Training To Avoid Careless Accidents

Frozen River in Winter

Ken is standing on one side of the river and I’m standing on the other. He’s patiently waiting for me to ford the river, too, so we can continue our five-day wilderness hike. It’s early March and the river is swollen with snow melt. Chunks of ice float by in the swift current. To keep my pants and boots dry in the sub-zero weather — an absolute must — I’ve shoved them into the backpack.

I take a deep breath and step into the river.

One foot goes numb. The second foot quickly follows. Shifting the overloaded pack atop my shoulders to center it, I gingerly take another couple of steps in. The water is waist deep and I no longer feel my legs. When I finally climb up the far bank after a couple of near falls, I notice that the snow beneath my feet is pink. I sliced open a foot and didn’t even know it. We bandage the cut and continue on our way.

Ken and I had wanted to do something different for spring break. Falling into the river could have been fatal, but we were college students at the time and full of dreams of adventures — to ford raging rivers, to scale mountains, to trek across deserts or bivouac in the tops of trees. We gave little consideration to planning or training or giving any thought to the consequences if something went wrong.

Reckless moments like these bring to mind advice my father gave me. He was a Naval aviator and he liked to say there are two laws of physics that every pilot knows well. One law is obvious, he’d say. It’s the law of gravity. The other is not so obvious, he’d add. It is the law of averages, which means, if you continue to take unnecessary risks, you eventually crash.

In flight school, he told me they drill the law of averages into cadets. Rash, risky, foolish behavior isn’t tolerated, and shouldn’t be. It not only puts the pilot at risk, it also places his crew-mates, passengers and aircraft in harm’s way. I’ve read that astronauts take the same approach, only more so. Every single move they make has been carefully thought through by teams of experts.

Pilots, Navy Seals, smoke jumpers, commercial fishermen, and … tree workers can’t afford to take unnecessary risks. They never ever should say, “Just go for it.”

Tree workers are not pilots, but we work high enough to cause serious problems if something goes wrong. Our occupation allows little room for error. Like pilots, like astronauts, tree work is not for the timid. Neither is it for adrenaline junkies.

Interestingly, the average age of smoke jumpers is 35. The average age for Navy Seals is 38. The average age for commercial fishermen is also 38. For commercial airline pilots it’s 50. With age comes maturity. With maturity comes the understanding that accidents do happen, particularly when you’re careless.

I’m not sure what the average age is for tree workers. But it is safe to say there are a lot of people well under 35. That’s sobering news for those of us responsible for their training. That lust for adventure, their attitude of being indestructible, their faith that everything will work out, ought to guide us when supervising them.

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Determining Tree Value Appraisals

Tree Value Appraisals

How do you put a price tag on a tree? Nurseries can do it, because they know what it cost to grow the tree and what profit they need to make. It’s much harder to assign a value to a tree growing out in the real world, in someone’s front yard, for example. Assigning a financial value to a tree is a complex undertaking; it requires a mix of subjective and objective considerations (in other words it’s part art and part science), explains Sherby Sanborn, a consulting arborist in Glen Ellen, California, who provides a variety of services from general tree care recommendations to tree risk assessments, and also tree value appraisals.

Most of the time, tree value appraisals are requested for insurance purposes, Sanborn explains. In recent months, many of his calls for this service have been related to trees lost or damaged by the fires in California, but other times it’s been due to trees impacted by an accident (a car hitting a tree, for instance) or vandalism, etc.

Or a tree value appraisal may be initiated by one party taking another party to court. “Maybe one neighbor cut down another neighbor’s tree,” he cites as one example. “Or if a tree had a large branch torn off by a truck, it may be necessary to determine how much value was lost.” Tree appraisals by an arborist are not accepted by the IRS, however, emphasizes Sanborn. “To claim a loss on one’s taxes, a real estate appraiser has to be involved,” he explains.

