Plants - Trees and Shrubs

All about arborists

What you need to know about hiring a tree specialist

Step into your garden and survey the verdant scene. What one element would you miss most: the perennial border? your favourite rose bush? or the majestic, mature oak, strong and sturdy when you bought the house long ago, still shading and sheltering you year after year?

If your answer is the oak, then ask yourself, what have you done for it lately? If the answer is nothing, don’t feel guilty. Gardeners consult books, magazines and websites to find out how to care for their perennials and shrubs, but assume that because trees are long-lived and deep-rooted, they don’t need regular attention. Compared to many other plants, they are low maintenance, but when a mature tree runs into trouble, it often takes more skill, training and equipment than the average gardener can provide to bring it back to health.

When to hire an arborist

Too often arborists are the “undertakers,” called in to remove a diseased or dead specimen. Had they been brought in earlier or on a regular basis, they could instead be the “physician,” evaluating, prescribing and nurturing a treasured tree from youth to old age.

“We’re asked to come in as a last resort, sometimes decades too late,” says David Hunt, a senior consulting arborist for Maple Hill Tree Services in Hornby, Ontario. The best time for an arborist to begin care is when the trees are young, advises Hunt, who is also a part-time instructor in arboriculture at the Niagara Parks School of Horticulture in Niagara Falls. “Trees respond better to corrective pruning when they’re small.” Hunt recommends yearly visits, “but,” he acknowledges, “every two years is probably more realistic.”

How to find a good arborist

Hire an arborist who has been certified by the International Society of Arboriculture. An ISA-certified professional will have met specific eligibility requirements (post-secondary education and practical experience) and have passed an exam. Continuing education is mandatory in order to recertify every three years. Here are additional tips to keep in mind:

  • Check references, ask for proof of insurance (personal injury and property damage) and visit work sites, if possible.
  • Steer clear of arborists who use spikes or spurs to climb trees, unless the tree is being removed.
  • Avoid those who suggest “topping” (the radical removal or cutting back of large branches) to control a tree’s height. This leaves large open wounds, which are prone to insects and disease, and results in many new, weak branches.
  • Be leery of tree services that go door-to-door with a crew in a truck offering too-good-to-be-true prices. Most reputable arborists don’t need to solicit business.

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