The Towering Giant
For most prospective homebuyers, trees, peripheral to the house proper, fall under the category of afterthought.

For the new homeowner, however, trees immediately become things that fall and move to the top of the mind.

This fall (make that "autumn"), my wife and I bought our first home, next to which resides a beautiful towering spruce that, at the closing, loomed like Godzilla over Tokyo.

Picking an arborist to help tame a tree can be a tricky business, and pruning it down to the right candidate requires considerable attention, as I learned from Mike Stein of Integral Tree & Landscape of Milan, N.Y., a 12-year-old firm.

First off, to any DIY-types with a ladder, a chainsaw and a macho streak: Forget it. (My wife, friends, parents and in-laws know this to be a comical notion in my case.)

"To begin with, ladders are extremely dangerous. We don't use them; we'd rather get a rope and saddle on," says Stein. "Beyond that, it's the unknown, dealing with weights that go far beyond what people expect, and wood reacts in different ways. There's a definite science to even dropping a tree from the ground. Then there are broken or hanging limbs, or what we in the industry refer to as 'widow-makers.'"

Consider yourself warned.

Barking Up the Right Tree

As it happens, New York State has no licensing for arborists, so essentially anyone can call himself an arborist and not be wrong.

So be sure to ask if your applicant is certified by the International Society of Arboriculture. This will help you feel secure that the firm is up to speed on the latest insects, diseases and equipment innovations.

Just as important, make certain the arborist is fully insured, both for liability and worker's compensation.

"A lot of people are under the misconception that if you hire someone, you're covered by your homeowner's insurance if someone is injured or killed, or if neighboring property is damaged," Stein explains.

Tree removal and pruning are the core activities of an arborist, and we indeed needed such services.

The spruce was the main issue, but a hammer and Stein's well-trained ear suggested that its health was not yet a concern.

Were I a bigger worrywart with a bigger billfold, I could have opted for a $175 resistograph test, in which a long, thin and harmless drill bit is inserted through the trunk to determine its resistance, thus measuring decay. The latest version of this machine now features Bluetooth technology.

Our Godzilla spruce did clearly need some pruning, as many of its branches were now touching the ground, increasing the chance for infection to take hold.

There is an art and a science to pruning branches and limbs.

The art is to make it look natural -- that was our preference, in any case, both aesthetically and for ease of maintenance, as topiary-type cutting (best suited to smaller, ornamental trees) often requires at least annual maintenance.

Integral's experienced pruner cuts off branches when they're less than a third as wide as their limbs, although he reserved the right to ignore this rule of thumb as he deemed necessary.

The results backed up the quality of his decision-making: The science is not cutting off a limb too close to the trunk, which harms an important area for the tree to heal over the wound, or too far away, which takes too long for the cut to close, increasing the chances for interior decay.

We had other, safety-related issues that needed to be addressed.

I somehow had managed not to see a tree deader than dead -- half-gone, bark peeling, no foliage -- in the shadow of a neighbor's property that needed to be cut down.

A row of hemlocks through which the power lines are snaked featured several with co-dominant leaders.

Essentially, these are Siamese-twin trees, with two trunks pulling in opposite directions, weakening each.

Given their position on the property, these required cabling, which is exactly what you'd expect: a thin steel cable wrapped around the two trunks, high enough up so that the support is unnoticeable.

Throw in some additional pruning of an arbor archway and the grinding up and carting away of three stumps, and we got off relatively light, if not exactly cheap.

Why is tree work so expensive?

Consider not only the high insurance rates these firms must pay but also the fact that there might be upwards of $250,000 or more in equipment on-site for even a straightforward job such as this -- never mind the circumstances when electric companies, state roadways, cliffs, hills or tractors are involved.

Hemlocks in Need of Help

Branching Out

Our work may have been relatively mundane, but the deeper-pocketed have almost endless options in making the most of an arborist's expertise.

For several thousand dollars, someone with a similar line of hemlocks could have them cut to the same height and size for a cleaner aesthetic. Many golf courses go this route.

Specialty-type pruning, referred to in the trade as "vista pruning," can open up views and is a favorite of waterfront and hillside property owners.

Here, Stein counsels to avoid what's called "topping" the trees, i.e., indiscriminately lopping off their crowns -- a function that Integral, for one, will not perform.

"We do vista pruning by removing some trees and pruning others, to create windows to the view," says Stein.

"You're able to keep the trees healthy, and it's a much more pleasant look--in summer, you have this beautiful foliage framing the view, and in the winter the branch of, say, a large oak providing the framework," he continues.

Stein notes that, for better or for worse, almost anything tree-related can be done for enough money.

Want a 50-footer planted in your garden?

Starting for around $100,000, you can find an arborist to do it.

That said, he also points out that you need to ensure that any potential planting is appropriate to the sunlight and soil conditions, the temperate zone and the property.

Keep in mind that that handsome, 5-foot hemlock placed 3 feet from the foundation can grow to greater than 90 feet at maturity.

Another high-end service that's taking root with homeowners with extensive woodlands is creating a trail.

Cutting a path through the trees -- the wood chips from the felled trees are recycled to create the trail bed -- preserves the ecology while allowing enjoyment of nature with less fear of pests like ticks.

This service can run upwards of $15,000 per 1/4 to 1/2 mile, depending on the terrain and number of trees, but it has the added benefit to both parties of requiring a yearly checkup by the arborist to look for dead trees and limbs.

The arborist is getting paid, sure, but for weekenders in particular, their tree firm becomes another set of eyes and ears in the owners' absence, and in the case of a problem or emergency ( timmm-ber!), offers a quick reaction.

"I try to make it a habit of just swinging by those properties when I'm in the area and take a look up the driveway, if there's anything they need to be alerted to," says Stein. "Also, with digital photography, email and cell phones, it's amazing the amount of communication that can occur in the homeowners' absence.

"With that recurring relationship, it's a slightly higher level of service. As always, you get what you pay for," Stein says.

Enjoy the Good Life? Email us with what you'd like to see in future articles.

Evan Rothman is a freelance writer living in Staatsburg, N.Y. A former executive editor at Golf Magazine, his work has appeared in The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Esquire, Men's Journal and other leading publications.

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