There are several different accepted methods for appraising the value of a tree, as outlined in the Guide for Plant Appraisal, produced by the Council of Tree and Landscape Appraisers. Sanborn uses one of the depreciated replacement cost methods known as the trunk formula method. “Basically, I evaluate the tree for its condition or health, and a number of other factors such as the general real estate value that the property exists in (location rating), and what benefits the tree provides — is it an accent structure, is there aesthetic value, air purification, screening, does it frame a view, is there wildlife attraction, the list is virtually endless,” Sanborn says. These are considered “contribution ratings,” and for each one that applies, there’s also a “placement rating” to determine: based on where the tree is placed in relation to the house, how much of a real benefit does it provide?

“Needless to say, all of this can be tricky,” Sanborn says. For example, if a property has 100 trees and one is lost, unless it was a particularly significant tree, its individual value may not be as high as that of a single tree on a property that’s shading the home and screening the view from the neighboring property. Or if a tree is way out in the backyard, it likely won’t have as high a value as a more prominent tree on the front lawn.

The species of the tree also impacts the value of a tree. Sanborn uses a guide from his regional ISA chapter called Species Classification and Group Assignment to help determine this. “Particularly for the trunk formula valuation method, the process involves getting the price of a 24-inch box tree (Sanborn uses the installed cost) of the same species and figuring out that that tree is worth per cross-sectional inch,” he explains. “Then for the actual tree [that you’re appraising], you take your dbh and come up with the number of cross-sectional inches, and then multiply the cost that you came up with for the 24-inch box and multiply that by the number of cross-sectional inches in the tree you’re appraising.” That gives you a basic value, and then you depreciate it for factors such as the species rating (a valley oak is a 90 percent tree, for example, while a Monterey pine is much lower), the health of the tree, and the other ratings criteria described earlier. “It’s just like a car: if your car is an accident and it’s totaled, they’re going to depreciate it for how many miles it had, its age, the condition of the tires, etc.,” he explains.

But unlike appraisals of inanimate things, such as a house, which usually relies on comparing a house with two bedrooms and two baths, say, to what another similar home in the area sold for, trees are all unique. Each tree and each setting is different, and there are also emotions involved. “Everyone loves their trees, or at least most people do,” Sanborn says. This means that appraised values can sometimes be contentious, with one party or another feeling the tree is worth more or less. “A lot of it comes down to the judgement of the person looking at the tree,” he states. Even among the experts, it can be tough to agree. Sanborn notes that the Council of Tree and Landscape Appraisers has been working to create a new appraisal guide for many years and it has been tough find a consensus on what appraisal methods are best.

The considerations outlined here only scratch the surface of the detailed calculations and expert judgement required to accurately appraise the value of a tree. It’s not surprising, then, that most in the tree care business call in an experienced tree appraiser like Sanborn when a client needs to know the value of a tree.

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Finding Inspiration From An Astronaut

Space Station Flyby tree

I recently read an excellent book by Chris Hadfield appropriately titled, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Planet Earth. Hadfield spent 31 years with NASA, flying two shuttle missions and serving five months as commander of the International Space Station.

To garner waning public support for the space program, his son suggested he broadcast videos on social media of what daily life was like on the space station. Soon, countless science classes all around the world were tuning in to watch him perform simple tasks like brushing his teeth or doing laundry in zero gravity, as well as talk about science.

Hadfield was raised on a farm near Sarnia, Ontario, and writes that he decided to become an astronaut at an early age after watching the Apollo 11 Moon landing on TV. At that time, neither Canadians nor any other non-U.S. citizen were allowed into the Space Program.

In hope that one day the policy might change, he focused on math and science in school. He joined the Air Cadet Corps at 16 years old. He later acquired a degree in engineering, and upon graduation, enlisted in the Canadian Air Force where he worked extremely hard to become a test pilot.

On that happy day when NASA agreed to participate in the construction, launch and operation of the International Space Station, Chris Hadfield wasn’t just first in line, he was, as the astronauts say, “good-to-go.”

Hadfield’s unswerving dedication to reach his goal of becoming an astronaut is certainly inspiring. Yet, for me, it was the lessons he shared about life along the way that I found most instructive. One such lesson was his advice to “embrace the training.” He suggests you better come to love “ground-time,” because that’s where you spend the majority of your time. If you’re happy only in space then you’re going to be miserable most days.

