Tree surgeon, arborist or chain saw man? Why you need to know…
I didn’t know the difference between a tree surgeon, an arborist (also known as an arboriculturalist) and a Chain Saw Man when we first moved into a garden with trees.
First, we got the trees cut by a man with a chain saw who told us he knew all about trees. He clearly didn’t, and chopped the branches off half-way along their length.
By the following summer, they’d sprouted in an ugly pattern around where he’d cut. The tree started to look like a lump of branches and foliage rather than a beautiful tree.
Qualified tree surgeons…
Then we started using qualified tree surgeons. The results were better, but variable. I hadn’t heard the word ‘arborist’ or ‘aboriculturalist’ at this stage. So, believing a tree surgeon to be a tree expert, I asked for advice on what trees to plant.
That was a mistake. I asked for a fast-growing evergreen recommendation to block an ugly street lamp and he supplied a Liquidambar and a rowan. They’re beautiful trees but they’re not evergreen. Or fast-growing. That’s not surprising, as I don’t think either are in the right position (see the Liquidambar below).
I’ve since puzzled over what the tree surgeon thought I wanted. ‘Evergreen’ and ‘deciduous’ don’t even sound like each other, so surely he didn’t mis-hear? They are wonderful trees for autumn colour, but that wasn’t my primary reason for needing a tree in that spot.
Of course, you might say (with justification) that I should have done my own research. But I thought he was an expert and that I knew nothing.
The first lesson of gardening
This brings me to the first lesson of happy gardening: even if you know nothing about gardening, you often do know what you want in your own garden. You may not know the right words or terminology, but you may have a surprisingly clear idea.
So if ‘experts’ don’t seem to make sense, question them. They may not have understood what you’ve asked for.
And don’t be afraid of asking ‘silly questions.’ We all know different things. You’re entitled to ask when you don’t know something.
Of course, what I really needed was an arborist/arboriculturalist or advice from a tree nursery. I like both trees, but I don’t think they’re in the best place for either their growing conditions or for what I wanted them for.
I’ve since researched and written a post on how to choose the perfect tree for your garden with all the advice I wish I’d known then.
So what’s the difference between a tree surgeon and an arborist?
I asked Matt Jackson of Land & Heritage to explain. Matt is a garden consultant, qualified arborist and advises on both domestic gardens and large estates. ‘Arboriculture goes beyond knowing how to prune trees and cut them down. An arborist or arboriculturalist is trained to understand the mechanics and biology of a tree, and everything that’s going on within it. He or she will be able to give you a detailed assessment of its health, vitality and safety. Whereas a tree surgeon’s job is prune or cut down trees.’
Some (less polite) arborists say that tree surgeons prune branches off trees but don’t know why they’re doing it or what effect it’ll have on the tree.
However, many tree surgeons do also have arboricultural qualifications. There are tree surgeons as well as arborists on the Arboricultural Association’s website.
‘Tree surgeons haven’t always been trained in tree diseases,’ adds Matt. ‘You need an arborist rather than a tree surgeon if you want advice on the health of your trees.’
Common tree health symptoms
Matt says that, as a homeowner, you’re in the best position to observe whether your tree is healthy or not. ‘Look at how your tree performs during the year,’ he advises. ‘Is the crown (the leaf canopy) thinning? Is it dropping its leaves earlier than usual? Are there whole section which are dead?
In autumn, fungus fruiting is a sign that something’s wrong with the tree. Holes, splits, cracks and oozing at any time of year are also all warning signs.
Matt also thinks that it’s worth doing a certain amount of self-diagnosis. ‘There’s so much help online – for example, on the RHS website. If you know what the tree is, look up the symptoms and you’ll get a pretty good idea of what’s wrong with your tree. You can find photographs, diagrams and videos.’
When our Cotinus coggyria ‘Grace’ suddenly died on one side, I consulted the internet, and then an arborist. Together we decided it was verticilium wilt, and that we would first try to keep the tree by cutting away the dead areas.
An arborist will discuss the issues
You have a legal responsibility to keep your trees safe.
However, that doesn’t necessarily mean cutting a tree down at the first sign of a problem. Chain Saw Man will suck his back teeth and tell you that tree must come down. A tree surgeon is also likely to advocate pruning or felling it. Only an arborist will give you a balanced view, according to what’s best for the tree and what you want for your garden.
