The Most Common PHC Issues – and Solutions – Around the U.S.

A crew member with General Tree Service in Beaverton, Oregon, provides a systemic insect-control treatment. “For pesticides and insecticides for larger trees, if we know it is aphids or bronze birch borer, we will recommend systemic control, injecting at the base of the tree into the soil so the tree will take it up,” says General Tree’s Steve Zetterlund. Photo courtesy of General Tree Service.

What in the past might have been described as hip, hot or happening today is called trending. Plant health care for trees is trending.

All the definitions of plant health care, or PHC, for trees boil down to maintaining or improving the appearance and health of woody plants in their own settings and doing it in an environmentally responsible manner and in collaboration with the property owner. Oftentimes, it involves consulting with and educating the client regarding which species will thrive in which locale and how best to nurture them.

We asked arborists around the country to describe the most common PHC problems they see and how they address them.

Rolf Briggs, consulting arborist and owner of Tree Specialists, Inc., an accredited, 35-year TCIA member company based in Holliston, Massachusetts, speaks to his regional needs and this relatively new aspect of the tree care business.

“Sixty-six percent of problems are planting and roots … poor drainage, soil compaction, overwatering, improper mulching,” says Briggs. “The first thing to do is a soil assessment to see what’s happening.”

For example, he notes, “Northeast soil is different from that of the Midwest. There is an iron deficiency in the Midwest we do not have here,” Briggs says, “So soil treatments will be drastically different. For effective soil management, one needs regional knowledge from sources such as TCIA or the local cooperative-extension service.”

He adds that there is no reason not to have access to that gold mine of information.“There is so much information online, from Cornell University, Ohio State University and the University of Massachusetts. You don’t even have to attend classes or go to the colleges – just go online.

“Of course,” he continues, “plant identification is important, to know what kind of plant you are treating, so you know what kind of dosing is effective, what the mulching needs are and (the appropriate) exposure to sun and the elements. You can put a plant (tree or shrub) in the wrong spot and do all kinds of treatment and not get good results. And you can’t fix it by pruning and mulching. Similarly, if you do not know the plant is a full-shade species and plant it in full sun, no plant health care technique will fix it. So, the first step anywhere in the U.S. is knowing the plant and its requirements,” he states.

Because soil condition is so important, Briggs says of soil testing and soil assessment, “You need to do both. Soil testing will give you micro elements, pH and basic chemical makeup of the soil. Soil testing is part of a larger soil assessment that includes factors such as compaction.”

Spraying techniques are one of Briggs’ pet peeves. On the one hand, he says, “Many still spray for bugs and diseases not around anymore. It’s called spray for money, and we need to stop doing that and be responsible for using chemicals in the environment.”

Additionally, he reports, companies do not correctly target diseases and insects. “I see companies spray for hemlock scale (largely an eastern pest affecting 14 eastern states, according to the North Carolina State Extension Service) with horticultural oil. The scale is not affected by the oil,” he maintains, “so people need to be aware of those bugs and spray correctly for what is there. We need to be careful, not only with the amount of chemicals and the threshold for application, but also about when to treat and, in many cases, when not to treat.”

On the other hand, he says he sees foliar sprays being used less and less. “In the 1980s, the process likely was to spray a whole property and kill everything, but that also killed things like beneficial insects. That makes no sense,” says Briggs, “But that was the mentality for foliar spraying back then. Many of those chemicals are now banned. And to think that people back then were not wearing respirators, spraying only with hard hats and without proper protection.”

One of the things Briggs is noted for and champions is smaller spray rigs, in the 12- to 15-gallon class, and he is developing his own electric-powered machines. “We think this is the future – low noise, little maintenance, no gasoline and smaller, targeted doses. It’s so much better to come into someone’s neighborhood and not have to start a large, noisy engine,” he says.

“We need to be responsible technicians, targeting a site for specific treatments and to be able, if the site does not need treatment, to charge for the consultation visit and walk away. That’s the right way to do it,” he maintains.

Knowledge is key, he says, and the day of our interview, Briggs was headed to a meeting of the Massachusetts Arborists Association and a presentation on fruit-tree pruning. “Even people sitting next to you are full of information you can use,” he adds.