As tree workers, we, too, spend a great deal of (ground) time learning our trade. We spend time preparing for each job – gathering equipment, maintaining that equipment, on the road between  jobsites, and once there, more time positioning ourselves to make that right cut. The amount of time we spend up in a tree may be small by comparison.

Hadfield adds that even if he had never piloted the shuttle nor spent a single minute in space, he would still consider all his education, his perspiration, and the sacrifices he and his family made as all worth it. It was the journey that helped him to become the man he is today.

His advice to “embrace the ground time” was good advice. It’s where we live most days. We might as well enjoy them.

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Evaluating Trees After Wildfires

Evaluating Trees After Fire

When wildfires roll through, the devastation is often immense. While attention is usually focused on the impact to structures — sometimes homes are burned right down to their foundations — part of the rebuilding process requires an evaluation of the surrounding trees. In most cases, a decision can be made relatively quickly about whether a building is a total loss and must be replaced, or whether the existing structure can be brought back to life. It’s a simple equation of which approach makes the most financial sense. But as living organisms, trees can be trickier to evaluate once the smoke clears.

Each species of tree, fire event and property is different, so there is no universal rule to follow, explains Steven Swain, environmental horticulture advisor with the Cooperative Extension of Marin County in California. With the numerous wildfires California has endured in recent years, Swain has had plenty of opportunity to evaluate trees after fires have passed through, and to monitor their conditions in subsequent months and years.

“In broad terms, conifers generally die after a fire, and broadleaved trees typically resprout from their root systems, at least here in the West,” Swain says. He offers the caveat that these are general rules, and each tree species and fire event is a little different. Redwood, for example, is a conifer that resprouts. “And it has very thick bark, so even if a redwood is completely charred and loses all of its leaves, there’s a decent chance that it will pull through and survive,” Swain says. “Whereas if you’re dealing with a pine or a fir, if there isn’t a speck of green left on that tree, there is virtually no chance that it’s going to survive. And even if they do make it, if they have less than about 30 percent of their canopy, a lot of times beetles come in and kill the trees that are so stressed by the lack of foliage.”

Trees such as western oak or bay laurel, though, stand a better chance. “Most hardwoods in this environment, even down to toyon and coffeeberry and things like that, sprout from their roots readily because they’re sort of adapted to having their tops burned off,” Swain explains, again with the disclaimer that he’s talking about trees growing in western environments. So before cutting down trees, it is often best to take a wait and see approach. “If you have an oak that’s badly burned, for example, you want to wait until spring and see if it recovers or not. Because oaks can survive surprisingly severe amounts of fire. They’ll be blackened, there won’t be a leaf left on the tree, and then three months later when the rains come you’ll find that much of the tree, except for the ends of the twigs, will resprout.”

When this resprouting from the roots occurs after a fire, it may produce 15 or 20 sprouts; if the goal is to have a tree regrow in that space, the weaker sprouts can be selectively pruned out—but not immediately, Swain cautions: “If you prune them out to a single sprout right away, you’ve once again eliminated almost all of the tree’s canopy, further compromising the root system.” Instead, prune out the unwanted sprouts slowly, over several years, never removing more than about 30 percent of the canopy in any given year, he advises.

While it’s important to understand that many such trees are “fire-adapted,” meaning they have learned to survive — and even thrive — following natural fire events, it’s also critical to understand that when fires rip through residential areas, the environment is anything but natural. “When fire gets into a built environment, houses and cars with gasoline can burn for hours… fires can burn super intensively — maybe up to 3,000 degrees — for a long time. Even if nearby plants don’t burn themselves, they can essentially be boiled alive from the radiant heat,” Swain says. Clues to look for include trees that still have leaves attached, but with sap coming through splits in the bark and running down the trunks. “Different trees can die in different ways due to fire, and it can be difficult to figure out exactly what happened,” he says.

One thing you typically shouldn’t do after a fire is to fertilize trees in an effort to help them recover, Swain says. “Fertilization is generally discouraged,” he explains, noting that while fires wipe out a lot of carbon and nitrogen from the soil, many other nutrients are left behind. And supplemental water is only needed in the event that the weather following a fire is excessively dry, he adds. “The amount of water that the tree can use is directly related to the amount of canopy it has. If you add a lot of water to a tree that has virtually no canopy, you’re just begging to start a root rot problem if the weather turns warm.”

