Hire an Arborist for Residential Tree Needs

Hallie Dozier  |  4/23/2005 12:55:14 AM

Arborist Dave Leonard uses an air knife to rememdy soil compation under live oaks in New Orleans. The air knife is used to cut vertical trenches between main woody roots. The trenches will be back-filled with mulch to increase air and water circulation around the root system. (Photograph by Hallie Dozier)

Arborists can provide a variety of services, including transplanting and installation. Here arborists hand dig a small live oak in preparation for transplanting it to a new site. (Photograph by Hallie Dozier)

A key service that professional arborists provide is tree removal. Here arborist Rip Tompkins climbs a cottonwood tree to remove large branches in preparation for felling. (Photo by Hallie Dozier)

by Hallie Dozier

Why hire an arborist?


Trees, on home grounds or in parks, are valuable assets to us all. Trees also are a long-term investment for property owners and managers. Like any investment, trees require effort to keep their value. That means that tree owners and managers must make careful decisions about care and maintenance, which may require occasional advice and service of a professional. In the world of landscape and community trees, arborists are the specialists who can help safeguard your trees. This article will help explain when it is best to call an arborist and how to select the right one.


What is an arborist?

Arborists are men and women who make a career of caring for landscape and community trees. Some are self employed, and others may work or consult for tree care companies, municipalities, insurance companies, utility companies or attorneys. Regardless of where they work, arborists are professionals concerned with the planting and the care of trees. An arborists can help you with an array of other tree care practices, including transplanting, pruning, fertilizing and pest management. Most arborists are also skilled in tree removal and value appraisals.

Consulting arborists are a bit different. These experts offer advice but usually do not provide the actual services. They specialize in appraising, diagnosing problems, recommending treatments and suggesting where to obtain competent service. A consultant is often the “second opinion” a tree owner needs before making decisions. Other times, the consultant is the legal expert who helps settle disputes in court cases.


When do I need the help of an arborist?

The best way to determine when you need the services of an arborist is to answer the questions on the checklist below:

  • Do you own shade trees and care about their place in the future?
  • Are your trees healthy and vigorous, but you are the kind of person who believes in preventing problems through planning?
  • Does any of the following apply to you or your trees?
    • My tree has limbs that are dying.
    • The soil around my tree is compacted.
    • My tree has been damaged by a storm.
    • My tree has cracks in the trunk or cankers growing from the bark.
    • My tree’s branches are close to or touching wires or a structure.
    • My tree’s branches interfere with road or sidewalk passage.
    • My tree’s branches rub against one another.
    • My tree’s roots need to be cut to accommodate construction, plumbing, cable installation, etc.
    • I am building a home on a lot with trees.
    • My trees need to be appraised, braced, fertilized, etc.
    • I want to install lighting in my tree.
    • I want to install lightning protection in my tree.

If the answer to any question is yes, the service of an arborist can help you keep your trees healthy and give you peace of mind.


Tips for hiring an arborist

The following tips can help in the hiring process:

  • Beware of door-knockers who may show up just after storms when they see a chance to earn quick money. Many of these folks are not professionals and may not have the skills or proper equipment to do the work safely.
  • Ask to see the arborist’s state license. Never let anyone without a license work on your trees. It could be very dangerous and costly.
  • Don’t let anyone rush you with a bargain, like “If you sign an agreement today, you can save 15% on the price.”
  • Check the telephone directory for listings of tree care providers (under Tree Care). Look for logos that indicate membership in professional organizations such as the  International Society of Arboriculture or the National Arborist Association. It’s easy to contact these organizations to confirm membership.
  • Ask the arborist for a client or reference list so that you can assess his or her workmanship.
  • Get copies of proof of liability, personal insurance, property damage insurance and worker’s compensation. Don’t stop there – call the insurance company to verify that the policy is current.
  • Obtain more than one written estimate, but don’t expect an arborist to lower a bid to match another’s. Be willing to pay for the estimate.
  • A good arborist will not use climbing spikes unless the tree is going to be removed.
  • Beware of an arborist who is too eager to remove a living tree, but keep in mind that living is not always equal to healthy or structurally sound.
  • Get current information about any licensed arborist you are considering hiring from the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry (225-952-8100).