In the Southeast is Kimberly Paulson, owner of The Tree Lady Company, a 14-year TCIA member company based in Winter Haven, Florida, who had just come from a day-long, company-wide safety program. For her, plant heath care is all about “the plan.”

“When we go out to look at a tree problem, the plan is always to assess the situation to see if it is safe to do a risk assessment, then determine how to mitigate those risks,” she says.

Kim Paulson checks out a stump. Photo courtesy of The Tree Lady Company.

In Paulson’s opinion, “Ninety-nine percent of the time the problem is the wrong tree or a tree planted in the wrong spot. Sometimes a tree needs to be there or the customer really wants it there or wants to hold on to it as long as possible, so we have to systemically change its environment.”

Sometimes, she continues, plant health care is simply a matter of making more room for trees planted incorrectly in confined spaces.

In any plan, there is a cause and effect that needs to be addressed, Paulsen says.

“I’m not big into spray or injection, but we do some,” she reports.

In the case of dealing with the symptoms of a stressed tree, Paulson explains, “If I cannot fix the underlying cause of insects or fungus, I’m risking using chemicals on a tree. Sometimes it’s better to replace the tree with another one better suited to that spot. If that is not an option, I will look into spray, but only because I do not have a choice, because the cause or causes of the problem cannot be fixed any other way.

“If I am not trying to push plant growth, I do not fertilize much. Here in Florida, we have shallow groundwater. Trees live in a wet area, so benefits of the fertilizer get washed away,” she continues. “I prefer to do soil conditioning, for example, mulching. It’s more proper for the environment versus chemicals, especially in hot, wet areas where their effectiveness goes away quickly given the amount of rain we get and the sandy soil.

“Irrigation is different here. In California, there is clay in the soil, which helps to hold water, so it makes sense to use fertilizer. You can put it down and get longevity from it,” Paulson states, “whereas in a hot, humid climate like Florida, where it is wet all the time, fertilizer is released all at once.”

In an interesting twist in discussing the nitrogen aspect of fertilizer, Paulson refers to Florida as the lightning capital of America, and it has a benefit. “The lightning results in a high-nitrogen content in the atmosphere, (which ends up creating a high level of nitrogen in the soil, where) all plants can capture it, absorb carbon dioxide and expel oxygen.”

A crew member with Bofinger’s Tree Service uses a supersonic air tool to excavate around the base of a live oak. “We do insect work, but very little. With problem trees, we mostly cut down and replant because they grow back so quickly,” says George Bofinger III. Photo courtesy of Bofinger’s Tree Service.

Moving on to the Gulf Coast, TCIA member George Bofinger III, owner of Bofinger’s Tree Service, an accredited, 12-year TCIA member company based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, states, “We are unique, with a 365-day growing season.”

He reports that because of that, “A lot of customers are of the opinion that it is almost quicker to cut down a tree and put in a new one, especially smaller trees. A lot of my buddies in the business in the north and in Colorado, for example, say their customers do not mind spending money on plant care because it takes such a long time to grow a new plant. Here, we can take down a crape myrtle, replant a new one and have it back to size in about two years, perhaps a bit more.

“Mostly what we do down here is fertilize,” Bofinger reports, adding, “We do insect work, but very little. With problem trees, we mostly cut down and replant because they grow back so quickly.

“A lot of our business is treescaping for new construction,” he reports. Bofinger says that involves dealing with mature trees and shrubs, doing growth regulation as well as insect control and fertilization at that time.

“About 99% of the time this involves existing live oak trees,” Bofinger states. “It is tree preservation for a construction site. Live oak is the granddaddy down here, something everyone wants,” he states. “We work to create the best environment for the longevity of the tree. We will meet with the project architect to see where utilities will come in – gas, water, sewer, phone – and help to see that they do not run through the root system by designing around the tree.”

A bit to the west, to illustrate how approaches to plant health care can change quickly on a regional basis, is David Mauk, CTSP, QCL and owner of Jones Road Tree Service, LLC, an accredited, 13-year TCIA member company based in Houston, Texas.

“Yes, we do deep-root fertilizing and apply fungicides and pesticides as needed,” Mauk says, but adds, “I’m learning about plant health care like everyone else. I’m reading about biochar (a soil enhancement) and how it was a way to get rid of wood waste more than anything, but now is another source of income for the tree care industry. Others are still doing studies on the overall benefits of biochar, but I see it as a great way to practice tree-specific plant health care.”