Given all of the devastation that fires leave behind, it’s important to remember all of the reasons why trees are so important, and why it’s worth the effort to save them when possible. In addition to the shade and aesthetic and many other “visible” benefits they offer, “trees, particularly on slopes, help to stabilize the soils,” Swain explains. Again, California has seen its share of landslides, which can be a particular concern following a fire, when the landscape has been wiped clean of trees and other substantial vegetation. “The survival of trees is critical in assessing what kind of erosion potential there may be,” Swain says. It’s the kind of thing that hydrologists and soil scientists are concerned about, but that homeowners might not always think of, he notes, so a tree care expert may need to explain the ramifications of removing versus trying to save trees on sloped properties.

Of course, if the weakened tree itself poses a hazard — maybe it’s beside a road or structure — it should be removed, adds Swain. “In those instances, you may decide that you want to leave the roots in place, because they’re still anchoring the soil,” he explains. In some cases, a hydrologist may need to be called in to assess the stability of the soil due to the loss of tree roots.

But unless a hazard exists (or a home needs to be rebuilt and it will be easier and cheaper to remove any questionable trees on the property before construction), it’s usually best to take a wait and see approach to fire-damaged trees, advises Swain. “Let the tree recover on its own, and tell you how it’s doing.”

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Accepting Credit Card Payments

Credit Card Payments

According to a survey by Intuit, more than half (55 percent) of small businesses in the U.S. don’t accept credit cards. At the same time, the Federal Reserve reports that 60 percent of consumers prefer to pay with a card rather than cash. Clearly there is a disconnect in these numbers.

As a business owner, it’s important to meet the needs of your customers — not only in terms of the service you provide, but in how you allow customers to pay for that service. And the trend toward people preferring credit cards is accelerating: A 2016 Gallup poll found that only 24 percent of people make all/most of their purchases with cash, down from 36 percent just five years earlier. The Federal Reserve found that while checks were used for 40 billion transactions in 2000, there were fewer than half that many checks written by 2014. In short, plastic — in the form of credit and debit cards — has taken over.

While the main benefit of accepting these cards is to make payment easier for customers, accepting credit cards may also lead to increased sales. Numerous studies have shown that consumers will spend more when paying with a credit card. That may be more relevant to spontaneous or impulse purchases made in the check-out line at a store than it is to paying for tree services, but it could result in the customer deciding to add on a service that they wouldn’t necessarily be able to write a check for.

The National Federation of Independent Business points out that accepting credit cards offers additional benefits, as well. Namely setting yourself apart from the competition: companies that accept credit cards are seen as more legitimate than those that don’t. Conversely, if yours is the only tree care business in town that doesn’t accept credit cards, you may be at a competitive disadvantage.

Of course, there are costs to accepting credit cards. The most notable is the 2 to 4 percent fee charged by most credit card companies for processing and transactions. (Sometimes this comes in the form of a flat fee per charge, plus a percentage; debit card fees may be slightly lower than when a credit card is used.) On a $1,000 job, that means $20 to $40 or hard-earned money going out the door rather than into your pocket, or the fuel tank of the chipper. In the grand scheme of things, that may not seem like a lot, but if your profit margin is only 10 or even 20 percent, a 3 percent fee takes away a significant chunk of that profit. Currently, merchants in 42 states are allowed to pass on these fees to customers. And a federal court in California recently struck down a state law prohibiting businesses there from doing so. There are certain procedures that must be followed when adding a surcharge to customers’ bills when they pay with a credit card, so check with your credit card processor.

When you accept credit cards, you’ll need to either select a third-party processor or set up a merchant account with your bank, which can reduce ongoing fees but may cost up to $200 to get started. If you go the merchant account route, you’ll also be responsible for ensuring the security of charging your customers’ credit cards.

There may also be costs for point of sale hardware if you want to accept credit cards out in the field, though some processing companies provide free or low-cost solutions for accepting mobile payments on your smartphone or tablet. You can take credit cards in the office over the phone, but oftentimes the fee charged is higher in these “card not present” situations.

