wind’s blowing, there’s nowhere to run.” Even though Stefani himself is a certified arborist, he says it still makes better business sense for his company to contract major tree work out.

“We used to do both (landscaping and large tree work) but found it hard to manage and run both divisions effectively and efficiently, so we cut back on large tree work and decided to concentrate on landscape installations and maintenance.” Stefani strongly recommends this arrangement. “Any reputable landscape company should have a good working partnership with a tree care company that does good work and in turn they should send them work, too.”

Minor agrees. “It’s much more cost efficient for us to have a relationship with a solid tree company that’s competitive in their pricing. This way we can achieve a margin without touching the tree. It also lets us do what we do best, which is landscaping.”

This kind of partnership can help landscape businesses retain customers by not having to say “no” when asked to do tree work beyond their expertise. A tree company can also help them provide their own staff with training on appropriate practices for any pruning they do in-house.

“We lean a lot on our sub and they help us with our training on proper techniques from both the safety and arboricultural standpoint,” says Minor.

Evans says partnerships like this work well for both sides. “It gives them a way to get more profit from their business. When they call us to look at a dead tree, we may notice other things on the property that need attention. We look for ways to make them look like superstars. This way, their clients will keep them around and they’ll keep us around. It’s a win-win for everyone.”