David Mauk inspects a tree for insects and disease. Photo courtesy of Jones Road Tree Service, LLC.

Mauk notes that plant health care is as much about the customer as it is about the technical side of tree care. “I can teach the client about the property. Take, for example, something simple like a sprinkler head. Palms planted too close to a sprinkler head get too close to the water source and can rot. In some cases, the same owner may need to run more irrigation. I try to teach them that plant health care is the right tree in the right spot under correct conditions.

“That means,” he adds, “that we need to be looking at the overall environment where the tree exists and catch any problems before they become a major issue. It’s about maximizing the health and survival of the tree. It must not just exist, it must thrive.”

Mauk maintains, “That is the very essence of plant health, getting people to realize they are managing trees as assets and that plant health care is a tool to help manage the client’s part of the urban forest.”

In Mauk’s opinion, “Here in Houston we have more trees than many metro areas, so we have to be managing both trimming and overall health care.

“It’s a hostile environment,” he observes. “We have a lot of issues due to the conditions we live in, ranging from so wet to so dry. Trees are always under stress if we do not manage them.” Many times, Mauk says, he gets a phone call to cut down a tree simply “because it was not managed correctly in the first place.

“If you think of it, all plant health care is really like working with a doctor, including ongoing health checkups,” Mauk says.

“I think plant health care is the wave of the future. People (especially customers, he says) are more knowledgeable than ever because they have easy access to information, largely because of the internet. They are hoping to manage their asset. They have come to realize that trees are an asset,” Mauk contends.

“Today, plant health care makes a difference in the business,” Mauk adds. “I view myself as an asset manager. You can cut down a tree only once, but plant health care for trees is a sustainable, ongoing practice, and it is bringing sustainability to our line of work.

“In plant health care, you are not worried so much about phone calls for work,” Mauk contends. “By working a plan with knowledgeable people, you are on a customer’s property every three to four months to inspect trees. Sometimes this means fertilizing or spraying. It might be pruning. Basic tree removal is about getting the job done at the cheapest price. I believe plant health care gives us, as tree care professionals, a way to differentiate ourselves from other companies in the area. Our decisions are based on science, not just our own opinion or job pricing. It’s a matter of science and training,” he maintains.

Brett Huet performs an aerial inspection with a Resistograph to check the transition from trunkwood to callous wood around western gall rust. Photo courtesy of Brett Huet.

Jumping another 2,100 miles to the Pacific Northwest, Brett Huet, BCMA, CTSP and a utility arborist specialist at Southern Disaster Recovery, LLC, a two-year TCIA member company based in Bend, Oregon, says, “PHC programs are successful when the arborist is able to establish a relationship based on trust and keeping the clients’ interests first.”

He adds, “Clients are oftentimes inundated with companies promising unrealistic outcomes from treatments that can be costly and unnecessary. I feel it’s the arborist’s job to manage a client’s tree as if it was their own and start with site conditions first.”

Huet says that, in his area of the U.S., “in times of extreme drought, specifically pertaining to bark beetles, there needs to be a concerted effort to have honest conversations with clients about the likelihood of success. It is through these conversations, and potentially the applications you don’t deem as reasonable, that you are able to create those relationships that lead to being invited back each season.”

Moreover, he says, “The PHC industry has come a long way in providing site-specific, target-oriented applications. With many sensitivities to various prescriptions, we now have methods to deliver very focused applications.

“The technology that new trunk-injection systems provide has completely opened up creative ways to mitigate deficiencies and infestations, where historically we had not been able to manage as many trees as assets,” he adds.

Like Mauk in Texas, Huet says, “Personally, I am very excited about the momentum that biochar currently has.” But, he adds, “I live in the wildland urban interface, and feel that any time I can discuss the benefits that fire provides our forests, it is a step in the right direction to talk about home-ignition zones and the importance of prescribed fire.”

Not far from Huet is Steve Zetterlund, operations manager for General Tree Service, an accredited, 48-year TCIA member company based in Beaverton, Oregon, whose first job, fresh out of college with a biology degree nearly 20 years ago, was as a plant health care technician at the same company where he continues to work. “I wasn’t aware of plant health care, per se, when I started here,” he admits.