While there are certainly expenses involved, in addition to the benefits mentioned earlier (possibly higher revenue, increased legitimacy among customers, a competitive advantage in a world that has grown accustomed to paying with plastic), there are some additional, less tangible pluses. It may be easier for you to track your tree care company’s payments when credit cards are used, and you may be able to integrate these payments so they flow directly into QuickBooks or some other bookkeeping software. You’ll likely have the money in your account faster than mailing a bill and waiting for a check to arrive and be deposited, which improves cash flow and cuts down on trips to the bank. And it’s easier to set customers up for recurring charges — say for monthly plant health care treatments. Finally, there’s less chance of fraud with a credit card than there may be when accepting a check. Seems like there is an obvious choice in payment methods, no?

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Maintaining Hydraulics In The Winter

Hydraulic Chipper

If you get cold and stiffer in the winter, you shouldn’t be surprised if hydraulic fluid does the same. While it doesn’t change form the way liquid water does in the cold (think snow and ice), hydraulic fluid does change when the temperatures drop. This means that some special attention is required when using equipment that incorporates hydraulic components; while the information below relates specifically to chippers, many of the principles apply to all hydraulic equipment.

“Hydraulic fluid will get more viscous when cold,” explains Boyd Schwarting, fluid power/electrical systems department manager with Bandit Industries. This thicker “means that when the system starts up for the first time on a cold day, it may be sluggish in operation if work is done before the fluid warms up,” says Schwarting. He notes that typically there are bypass valves around critical components (filters, coolers) to allow oil to pass freely around them when cold. “Typically, OEM’s will recommend a warm up period after start-up on a cold day.”

It’s not just a matter of the hydraulics performing more sluggishly. Without proper warm up, operation can cause damage to the system. “The cold weather makes the oil a lot thicker, so if you do not run the unit to heat the oil prior to chipping you could cavitate the pump and accelerate the normal wear on the o-rings, seals, fittings and hoses,” explains Casey Gross, tree care products sales manager with Morbark. “If at all possible, it’s best to store the equipment inside to avoid the added time to warm all the components up prior to going to work. There are heating pads as options that can be added to the hydraulic tanks that will keep the oil warm as well.”

The M15R TorqMax Plus Photo: Morbark

“Lower temperatures can put additional stress on pumps that have to draw the fluid in when cold,” agrees Bandit’s Boyd Schwarting. “It is best to let the machine idle for a few minutes to warm the fluid up before putting the machine to work,” he emphasizes. Additionally, Schwarting cautions, “you should not start the machine if the temperature is below the fluid pour point.”

Fortunately, most hydraulic fluids have a “pour point” (the temperature below which the fluid will lose its flow characteristics) well below zero degrees. There are even some arctic hydraulic fluids specifically designed for use in extremely cold weather, but be sure they are compatible with the equipment you are using. Schwarting points out that, in most cases when the temperatures drop below the pour point of the hydraulic fluid, the engine in the equipment won’t start anyway. “We recommend engine and hydraulic tank heaters be used when the outside temperatures reach below freezing to help eliminate this worry,” he says.

Taking these precautions during cold winter months will ensure that hydraulic equipment performs better and lasts longer. And what about when the temperatures really plummet? Casey Gross with Morbark offers a good rule of thumb for winter operations: “If it’s too cold for the crew to be out working, it’s the same for the equipment.”

Tips From Bandit Industries For Operating Hydraulics in Cold Weather

  • Always let the machine warm up before putting to use.
  • Use engine and hydraulic tank heaters to keep the fluids warm.
  • Do not start a cold engine/system and immediately put it to work before it warms up a little.
  • Use the proper oil for your climate, the oil a machine uses in the south can be used year around. Normally in southern climates an ISO grade 68 fluid is recommended for summer months but this fluid performs very well in their winter months. In the north, you may want to run a more viscous fluid in the summer months (such as the ISO 68 grade) and a lighter fluid in the winter months (an ISO 32 or 46 grade) to help the system operate at its peak performance.

