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Ask a Master Gardener: How to Hire an Arborist When Needed

By: Joel Potter, Urban Regional Extension Agent and Certified Arborist SO-5743A

Tip dieback is an indication of stress, warranting closer inspection. Photo by Joel Potter

When it comes to home ownership, few tasks are as important, yet often overlooked, as proper, timely, tree care.  Trees in our home landscape can increase property values and have aesthetic, social, and environmental benefits, but do come with some risk.  Living on the Gulf Coast, the approach of hurricane season often prompts us to look closer at the risks our trees may pose.  Studies have shown that pruned and managed trees are less likely to fail in a storm, but caring for trees requires specialized knowledge and experience.

At least once or twice a year, homeowners should take stock of the trees in their landscape.  To establish a “normal” baseline, the best practice is to inspect them in multiple seasons, as some defects may not be visible in all seasons.  Regular inspections will help you notice when things don’t look right and allow you to address problems before they get out of hand. When looking at your trees, consider both the health and the structure of the tree.  Take note of trees with out-of-season fall color, noticeably thinner canopies, branch tip dieback, abnormal foliage, or stunted growth.  Structurally, look for trees that do not have a clear single trunk, have lopsided canopies, are leaning, have cracked or broken limbs, or have cavities and/or decay fungus.  All of these are signs that you need a trained eye, an arborist, to inspect your trees. 

Properly vetting a tree care professional can be a daunting task, but it is crucial, as improper tree work can be difficult or even impossible to correct.  Knowing what should be cut is just as, if not more important than what should not be cut.  Improper tree work, such as topping, over-pruning, excessive removal of interior branches, and excessive crown raising can all lead to trees that are at a higher risk of failure.

First and foremost, ensure that the tree service is properly insured and bonded.  The tree service should carry personal, property, liability, and workman’s comp insurance, as you may be held liable for damages or injuries if you hire an uninsured company.

Additionally, they should be licensed for the type of work they are doing.  For instance, in the state of Alabama those installing support structures, such as cables and braces, must obtain an Alabama Tree Surgery License, which requires passing a written test.  Some municipalities also require city licensing for tree work within their city limits.  Any reputable tree service should be familiar with these requirements and should be able to show you proof of licensing.

Vetting for proper insurance and licensing will filter out many of the less reputable services, and industry certifications and qualifications can be used to further narrow your results.  The most common credentials are from the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA), which is an organization dedicated to bringing up to date and science-based information and practices to the industry.   ISA Certified Arborists have proven to have comprehensive knowledge of arboriculture by passing an extensive exam covering 12 domains of tree knowledge and maintaining a required level of continuing education to keep their certification.  Additional qualifications and certifications can indicate specialized skills and training that the Arborist has, such as ISA Tree Risk Assessment Qualification, ISA Certified Tree Climber Specialist, or Board-Certified Master Arborist.  Tree Care Industry of America (TCIA), American Society of Consulting Arborists (ASCA), and Alabama Urban Forestry Association (AUFA) are other organizations with industry-accepted certifications as well.

Another important step is to get the work proposal in writing.  The proposal should clearly describe the work to be performed, time frame, payment terms, and disposal of debris.  A written proposal protects both the homeowner and the tree care professional.

Good tree care begins with familiarity with your trees and decisions made now will impact them for years to come.  Good tree care is an ongoing process for the life of the tree and a reputable Arborist can be an invaluable resource to guide your decisions.

Fungal fruiting bodies on the base of a tree indicate basal rot and warrant closer inspection. Photo by Joel Potter

Fungal fruiting bodies on the trunk of a tree indicate decay and warrant closer inspection. Photo by Joel Potter.

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