“In this part of the Northwest, a big part of the job is preventive disease-control treatments for fruit and flowering trees such as crab apples and dogwoods,” he says. “With wet springs, we have to treat trees on strict schedules to minimize disease damage.

A General Tree Service crew member performs root-zone enhancement. Photo courtesy of General Tree Service.

“Our goal is to provide complete care … pruning, landscaping and plant health care, especially keeping the plant as healthy as possible, planting in the right location and applying preventive treatment to keep disease and pests to a minimum,” Zetterlund explains. “That includes root-zone work and root pruning – for anything that grows. For trees, that includes not only tree nutrition but also environmental conditions and pruning for structural integrity, depending on what kind of growth you expect.

“We prefer to do sub-surface fertilization at the root zone by injection, with a shallow-release fertilizer,” he continues. “We do it in the fall, so as not to cause a flush of growth in the spring. That’s what insects like in the spring.

“For pesticides and insecticides for larger trees, if we know it is aphids or bronze birch borer, we will recommend systemic control, injecting at the base of the tree into the soil so the tree will take it up. If insects are feeding on the tree or the tree is already diseased, we will do a foliar application. However, preventive versus treatment is preferred,” Zetterlund stresses.

“Customers often ask why we recommend treatment if their trees and plants look fine,” he says. “The reason is that we have been doing things all along with the goal of keeping the plant healthy and symptom free. But they often will not call until they see damage. It’s a matter of education, teaching the client about the benefits of good plant health care and doing preventive treatment and pruning, plus pesticides and fungicide to keep problems from appearing.”

This year, Zetterlund observes, “It looks like an early spring, so the challenge right now is to get the treatments started early before issues begin. Normally, we would not start until mid-March, but we’ve had to start two weeks early, getting treatments done in a timely manner, dependent on the weather.”

Additionally, he says, “If we get an early, wet, cool spring, the challenge will be to convince clients that there will be a longer-than-usual season of activity.”

The take-away here is that plant health care requires a regional touch, and that requires education. The more you can educate yourself, the more you can educate your customer and the healthier their plants and trees – and your business – will be.

Tree Specialists, Inc.’s PHC truck is a 2018 Ram 2500 with a Knapheide service body and a skid-mounted five-tank electric spray unit: 100-gallon freshwater tank, 50-gallon mix tank, 30-gallon mix tank, 15-gallon mix cone tank and a 20-gallon freshwater tank (separated from the system for filling backpacks and tree injections). It has a 3,500-watt power inverter, a dedicated battery for the pump that is recharged by the truck’s charging system, a 12V, 1hp centrifugal pump with approximately 30gpm capacity, but also a low-pressure 12V, 5gpm transfer pump for the 20-gallon freshwater tank.

Building a Smaller, More Efficient PHC Truck of Their Own Design

Tree Specialists, Inc.’s custom-built PHC truck was built in-house by both David Landry, PHC manager, and Chris Bradshaw, fleet mechanic, for approximately $60,000 total cost during the off season between 2018 and the 2019 PHC season.

“A major benefit of the truck is its small size, giving us the ability to drive more easily around our service area, which includes inner-city streets of Boston as well as narrow and winding roads of the surrounding metro-west area,” says Landry. “Since the truck uses electric power, the noise level is minimal, and technicians are able to perform applications without disturbing the client/property owner. Many towns in our service area implemented a ban on the use of blower equipment due to high noise levels. This is a way for our company to stay ahead of the curve on noise-pollution restrictions.

“The truck was designed with more modern PHC practices in mind. The days of large coverage sprays are coming to an end due to shifts in public opinion as well as the development and availability of new products. The low-pressure centrifugal pump performs great when targeting trees under 20 feet tall and/or working in close proximity to buildings. The low pressure and high flow allows us to coat the trees/shrubs with a larger droplet size, resulting in nearly zero problems with drift, even on windier days. The separate 20-gallon water tank is utilized as a fresh, clean-water source for tree injections and filling backpacks. The truck is capable of performing all different methods of treatment including foliar sprays, direct injections, soil injections and bark applications. It is able to carry everything our tech needs in order to tackle any job, big or small.

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