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Diseases Of Pine Trees

Pine disease: Sphaeropsis/diplodia tip blight

Pines grow in most every state of the U.S., and are planted for many reasons. They offer year-round color, protect homes from wind and snow, subtle fragrance, harborage for wildlife and a great backdrop to help show off ornamentals planted in front of them. Unfortunately, they are susceptible to several maladies.

It’s important to keep pines viable by providing good tree care for your customers, especially in two areas, separating trees from turf and proper planting procedures. These basic, but foundational factors are all-important and should always be a reference point when diagnosing tree maladies such as ones on pines.

Separation & Planting

Why are separation and planting so important? There are many reasons, but perhaps the most influential is that these are implementations that get a tree off to the best start possible if done correctly and mistakes that can’t be corrected if not.

Separation – This means designing or re-designing the landscape so that the trees are here and the turf is over there. Think about it. Trees are woody, while turf is herbaceous. Turf usually receives moderate to high volumes of water and fertilizer, and requires mowing. When trees are growing in a co-located landscape setting, they are usually over fertilized and over watered, and constantly run into with lawn mowing equipment; not a healthy environment.

Planting – Good planting practices include: digging a wide but shallow hole, pulling tangled roots apart, placing the root mass such that the uppermost lateral root is even with or slightly above grade, using existing/native soil instead of amended soil to backfill around roots, watering thoroughly to settle the roots, placing wood chip or pine needle mulch over the roots but not the bole and checking the soil moisture weekly to make sure that it’s moist but not soggy or dry. These are all important parts of the process. Way, way too many times trees are planted too deeply, in heavily amended soils, watered once and forgotten, covered with rock mulch and planter boxes built over the roots and more — these practices prevent tree success.


Diseases are not just biological — it’s both — pathogenic and abiotic causes that challenge the overall health of pines. Regular scouting, often referred to as monitoring will help identify possible concerns that are site related (mower blight, leaving stakes on too long, deep planting, over mulching, etc.) and ones that are caused by fungi, nematodes and bacteria. Inspection packages go a long way toward avoiding tree troubles.

Common Pathogens:

Pine wilt — Perhaps the most destructive disease, pine wilt has the capacity to completely kill a tree within two years. If that wasn’t bad enough, even more frustrating to property owners is the deceiving nature of the disease. In most cases, a tree can be healthy looking in April and May, start looking a bit off-color in June, and be entirely brown by July. All pines can become infected, but most cases involve Scots or jack pine.

Pine wilt is similar to Dutch elm disease in that it is carried to the tree by an insect. The carrier for elms is the elm bark beetle. The culprit for pines is the pine sawyer beetle, which carries the actual killer, the pinewood nematode. Once infected, the sap flow throughout the tree declines rapidly, causing death. It typically affects trees that are more than 10 years old.

The pinewood nematode is transferred throughout the disease cycle in two phases. Phase one is relatively straightforward. The sawyer beetles feed on young shoots of healthy trees. Then, the nematodes that are in the bodies of the beetles enter the pine tree through feeding wounds in twigs. Once inside the tree, the nematodes multiply and clog the resin canals, which quickly results in tree death.

Phase two begins when the sawyer beetles lay their eggs in the bark of dead or dying trees. The larvae develop, bore inward and begin feeding on blue stain fungi that have been transmitted by bark beetles that were attracted to the dead trees. After feeding, the nematodes move to the sawyer beetle pupae and are eventually carried along when they develop into adult beetles, after which phase two is complete, and the process starts over again with phase one.

Various approaches have been examined to control pine wilt, including insecticide injections and topical protective sprays. A satisfactory degree of control can be achieved with an injection of abamectin, or Greyhound insecticide. The injection must be made before the onset of symptoms and will generally protect the tree for two growing seasons. Be sure to follow all label directions.

A moderate degree of control can be achieved in a stand of pines if infected pines are removed as soon as possible after the onset of symptoms. To be certain that the nematode is not transferred by the sawyer beetle, it is recommended to burn, bury or chip the logs of the infested tree. Using the trees for firewood is not prudent, as the beetles can continue to emerge from the logs over time.

