Why do we even need to trim our trees? According to Mark Chisholm, a third-generation arborist and co-owner of the Aspen Tree Expert Company in Jackson, N.J., there are a handful of reasons. Trimming can mitigate the risk posed by dead or damaged branches over a high-use area, such as a deck, driveway or walkway. It can create clearance when a tree starts banging into your roof or gutters or is impeding pedestrians or drivers. Regular maintenance can prevent trees from dropping on or brushing into overhead electrical lines on your property. (In many states, such as New Jersey, homeowners are responsible for any utility line between the main pole and the home.) It can improve your view. And structural pruning of young trees helps them grow and mature.
Anyone with a chain saw and a ladder can call themselves a tree trimmer. Your front door has probably been papered with business cards and fliers offering services, and you have probably received coupons in the mail for discounts, especially in spring, summer and fall. Some are reputable, others are not. If someone is removing a dead or downed tree from your property, minimal knowledge of tree health is required. But for maintenance, such as pruning, a qualified arborist who knows what the tree needs is critical to avoid damaging it, Chisholm says. Finding someone who won’t butcher your trees, harm your landscaping or rip off your gutters will take some work. Here’s how to get started.
Credentials matter. Just as a physician has to pass exams to practice medicine, so does a tree doctor. An arborist specializes in both tree health and care. You may pay a bit more for a specialist, but it’s worth it. Certified arborists must have a minimum of three years of experience in the field and/or a degree in a related field before applying for the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) Certified Arborist exam, and they must recertify every three years. Testing covers soil management, tree biology, pruning, diagnosis and treatment of disease, safe work practices and more. An ISA Board Certified Master Arborist has an even higher level of knowledge. Arborists also stay current with local and neighborhood rules and regulations. Tree care companies may also be accredited through the Tree Care Industry Association (TCIA). The bottom line: A tree care company should have an arborist on staff. “If you find an accredited tree care company with a certified arborist, you have a home run,” Chisholm says.
Licensing may not. States and municipalities license individuals and businesses, but that doesn’t mean your tree trimmer will have passed any tests. In New Jersey, for example, you have to pass specific exams, be insured and carry workers’ compensation insurance to be a licensed tree operator. In other states, being licensed may mean the tree trimmer simply has a valid business license. Do the research to learn your state’s licensing requirements.
Ask around. “You want a recommendation you can trust,” says Gary Manley, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., certified arborist at Manley Tree Experts who has more than 40 years of experience. “Ask friends, neighbors or look on Nextdoor. Word of mouth and referrals are how the best companies get business.” You can also search the ISA and TCIA websites for certified arborists and accredited companies in your area. “In these days of social media, good companies are easy to find, and bad companies have no place to hide,” Chisholm says.
Get multiple quotes. If price is a major issue, understand that the lowest (or highest) price doesn’t always mean you’ll receive a quality job, says Kathy Glassey, director of renewable resources at Monster Tree Service, a national franchise. Every estimate is individually drafted, and getting multiple bids gives you valuable information. One company may say, “I can’t protect your shed,” and another may say, “If we damage it, we repair it.” Chisholm says to carefully review and compare estimates to find that sweet spot. As with any home improvement project, never pay upfront. Wait until you’re completely satisfied with the job.
Every bid is personalized. Tree care is not a cheap industry. Manley says it costs him $300 an hour to operate. Expect multiple factors to play into your estimate, including the number of workers, the ease or difficulty of property access, and the equipment required, such as a bucket truck, aerial lift, chip truck and chipper, log hauler or stump grinder. “A strong proposal should be detailed and specific as to what is being pruned, what size, the location, even the tree diameter,” says Tom Armstrong, Monster Tree Service’s director of operations. Ask what’s included in the price. If you remove a tree and there’s a pile of mulch, is it taken away, smoothed out or left there? What’s your lawn going to look like after? Remember: Heavy equipment can leave ruts and tracks.
Check insurance. “Want to scare an amateur away? Ask for proof of their [workers’] comp,” Manley says. Before you hire tree trimmers, request a copy of their liability insurance in case they harm your tree or drop it on your home or car, as well as their workers’ compensation coverage, so if someone gets hurt on your property, they don’t go after you. Don’t just accept a piece of paper; it could be outdated or forged. The certificate should be sent from the insurance company. If the company sends you documentation, contact the insurer whose name is on the certificate for confirmation of current coverage.
Expect to wait. Unless it’s an emergency, it may take six weeks or more to schedule an appointment. “If a tree care company is any good at all, they are typically really busy during high season,” Manley says.
Spikes are a no-no. One of the easiest ways to determine a tree trimmer’s professionalism is to ask how that person will ascend and descend the tree. “Wearing spikes” is the wrong answer. “It’s illegal for a certified arborist to wear spikes when trimming, because it leaves holes in the tree trunk,” Chisholm says. The only time to wear spikes is when taking down a tree.
Avoid storm chasers. You know how fly-by-night roofers come knocking after a hailstorm or hurricane? So do tree trimmers. “If you have to knock on a door to get business, you’re not the right guy for the job,” Manley says. If you’re approached by someone saying they’re working at a neighbor’s home, ask for the name of the neighbor, then call to confirm.