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TREES, PLEASE: Tree Pruning: Who’s Watching the Hen House?

"Tree care" should not result in unsightly, over-pruned trees.

By Tim Clancy.

There is a cognitive bias known as the law of the hammer. The concept is that if the only tool you have is a hammer then everything looks like a nail. Tree care companies have an endless supply of chainsaws. So what do you suppose a tree care company wants to do to your trees?

Pruning trees is far and away the most common “tree care” activity performed in the urban forest. The urban forest being defined in this case as all amenity trees planted by humans for humans. Tree care companies employ salesmen whose job it is to either convince people their trees need to be pruned or to confirm their client’s diagnosis as to why their tree “needs a haircut.” Now let me say here that there are plenty of people with the correct knowledge to properly guide clients on the issues of tree care. So I am certainly not trying to paint all tree care companies with a broad brush. I will say that I only regularly recommend one company and within that company only recommend one employee to do the work I feel needs to be done.

Terms like structural pruning, thinning, crown reduction, crown raising, and even terms with no defined arboriculture meaning (like "lacing") are often used. The first four terms are legitimate pruning terms, but without specifications are really meaningless. If the person selling the work is not the actual person doing the work, how will these specifications be shared between salesman and tree climber? Not very well, in my experience. I have seen vague scopes of work assigned to tree pruning crews, and the end result, while certainly not disastrous, is not desirable. The pruning crew often is in a difficult situation because the salesman has sold the work at a price so low that it is impossible for them to work at anything other than breakneck speed in order to make money. Did I mention that many companies have a commission structure? Do you suppose that an endless supply of chainsaws and an opportunity to make a commission may lead to recommendations of unnecessary tree work? Baby on the way? Braces? College?

I am often amused when I peruse the help wanted advertisements on Craigslist or Indeed. The job descriptions invariably contain something about "Must be able to sell" or "Have a proven sales record," etc. There is, of course, the required comment about knowing plant material, but this seems almost an afterthought. The emphasis is on the ability to sell. I am not opposed to selling.

I worked in radio broadcasting and sold commercials, which are intangible. Tree pruning can also be considered an intangible service. It is the end result that we are paying for, which is a tree with fewer branches and leaves than we started with, and thereby something we can’t touch.

At the very least, if someone recommends your tree or trees need to be pruned, have them explain in simple English exactly what the benefit is to the tree. Have them clearly identify what work will be done and by whom. Then do some research and check the internet for information that would corroborate what you have been told. And then ask yourself, "What happens if I wait?"

Trees make leaves for a reason and that reason is they need them to properly function. A tree has no concept of extra. It makes what is necessary to function. In other words, where possible, “leaf” them alone.

Tim Clancy is an International Society of Arboriculture Certified Arborist.

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