Pine disease: Sphaeropsis/diplodia tip blight

Sphaeropsis/diplodia tip blight. Photo: John C. Fech

Sphaeropsis tip blight — Formerly known as Diplodia tip blight, this disease causes the new shoots to die before extending fully. Of course, this is a serious outcome, because unlike deciduous trees, all future growth to sustain the tree comes from the apical meristem at the ends of the branches. If an insect, disease or adverse environmental condition causes an oak or beech tree terminal to die, new growth will sprout from lateral buds and can usually be directed to replace the damage. The long-needled pines, such as Austrian and ponderosa pine, are most susceptible.

The first recognizable symptom is a dotting of brown throughout the silhouette of the tree. Closer inspection reveals that the fungus has killed the new shoots. The disease can be further affirmed by pulling the needles loose from the killed shoot. If infected, they can be removed with a gentle tug. Look closely at the base of the removed needle; several small, black spores will be present if Sphaeropsis is involved. Secondly, inspect a cone from the damaged tree, either fallen or attached. Again, small, black spores are likely to be present on the outer scales of the cones. Trees that have been infected for several years are likely to contain several branches that are entirely dead.

Sphaeropsis blight can be controlled by applying cover sprays of copper sulfate, propaconazole and thiophanate-methyl in mid-spring. Thorough coverage of the needles is required. If the disease has heavily infected the tree, consider two applications of fungicide, applied two weeks apart.

Pine tree disease: Dothistroma needle blight

Dothistroma needle blight. Photo: John C. Fech

Dothistroma needle blight — A disease that is equally as problematic in aesthetic terms as the first two maladies is Dothistroma needle blight. Infected trees often appear wind burned or scorched from extreme heat. All pines can become infected, but Scots and Austrian are most susceptible.

As the name would indicate, the symptoms begin with discoloration of the needles. The blighting takes two forms:

1. Small, olive brown to dark brown markings that extend the circumference of the needles, encircling them as if the needle was wearing a thin, flat wedding band.

2. Needles that are brown, starting in the middle and extending to the tip. Some needles are completely brown.

Because the disease does not typically kill the buds, it is generally less worrisome than pine wilt or Sphaeropsis tip blight. However, a pine depends on its needles to photosynthesize and send sugars and carbohydrates throughout the rest of the plant. The more brown needles that a tree has, the less chance it has to remain a healthy part of the landscape.

Control Dothistroma needle blight in much the same as for Sphaeropsis tip blight. Because the disease overwinters on old needles, thorough coverage is required to prevent the disease from spreading. Bordeaux mixture and copper sulfate can be used. Be sure to follow all label directions.

Common Abiotic Maladies:

Desiccation — The drying of needles and stems, usually in winter is caused by extended periods of strong winds and cold temperatures. In many situations, consideration given to this potential malady during landscape design can prevent desiccation.

Drought Stress — The lack of adequate moisture in the root system leads to wilting and drying of all tree tissues. Probing the soil and checking for moisture content on a regular basis will assist in managing drought stress. Irrigation equipment that provides a slow soaking is best.

Herbicide Injury — Commonly caused by air-borne drift or overzealous applications by lawn care applicators, symptoms often appear as a twisting of new growth or a burnt appearance to older needles. Herbicide injury is only controlled through prevention.

Overwatering — As described above, the lack of separation of turf and trees often leads to overwatering. The root zone soil should be moist, not soggy or dry.

Over mulched — If a little is good, then more is better, right?  No so with mulch. Two inches of wood chips, beginning 3 inches away from the trunk and extending to the periphery of the canopy is best.

Surrounded By Pavement — The growing conditions should always be taken into account when considering maladies of trees. If surrounded by impervious surfaces such as asphalt or concrete, air exchange and moisture infiltration are severely limited.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published August 2008 and has been updated.

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Key Metrics To Track For A Profitable Tree Care Operation

Must-Have Metrics

Spring brings the excitement of new tree projects and opportunities. But too many jobs can overwhelm you regardless of how well your tree service may run. While the good news is that you have business coming in, you and your team will suffer a lot of stress if you don’t properly manage these new jobs.

