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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Chain Saws Are Cutting The Cord

Chain Saws Are Cutting The Cord

Chain saws have finally cut the cord. You heard it right: the white-hot trend right now in chain saws is cordless. “My gasoline-powered chain saw can destroy a cordless,” you say. But that’s just it: Cordless technology has made these chain saws just as powerful and effective as gasoline models.

“When we do classes or shows, we will have people come up and you can see the skepticism about cordless,” says Terry Green, technical manager for outdoor power equipment for Makita. “So we’ll challenge them with their gas-powered chain saw and cut an 8-foot-by-8-foot piece of landscape timber, and many times we’ll make 11 cuts with cordless while they make only six to eight cuts with gasoline-powered. They are blown away by how fast the engine runs.”

Green says lithium ion technology now gives cordless products much more power and longer run times then previous generations of battery-powered units. These new cutting machines units have become so popular over the last year or two that sales are tripling and even quadrupling month after month.

“Guys are starting to see that cordless has the power and RPM to run chain fast enough to do quick cuts,” Green says.

Other benefits of cordless include reduced noise levels, not having to mix gas and oil, less maintenance and not having to physically start it. “We see a lot of professionals use cordless chain saws in bucket trucks because they don’t have to get up there and crank it, just pull the trigger,” Green says. “The same goes for arborists who are hanging from trees.”

With all the fascination the industry currently has for cordless chain saws, there also needs to be an understanding of their limitations. With only 16 inches of capacity on the guide bar, it’s not the tool for big trees.

Working on big trees or operating a chain saw four to eight hours a day can be extremely fatiguing, so manufacturers are making chain saws, even larger gasoline-powered models, lighter weight with magnesium housings. Users also typically look for high performance, a good power-to-weight ratio, ergonomics, balance, chain speed and parts availability.

“Chain saw manufacturers are reducing weight either in new designs or material makeup, using stronger but lighter polymers and even carbon fiber,” says Kent Hall, product manager for STIHL.

“There has been a focus on improving the operations of a saw, reducing weight, increasing power and introducing new technologies to make saws more durable and efficient and require less maintenance for years,” Hall says.

For example, STIHL’s saws have anti-vibration systems that operators greatly appreciate. Also, unique to STIHL is an intelligent engine management system based on new ignition modules that have tiny computer chips similar to those used in automobiles.

“It eliminates adjustments on the carburetor and is based on a digital solenoid attached to the carburetor that opens and closes to let the fuel/air mixture enter the engine,” Hall says. “The result is that it adapts to the environment the saw is operating in, whether it’s changes in elevation, air filtration or fuel quality.”

This innovation also reduces the maintenance time required to clean the air filter. Another trend is emissions control, Hall says. Chain saws are putting out less harmful emissions into the atmosphere, burning cleaner and more efficient.

“The side benefit to users is that this creates more power in the saw,” Hall says.

As far as cordless goes, STIHL has introduced a top-handle chain saw or climbing saw for arborists in the tree service industry in Europe and plans to introduce the same saw in the U.S. in the late 2018 or early 2019.

“But until the lithium ion battery technology improves as far the amount of power but reduction in weight, you won’t see it in larger saws,” Hall says.

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Types Of Tree Defects

Stability and safety of the trees on your customer’s properties are just as important as the aesthetics that they provide. It’s up to you as a tree service provider to inform your clients of the status of their trees in terms of health and longevity as well as the immediate, short term needs that may be of immediate concern.

Leaning trees are usually the result of the loss of root and soil connection. Photo: John Fech

Inspections, Monitoring

Defects are usually spotted through inspection by an arborist. Or sometimes during a customer call when the customer mentions that “My tree looks kinda funny, is that a problem?” However, those types of inquiries are usually reserved for older trees or ones in close proximity to their house, building or other important structure. In their defense, it’s unrealistic to expect any other routine. After all, it’s the rare individual that can spot a cavity in their tooth, let alone the need for a bridge. The dentist and/or dental hygienist is the professional that is responsible for noticing these concerns, similar to an arborist noticing serious maladies in trees.

To provide responsible tree care and provide for the bottom line, it’s good practice to implement a yearly inspection or better yet a continuous monitoring plan (as in dental care) and charge for it — the dentist does, so should you. Explain that yearly inspections will spot problems before they get too bad, and can usually be corrected or at least major damage to surrounding structures can be prevented.