Get a contract

State law requires that arborists provide a written contract that specifies the services to be performed and the sum to be paid. A standard contract between the tree owner and the arborist should contain these key details:

  • The dates that work will begin and end.
  • The total dollar amount you will be charged.
  • A thorough description of the work. For example, “prune all dead, diseased, and weak branches one inch or greater in diameter.”
  • If the arborist is going to spray your tree with a pesticide, get details about specific insects or diseases being treated, the chemical and quantity to be used, and what you need to do in advance of the treatment (e.g., cover lawn furniture, keep pets inside, etc.). Remember, pesticide operators MUST have a special license to use pesticides.
  • If the arborist is going to fertilize your tree, make sure the contract specifies the type of fertilizer, the application rate and the method of application.
  • The arborist should spell out details about cleanup. Who gets any firewood? If you are getting firewood, who will cut and stack it? Who is responsible for removing small-diameter debris (e.g. small branches, leaves, etc.)?
  • If the arborist is going to grind the stump and roots, it should be to one foot below grade and should be backfilled with topsoil.

Work is usually quoted as a single price for the job or on an hourly basis plus materials. When the arborist uses the latter, be sure to include the wording, “but not to exceed.”

When negotiating the contract, be sure to ask the arborist questions like, “How do you make your pruning cuts?” or “How can I be sure that pedestrians and children will be safe?” Also, make sure that your concerns are dealt with fairly BEFORE work begins. Finally, if a dispute arises or you would like an expert to check the quality of work, seek the services of a consulting arborist, urban forester or similar specialist who is not in competition with the arborist you hired.


A little about arborists in Louisiana

Since the 1980s Louisiana has required tree care workers to have a license. Louisiana is one of only a small number of states in the country that require any kind of license or certification for tree care workers. Arboriculture is a dangerous way to make a living, and requiring a license and continuing education is a positive step in improving this industry in our state. Today, the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry (LDAF) licenses about 500 commercial arborists in Louisiana. Once an arborist passes the Louisiana Arborist License Exam, he or she must do three things to keep the license:

  1. Pay an annual licensing fee to LDAF.
  2. Attend one day-long continuing education seminar each year
  3. Provide a certificate of insurance for liability of $25,000 per person for personal injuries and not less than $50,000 for property damage.

Not every person who works on trees in Louisiana has a state license. The law requires that the person working on the tree must have a license, have an employee who has a license or work under the direct supervision of someone with a license. A direct supervisor is someone who gives directions and instruction and accepts responsibility for the final product. That means, for example, a licensed arborist who owns his own company can have several crews of unlicensed arborists working several sites as long as the licensee is in charge and is responsible for the work. Because non-licensed workers are not required to attend continuing education seminars, they may not be current on industry recommendations and practices. To be safe, make sure that the person working on your tree has his/her own license.

Some arborists go above and beyond the minimum requirements of the state license and join a state, national or international professional organization. Membership in such organizations allows the arborists to interact with others in the field of tree care and to exchange information about arboricultural practices. Arborists who join professional groups, especially the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA), the National Arborist Association (NAA) and the Tree Care Industry Association (TCIA), also have access to current, research-based industry recommendations regarding tree care and safety. These groups also all have professional codes of conduct that encourage members to be better professionals as service providers. In Louisiana there are about thirty state-licensed arborists who also maintain membership in ISA.

Tree owners are the most important component in a healthy urban and community forest. Sound stewardship of urban and community forests includes employing the services of tree care professionals to help maintain the health and vitality of your trees. Call an arborist today.

This article is adapted from materials previously published by the Louisiana Arborist Association and the International Society of Arboriculture and it previously appeared in Forests & People, 54(4): 15-17.

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