So how do you manage your tree care service when everything speeds up? You rely on numbers. If you don’t understand the following numbers or their impact on your business, you could be setting yourself up for early-season chaos while also missing out on new opportunities for growth.

Here are key numbers to carefully track to make it through this hectic spring and set your company up for a profitable 2018.

Track where prospects are finding you.

Now that clients are calling you, take a minute to see how they found out about you. Are they past clients or were they referred to you? Did they learn about you from radio advertising, yard signage, billboards or social media?

Whenever you get a call, always ask: “How did you hear about us?” This allows you to gauge your marketing efforts and see which medium gives you the biggest bang for your buck. The responses will also tell you where you can reduce your marketing dollars. You will not have to spray-and-pray when allocating your hard-earned dollars.

A common metric to keep in mind is that every dollar you invest in marketing should create at least five dollars in revenue. For example, if you invest $500 into marketing, your target revenue should be $2,500. If this is not the case, take a look at your past client demographics. Did you receive business mainly from residents, businesses, realtors, landscape referrals, municipalities, etc.? Once you know this, you can think about how you got this business, so you can target your marketing medium to that specific group.

Build your sales conversion percentage.

After determining how the prospect found out about your services, go out and close the sale. This is where you must track your closing percentage. For example, if you take a look at 25 jobs and close 12 of them, you have a 48 percent closing rate. This allows you to see how successful you are at selling your services. Is 48 percent good or bad? It’s relative. If you only closed 25 percent of jobs the previous month, then the 48 percent is a major improvement. If the previous month you closed 70 percent, then that would be a red flag.

Your sales conversion ratio can tell you a lot about your sales process. Once you know and understand this number, you can ask better questions, especially if your results are not favorable.

Did you overbid on these jobs? Does your company offer clients something that separates it from competitors, a unique value proposition (UVP) that they might find compelling? Don’t mistake offering a lower price as being your primary UVP. That’s rarely a good idea. Sometimes having too many jobs could mean that your bids are too low.

Work to boost your gross margin.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that more jobs equal more money or more sales equal more profit. If you don’t consistently track your numbers, you may lose sight of which tree jobs are profitable and which jobs are not.

Don’t wait to find this out on the backend once the final debris is removed from your client’s property. By understanding the importance of margins, you can do a better job at controlling the profitability of each property you service. Start by understanding the importance of gross profit margin.

You may already be aware of this simple formula: Sales minus Direct Cost = Gross Profit. Your direct cost is essentially the money you have to spend to get the job done. For example, this would make up your payments to haulers, climbers and ground personnel — the individuals in your employ providing the service. This formula helps you see the efficiency of your efforts and makes up the first part of your income statement, also known as a profit & loss statement.

First, set a gross profit percentage target. This depends on several factors: how you operate, your personnel setup, the amount of equipment utilized by your company and your profitability target.

Let’s say that you would like to have a gross profit margin of at least 50 percent. This means that your total direct costs should not exceed 50 percent. For instance, if you bid on a job for $2,000, then your costs should not be over $1,000. Your magic gross margin number may be 40 percent or 70 percent.

Just a word of caution, typically a gross margin should be at least 30 percent to ensure that the company has enough cash to cover the remaining fixed and variable expenses of the business, such as insurance, utilities, office administration, office supplies, etc.

Second, use a simple spreadsheet to track your daily gross profit per job. Start with the price of the job minus the direct hauling, climbing and ground costs. Instead of waiting until tax time to check your numbers, be mindful of your firm’s financial from week to week, if not on a per-job basis. Knowing the power of margin helps you make course corrections quicker along the way.

Have a way to efficiently track the progress of each job.

Use a simple calendar or scheduling system to keep track of all of your new projects. If you try to commit each and every new job to memory, you may find yourself confusing or missing starts. If you don’t use scheduling software, a simple excel spreadsheet or Google calendar can make a huge difference.

Successfully scheduling and fulfilling your commitments is like smart rigging. You have to be mindful of the working-load-limit of your equipment so that you don’t cause overdue stress. You can place too much stress on your tree care operations if you don’t plan well for the rush of new jobs.

Congratulations on getting more business. Now use these numbers and tips to help you operate smoothly.

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