A crack in the bark and sapwood often leads to internal decay. Photo: John Fech

Serious Tree Flaws

All tree flaws are serious, but some more so than others. Generally speaking, there are two groups of defects in trees, the serious and the concerning. Perhaps the most serious are cracks, leaners and decay.

A crack in the bark and sapwood often leads to internal decay. Photo: John Fech

Cracks, the physical separation of bark, sapwood and cambium, are troublesome in both a structural and water conductive sense. As well, the separation and opening in the outer tissues allows entrance of disease organisms and insects to the inner tissues, which is almost always a negative outcome in years to come.

Leaning trees are much like cracks, except that the separation has occurred underground instead of on the trunk. Leaners are trees whose roots have loosened and lost connection to the soil particles around them. If you spot a tree that is more than 15-20 degrees off vertical, consider it an immediate problem, only correctable with removal. A tree that is 5-10 degrees off vertical is one that is to be documented and monitored for greater lean in the future.

Leaning trees are usually the result of the loss of root and soil connection. Photo: John Fech

A caveat with leaning trees: Some leaners are simply stretching for the light. If there are trees with a building or other object nearby that block the tree from being fully exposed to sunlight, the canopy may have simply reoriented itself in that direction. This is a tree to be monitored, documented and the results communicated with the property owner.

Decay is the result of pathogenic fungi activity, working to soften tree tissues, causing loss in structural capacity. There are many specific pathogens such as white rot and brown rot, but all produce the same results. Decay is often hidden by intact bark, necessitating inspection by an experienced tree worker to spot it. Sounding, drilling and simple probing are techniques that can be helpful in this regard. In addition to the loss of integrity in the short term, the seriousness of the malady is that there is no way to lessen the effects in the long term, other than to notify the customer of the seriousness of the defect.

Decay is often not visible upon external inspection. Photo: John Fech

Concerning Tree Flaws

Included bark, co-dominant leaders and girdling roots are worrisome, but are usually not an immediate threat to tree failure — more so over time. All can lead to the greater, more immediately concerning problems described above, but are just as important to document and communicate to the client. Root plate issues, surface rooting, roots cut in utility repair, compacted soils, overwatering and other damaging influences are also of certain negative influence and should be noted in monitoring reports, especially when targets of importance are present.

Cracks weaken trunks and branches, causing immediate structural concern. Photo: John Fech

Read more: Understanding Tree Defects

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Preparing For And Navigating The Spring Season

Spring is the time when nature comes back to life. For tree care companies in many parts of the country, there’s a similar feeling. Even in the far north, most continue operations during the winter months, but it’s often on a scaled-back level, with limitations on what kind of jobs can be done and smaller crew sizes. When the growing season returns in the spring, the demand for tree services comes rushing back to life, too.

Getting people in place

High Falls Tree Service in Rochester, New York, runs one crew through the winter and adds a second crew once spring hits, says owner Erik Matzky. That means devoting time to employee recruitment — both trying to bring back employees who were good performers in the past as well as finding quality additions.

Matzky says he’s found it works best to try out new employees during the winter months whenever possible to see if the fit seems good. If it turns out that they’re good candidates, great. If not, there’s still time to try someone else before things get really crazy in the spring, he notes.

“Winter is a time when you can evaluate whether a new employee is going to be productive,” he explains. “Or to see whether they like the industry enough to think of it as a career down the line.” Plus, he adds, this approach allows time to get new employees trained so the whole crew is ready to hit the ground running come spring.

High Falls Tree Service owner Erik Matzky

“You can’t be monkeying around with that in the spring, that’s your busy time,” he says.

And once that busy time hits, Matzky says he tries to rotate employees through different crews “so that nobody is getting sick of each other … and we can find out who everyone is happiest working with.”

He adds that, fortunately, everyone tends to be excited in the spring to really get back to work, so morale tends to be good. “And my personal approach is to try not to overwork them. I give them their weekends, and we try to keep it down to 45 to 50 hours a week in the field, so they’re not getting burned out. Because there are still two to three more seasons to go in the year,” Matzky explains. “We probably lose some work because we’re not working 12- to 15-hour days and weekends, but everybody is getting to spend time with their families and they’re happier.”

