Home Is Where Your Trees Are

Professional Tree Care. Part 2

My predecessor's foreman did not belong to any of the breeds recommended by Rivers. His name was Bob O'Brien and his boyish face did not bespeak rugged talents. When I learned that he had lugged heavy BARs and chauffeured Sherman tanks for General George S. Patton, I understood better how this cherub tackled the hugest trees and handled the toughest crewmen with smiling equanimity. His touch with tender young growths was as deft, as gentle, as it was commanding on big timber or a balky winch-truck. He had a true treeman's fondness for fine specimens and concern for ailing ones. Besides working under a master craftsman he had read the right books, and he continued to read more as Rivers assigned them to us. With Rivers supervising our diagnoses and performance, we kept our local clientele happy and soon expanded widely. To our maintenance contracts around Cooperstown homes and country estates we added work on golf courses, cemeteries, the park and street trees of several towns and villages. We did roadside clearance for new highways and hazard removal throughout three counties. We had our own spray rig for pest control and with it we experimented - but only briefly, for the two don't mix - on brush control.

In snowy winter we kept our men off the relief rolls by cutting and skidding sawlogs for lumber mills, pulpwood for paper companies, even elm planks for a casket factory out in Oneida which had "rough box" contracts for the war in Korea. Our proudest moment came when we were put in charge of the trees at General Electric's home plant in Schenectady, where the late Dr. Charles Steinmetz had planted many exotic species. (The little wizard used to do a lot of his best thinking up in a tree-house at his home.) Through such varied experience I could hardly escape becoming familiar with a broad spectrum of other tree-service practitioners, our competitors. They ranged from district crews of the biggest, nationally advertised companies, to the itinerant, unschooled "gypsies" who roam the land seasonally picking up small jobs from town to town. (As a regional representative in later years for one of the leading companies I learned that all too often there is little to choose between a "gypsy" and some of the boys the big advertisers hire but fail to train.)

Companies doing line-clearance for public utilities - power and telephone-make a practice of paying their men minimum wages but letting them use the company trucks and tools to "buck" work over weekends for their own accounts. Trained only to hack trees back from poles and wires, most such operatives are strictly tree butchers, not surgeons, yet people will hire them just for their cheapness. Like the "gypsies," they are to be side-stepped if only because, despite what they will tell you, they can have no liability or compensation coverage. (Here involved are considerations of grave importance to the home owner. There are two kinds of "liability": 1) for damage to property by the worker, and 2) for damage to himself while working. If treemen are not insured against the former, you may have difficulty collecting from them after they knock a hole in your roof. If you or they are not insured against the latter (bodily injury), you may have difficulty resisting heavy claims for a broken leg or neck. Many prudent home owners carry general policies that protect them against injury to anyone working on, or even visiting, their grounds.) My arboreal screen epic never did get written, but not the least reward from my years with the trees was the opportunity to write this book. Its advice to readers on hiring professional tree care is derived from both sides of the fence, as client and as "expert." My first suggestion is this: don't wait for a tree-service salesman to send you his literature or ring your doorbell. Beat him to it. Send for him.

This has the dual virtue of putting you at once in command of the interview and lessening your caller's anxiety about getting an order. He knows you are interested and so can concentrate on hearing your problems instead of describing - or inventing - problems for you. Take him out on your grounds and show him, from a written list in your hand, just what you have in mind - this pruning, that bracing or cabling, some topping back here, some raising of branch levels there. When you have finished, let him have the floor. You will soon learn what manner of tree expert you have to deal with. The high-pressure type will at once start calling your attention to conditions you failed to mention. He will dart away to examine trees you passed by, shaking his head solemnly. He may produce a knife and fall to probing a butt discoloration, looking for decay. A pocket microscope is also part of his equipment. This he will whip out to show you perilous scale on your rhododendrons, or spider-mites in the arborvitae. Before you know it he will outline a spraying and feeding attack on your entire grounds. Because you sent for him, and are admittedly a novice where trees are concerned, he regards you as a soft touch. A more sincere and reliable type of salesman will take an opposite tack. After noting your instructions, he will begin his survey by asking you basic questions. How long have you lived here? What do you know of your trees' history? What has been done for them lately? He will ask if you have a groundsman or garden service, and if so how good they are. If you have already done some pruning he will notice and comment on it. He may ask if you have in mind a limit on what you want to spend on your trees. (By all means, give him a figure.) Equipped with all this information he will likely tell you he wants to go back over your trees by himself, with his field pad. He will give you his recommendations, with cost estimates, after that. Get these in writing. Because you sent for him and had some clear ideas of your own, this man respects you and values his chance to get your business, not just for now but into the future. Chances are he will come up with a step-by-step, long-range plan for putting your trees into shape, calibrated to fit your budget. He may suggest deferring some of the items you specified in favor of others he considers more pressing. He will be happy to help you help yourself on such items as minor surgery and feeding.

This is a salesman to trust and cherish, one of Nature's noblemen. Customarily, no charge is made for such a preliminary survey. If any salesman tries to bill you for it, write him off as a high-binder. But the primary question remains: what tree service to call in? The yellow pages are full of such listings. The Buffalo and Philadelphia directories, for example, each carry three columns of them, St. Paul-Minneapolis seven columns, Denver eight columns, Boston nine, Chicago eleven, Pasadena and Washington, D.C., no less than sixteen columns each. Almost every smalltown directory contains at least a half-dozen names. How to pick and choose? One way is to ask your County Agent, or the borough engineer. Better still, ask a neighbor whose trees look thrifty and show the marks of recent work. Rest assured that, having spent his money, your neighbor will readily applaud his own judgment, or lament it.