You will have to pay a fee for that advice. But if there’s less tree surgery and felling as a result, you may save money by doing so.
For example, our Cotinus is a major feature in the garden. I really didn’t want to lose it. The official online advice on dealing with verticilium wilt is to slash and burn. Get rid of everything.
But the reality is that once you have something like honey fungus or verticilium wilt in your garden, it’s there for keeps. You manage it by not planting susceptible species.
So we decided to cut away the dead parts and also to thin the rest so that there would be better air circulation. When it was pruned, I could see from the marks in the cut branches (by going on the internet!) that the tree had had bouts of verticilium wilt before. And in the autumn I added a layer of mulch to the soil.
Last summer there was no sign of the verticilium wilt. This winter we’ve had the Cotinus pruned back to about one third of what it was at its maximum size.
I’m updating this post three years after our original experience with the verticilium wilt. We are keeping the cotinus much smaller than it used to be, but it still looks healthy. So I’m glad I didn’t cut it down and burn it.
However, I did recently have an experience with ‘chain saw man’, which I thought was worth passing on. Someone knocked on our door and said he was ‘working on the trees next door.’
When I mentioned our neighbours’ names, he amended it to ‘no, next door to them.’ He then went onto say he’d noticed the trees in my front garden were rather overgrown, which they are. Did I want a quote, because he could ‘pull a couple of men off the other job and do my trees’?
When I questioned him about what he would do to the trees, he started to get aggressive. ‘Those trees are a nightmare, they’re just terrible.’ He suggested pruning the ornamental cherry (it should only be done in mid-summer and this was autumn). And he suggested pruning the viburnum, which is about to come into flower.
As I became increasingly uneasy, his tone grew more bullying. I took his card and said I would ask next-door-but-one if I could look at their trees after his work was done. He then amended it to ‘no, the house beyond that’ and went.
I should have known. Good tree surgeons and arborists very rarely have the spare capacity to knock on doors looking for work. You will often need to book them several weeks in advance.
Is my tree dead or is it just dormant?
And do a few dead branches mean the end of a tree? Matt showed me an easy test to tell whether a tree or branch is really dead. Use a knife to scrape away a small amount of the bark. If the tree is alive, you will see yellow or greenish growth under the bark. But if it is brown and dry, it is dead.
You can see this demonstrated here on a willow tree at Leeds Castle.
How much will an arborist cost?
I can’t find any official figures, but most qualified gardening experts cost around £35 to £50 an hour. Time spent writing up reports, making recommendations and travel should also be counted in. For more about finding the right gardening expert, see my posts on garden appraisals and finding the right gardener for your garden.
I’ve seen tree surgeons quote around £40 an hour or £200 a day per person. They often have to work in teams of two or more, and there’ll be added charges for the use of special equipment.
Fees depend on what part of the country you’re in, so get a few quotes before deciding. Although I’ve often found that if I ring half a dozen companies, only two reply and only one turns up, so comparing quotes isn’t always as easy as it sounds.
Find a professional via the Arboricultural Association.
Matt Jackson can be contacted at Land & Heritage.
Don’t try to cut costs…
Working with trees and power tools is genuinely dangerous, not just for the person up the tree with a chain saw, but also for anyone standing around.
A friend of mine once booked a tree surgeon who failed to turn up, so an unqualified man who’d done some odd jobs for her offered to prune the tree instead. He died falling out of it onto some railings. It really is that dangerous.
Would you need a tree surgeon or an arborist to shape your trees?
You can grow quite large trees even in the smallest spaces if you prune or shape them. However, this means trimming them yearly, so it’s important to find someone who can do this. A good tree surgeon should be able to do it. Or, if you’re keeping the shape quite restricted and low, a professional gardener can do it.
See this post for more about choosing shapes and styles of trees for small gardens.
More help for your garden trees
The key reason why trees is fail is that they’re planted badly. So find out how to plant a tree here.
And if you have a tree in your garden which feels too big, think about pruning it before deciding to cut it down. See how to prune for both light and privacy for ‘transparent pruning’ techniques.
And for a comprehensive handbook on trees for small gardens, see Alan Titchmarsh’s How To Garden: Small Trees. It has recommendations for trees, plus care and pruning advice.
Note that links to Amazon are affiliate, see disclosure.
Pin to remember what an arborist does
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