Farther to the south, spring is different than it is in northern climates, but still is a busy time in the tree service business, says Art Morris, general manager at New Urban Forestry in Athens, Georgia.

“We don’t slow down [in the winter] quite the way they do up north … so we don’t have the same kind of challenges to ramp up to hit the ground running in the spring. That being said, it does tend to get busier for us in the spring. People start going outside and looking at their trees, and the phone starts to ring a little bit more.”

New Urban Forestry is always on the lookout for good employees — “if I find a good employee, I’m going to hire them regardless of what time of year it is,” says Morris — but doesn’t necessarily do a spring hiring to bring additional people on for that time of year.

Odd jobs

What kind of work is in high demand during the spring? “The biggest thing for us is ramping up for our plant health care side of the business. We have to get all of our soil nutrient analysis ready to go for clients who are on soil care programs,” says Morris. “What tends to sneak up on us is that first warm week in the spring. Here in Georgia, that can happen in February. That can mean things like ambrosia beetles are starting to fly, so we have to be ready with our treatment programs and soil care once the soil temperature gets up and we suspect pest problems will be starting.” Because the company uses a lot of biological controls, timing is important, so there is a lot of monitoring of temperatures and growing degree days during the spring.

And up north, it’s the same thing. “For us, we do plant health care, so we’re really busy getting that up and running as spring approaches,” says Matzky.

But calls come in for plenty of other services, as well, he notes. “It sounds weird, but spring also tends to be a busy time for tree removals,” he explains. While that’s the kind of work that can be done in the winter, many property owners aren’t thinking about it at that time. “People are outside more, they’re looking up, they’re raking things up,” he explains.

Plus, there sometimes has been damage to trees during winter storms that requires them to be removed. There’s another reason that this relatively costly service spikes in the spring, Matzky points out: “That’s when people are getting their tax refunds.”

He adds that High Falls Tree Service, which is more geared toward tree preservation and trimming, might price removals a little higher during this busy time of year, especially for jobs that the company isn’t as excited about taking on. You have to be more selective during the busy spring rush about which jobs make the most sense, Matzky explains. “We know where we’re making money and where we’re not; in the spring, from a business standpoint, it’s about cash flow,” says Matzky. That being said, once the calls really start coming in, the company tries to take on as much work as it can.

Getting ready for the rush

During the winter, on days when the weather prevents outdoor work, High Falls Tree Service focuses on its equipment, so that everything is ready to go when spring arrives.

“We go through everything to try to make it look nicer and be sure everything is working, so we don’t have breakdowns when things are really busy in the spring,” Matzky explains. “Other than that, we try to break even [financially] so that we’re not in a hole when spring comes and we can hit the ground running.”

Morris says that New Urban Forestry also makes sure in the somewhat quieter lead-up to spring that all of its trucks and equipment are up to date with maintenance. “That way, when we do get busier, we’re not dealing with downtime with trucks and chippers and trailers,” he explains.

He’s found another spring-prep tactic that works well. “We try to visit our clients before spring hits, so that we already have an idea of what needs to be done and we’re not just waiting for the phone to ring,” he explains. “If we’re walking the properties with them in January, we can put a plan in place for March through September.” Evaluating properties in advance and setting up different services helps not only from a sales perspective, but also in terms of evening the workload for the company, so that there isn’t a lull, followed by a surge in requests when temperatures do warm up and people are outside more, Morris explains. “It helps to even out some of the hills and valleys in regard to production scheduling.”

Managing expectations

Because things can get hectic in the spring, managing customer expectations is important, say both Matzky and Morris.

“We do end up running a much larger backlog of work in the growing season than we do during the winter,” says Morris. “We might be two or three weeks out in the winter, and up to eight weeks out during the summer.” He’s found that front-end communication with customers is key to managing their expectations.

And Morris says that outstanding quality of work is the best way to make clients happy when they have to wait during busy times of the year. “Our clients are hiring a premium tree care company, so oftentimes they are willing to wait for really good quality. We just have to be sure to communicate that clearly up front, and then deliver exceptional care when we do arrive,” he explains.

“Scheduling is our biggest nightmare,” says Matzky. “It’s by far our biggest downfall.” He says he’s tried various systems but has never been able to find one that works great. It’s difficult when things are busy and the weather is unpredictable to say with certainty how many jobs can be completed in a given day or week. Ideally, he’d like to have at least two weeks in advance scheduled, “but one rain day can mess up 15 jobs, so we try to run uncommitted, but people want commitments,” Matzky explains. “For the people who are frustrated that they had to wait, the best thing you can do is make sure that your work is so good that, in the end, they feel it was worth waiting for.”

