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Tree Care Fundamentals: Q&A with Arborist Phil DiLorenzo


Last Updated: 06/22/2015 10:14 am
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A mature sweetgum tree. - LARRY DECKER
  • Larry Decker
  • A mature sweetgum tree.

Growing up, Highland arborist Phil DiLorenzo spent summers with his family at Indian Lake in the Adirondacks. He dreamt of one day becoming a park ranger or a forester. Shortly after he enrolled at Paul Smith's College in the Adirondacks to study forestry, he made a field adjustment. His roommates were studying urban forestry, and he found himself intrigued.

"I started to see myself in the tree care industry," he says, "because I'm social and enjoy interacting with new people, whereas traditional forestry can be somewhat solitary."

DiLorenzo studied arboriculture (the science of tree care) and learned to climb trees safely with ropes, harness, and rings. He became an International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) Certified Arborist, the industry's standard for professionalism. One year after he graduated from Paul Smith's in 1996, he started his own business, DiLorenzo Tree Care & Crane Service. Half of his work is with residential clients; the other half is working for SUNY New Paltz and for NYDOT.

In addition to being a ISA Certified Arborist, DiLorenzo maintains a variety of other professional certifications, including that of the Electrical Hazard Awareness Program, to work legally and safely in the vicinity of electrical wires. He prides himself on the quality of his operational equipment. He says, "I've found that having more equipment saves so much on labor that I can actually be more affordable for my clients." Because of this, he says that the best arborists are not necessarily the ones that charge the most. Here, DiLorenzo advises about hiring arborists and basic tree care.

When should people call an arborist?

Phil DiLorenzo: You should call an arborist before construction or sewer line digging starts, when there are dead branches, when there are girdling (i.e., circling and strangling) roots around the base of your tree, or when you see early signs of decline, like branch tips dying back. Most people wait until the last minute, when trees are half dead or are hanging over with big dead branches or the leaves fall off in June or when they see indicators it's hollow, like carpenter ants in the tree or sawdust on the ground. That's too late to save the tree. A good arborist will, while on your property, assess the health of your cherished trees and be on the lookout for future problems that can be averted. That will save you money in the end.

Is the fear of the cost of tree work warranted?

PD: Some people get scared before they ask. Arborists get a bad name because of the unscrupulous ones who come in after storms and price-gouge vulnerable people. That's when you hear those nightmare scenarios about $10K to take down a tree. It's not as expensive as you may fear, if you get someone reputable who has the right equipment to work efficiently. To give you an idea, most of my jobs, including taking down trees, are in the $500 to $800 range. There are ways to save money, like it's cheaper if we can leave the wood—that saves me on time, my back, and equipment. Everybody wants wood; I have people on file that will come and get it. So ask your arborist for ways like that to save money.

Phil DiLorenzo took this selfie in his personal protective equipment.
  • Phil DiLorenzo took this selfie in his personal protective equipment.

What questions should a homeowner ask an arborist they are thinking about hiring?

PD: Ask if they are ISA Certified Arborists and what other certifications they have. Ask for proof of liability insurance. Certificates of insurance are personalized and have to be validated by the insurance company to make sure they're current. My insurance company will send letters of verification directly to the client. Ask for references; they should be able to furnish 10 references to you overnight. Ask what kind of PPE (personal protective equipment) they wear. A professional arborist should be at ease answering these questions.

Educate yourself with some basic concepts before arborists come to see you ( is designed for homeowners for this purpose). To get at their sophistication as arborists, ask what their policy on "topping" trees is. Topping is heading back all the limbs severely, leaving stubs. It's disfiguring, leaves wounds that never heal properly, and breaks "apical dominance," resulting in a host of rangy shoots that quickly regrow and compete for dominance. It makes more mess than it fixes. Suffice to say, a good arborist will not recommend topping your tree; there are other, better approaches.

I also suggest you take note of how they are dressed. Professional arborists don't work in T-shirts and shorts and sneakers. When I go do estimates, I'm often dirty with wood dust in my hair, but I make sure I have proper work shoes on, pants without holes, shirts with our company logo on them, tucked in. Presentation clues you into overall professionalism.

What are some tree care tips you can share?

PD: Some people build home additions around their prized trees but don't prevent soil compaction by machinery, so the tree declines. The best thing is to design the construction project so that you are not driving machinery over the roots, which compacts the soil, depriving tree roots of oxygen and water infiltration. I like to see protective snow fence placed out to the dripline (canopy edge) at least. If you cannot avoid driving over the roots, to help prevent compaction, you can put in 6 to 8 inches of temporary wood chips to help reduce the impact. Putting down plywood also helps, because it distributes weight. Also, when the construction's done, you can have the soil aerated to allow the oxygen and water to get back in.

Mulching is important to trees so that they are not in competition with grass, and to keep lawn mowers and weed whackers from damaging tree trunks. I like a wide mulching area—the wider the better—but not more than a few inches deep—no "mulch volcanoes." Mulch that is applied too thick suffocates fine feeder roots, which grow close to the surface. Always pull mulch away from the trunk to avoid problems with insects and disease that thrive in that moist environment.

When a tree trunk or branch has been wounded, use good plant health care—watering, mulching, light fertilization, if called for—to help the tree cope. I score the edges of the wound with a wood chisel to go back to sound bark. The tree will do the rest—it will compartmentalize the wound. Back in the day, they'd use tar to coat tree wounds, and people still ask me about that. The tar is petroleum, and just as when you cut your finger, you don't put it in tar—it's the same for trees. Proper pruning cuts are the most important thing.

People also ask me about tree cavities. In the past, people used rocks and cement to fill cavities, but when the tree came down, that was dangerous for the arborist. I clean them out and spray them with expanding foam designed for this purpose. The neutral-brown foam is UV-resistant and keeps water out—that's the most important thing, because standing water can lead to rot and eventually to trunk or branch failure.

People sometimes ask me, "Is this tree alive?" If it has buds on it, it's alive. People get nervous about trees when a storm is coming. An arborist can do a systematic hazard assessment for/with you. Unless a tree is clearly dead or dying or severely rotted, I don't recommend taking it down. A 50-year-old tree is young. For trees with issues, I prune, cable, then come back in five to six years and prune again. Trees give us so many benefits, they are just amazing. We shouldn't take them down prematurely.


DiLorenzo Tree Care

ISA Advice on Hiring Arborists



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