Another complicating factor is that because it tends to be a wet time of year, the ground can be soft. That can mean jobs take a little longer to complete as crews make every effort to avoid damaging lawns and landscapes. “We may try to minimize damage by making a plywood path to get equipment in, or to avoid making a path across someone’s yard from a lot of trips in and out,” Matzky explains. Some jobs may be climbed rather than relying on equipment in order to lighten the footprint on the property.

Matzky says another challenge is educating customers, who are excited to get everything done in the spring and have their landscape looking perfect, that it’s better to wait to prune some trees. “On ornamentals, for example, we try to wait until they’re done blossoming, so we try to push those jobs off, if the customers let us,” he explains. “A lot of times, though, things are dictated by the customer, and they don’t always listen to you.”

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Thinking Long Term When Planting Trees


At the outset, “right tree, right place” seems to be a rather simple concept, doesn’t it? Yet, I see so many poorly placed trees, I sometimes wonder if proper tree placement is, in fact, simple. Or is ignorance or inexperience to blame for so many trees being planted in so many inappropriate locations?

If you investigate just a bit, you’ll find several reasons why trees are placed poorly, but likely the biggest reason is failure to think long term. The tree planter focused on the today, the short term, the here and now. That’s why they planted the tree too close to a house or on a property line. The property owner is thinking only of their immediate needs, not those of future owners.

Good tree placement takes thought up front. After all, you can’t move it 10 years down the road … OK, you can, but it’s usually an ordeal that is impractical and expensive.

Carefully consider the site and the tree’s impact on the site, as well as the site’s impact on the tree. In other words, identify the characteristics of and needs for the site and the problems the tree will solve or the enhancements it will bring to that particular site.

Then consider basic design principles of line, texture, form, repetition, size or shape and layering. Perhaps the most important of these, at least in a replacement sense, is separation of trees and turfgrass. From a tree care point of view, it’s the one to focus on because trees and turf have very different needs — watering, fertilizing, mowing, pest control — but they are often treated the same because they’re located in the same space.

There are many examples of good and bad locations for trees in the landscape, but for the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on five of each.

Bad Locations

1. Hell in Strips.

Narrow and oddly shaped pieces of the landscape are simply not conducive to healthy tree growth in terms of soil volume and everyday maintenance.

2. Under Power Lines.

This creates problems for power companies, which will have to prune the trees so that they don’t eventually damage power lines. This is expensive and the trees look horrible after being butchered away from the lines.

3. Where it casts too much shade on a tee or sports field.

Shade is great, but not where it interferes with the function of recreational activities underneath.

4. Where it drops too much debris

Fruit, twigs and leaves often get in the way of activities at shopping malls, golf greens and office buildings.

Tree debris can be a problem, especially on sites where it’s difficult to remove.

5. In the middle of a yard

When trees are placed in the midst of turf being cared for at a higher level of maintenance, the common result is soggy tree roots leading to root rot and other problems arising from growing too rapidly.

Good Locations

1. To cast shade on patios, tee boxes, park benches or picnic tables

Ask 100 people what the main purpose of a tree is, and the majority of them will say “for shade.” After all, no one wants to sit in the full sun for hours and hours.

2. Screening of Views

Industrial parks, lazy neighbors, tattoo parlors, etc., need to be screened from the client’s property.

Framing trees can give perspective and enclosure of a space where needed.

3. Windbreaks for snow and wind reduction

In northern climates, windbreaks serve an important functional and aesthetic purpose in redirecting wind and snow away from places of human habitation.

4. Backdrop for gold greens, framing trees for residential settings

Sometimes it’s not so much the tree, but the element in the landscape that is next to or in front of the tree that is important. Backdrop and framing trees provide for this.

5. Bolster the mass/void and space definition design features

Trees placed in the landscape at overstory and under-story levels enhance existing plantings if sun or shade and moisture needs are taken into account.

6. Habitat for Songbirds

Who doesn’t appreciate hearing the songs of cardinals and the cooing of morning doves in the spring and see flashes of color as songbirds visit or perhaps even nest in the trees on their property?

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