Tree and Plant Care

by John Bandler

We should all know something about the care of plants and trees to allow us to better protect our environment. Anyone who owns, rents, or manages property that has (or could have) grass, plants, or trees can be responsible stewards for their landscape, and gain a rewarding source of enjoyment, relaxation, and satisfaction. We all enjoy public natural spaces, whether it is a sidewalk with trees on it, or parks and other natural areas. We may have no direct control over these areas, but we can indirectly influence government (or perhaps even volunteer) to help ensure these areas are managed properly.

Unfortunately, many do not follow best practices, and some (ironically) pay landscapers to perform acts which actually damage their trees and shrubs. Hazardous trees can even present legal liability issues, such as where failure is likely, and a person is likely to be nearby and thus injured.

Good practices serve many purposes

Good practices and stewardship can often save money, save work, improve our mental well being, and the environment. One of my hobbies is horticulture and arboriculture, and I work with Trees New York, a non-profit that cares for the New York City urban environment through community training and organization. Imagine a city street strewn with garbage, the trees with broken branches that dangle in your path, the tree beds are filled with trash and construction debris. It looks like no one cares. Then picture that same street transformed in a day, the trash is gone, the tree beds cleaned and then properly mulched, the trees pruned for health and pedestrian clearance. This can be done.

I have helped many friends and organizations care for and prune their trees, shrubs, and plants, sometimes correcting damage caused by poorly trained landscapers. All too often, people and organizations pay good money to landscapers who then damage trees and shrubs with grossly improper pruning and mulching.

Safety and legal issues

As a lawyer, I am conscious of legal liability issues. But before liability, realize that safety is important on its own. If there is a risk that requires reasonable safety measures, we should act on it. We shouldn't need the threat of a multi-million dollar lawsuit and negative publicity to spur us to action. We can never eliminate all risk (nor should we try), but we need to pay some attention to safety issues such as dead branches or dead trees in areas with high pedestrian use.

I have counseled friends on tree safety issues, including one who had dead branches hanging over a child's play-set. I nagged relentlessly until it was corrected. I did not want to imagine the unthinkable.

I informally counseled one organization about their dangerous campus conditions with dead trees and dead branches along walkways and above picnic tables. Well, it started as informal counseling but that had little effect. I escalated with more detailed and documented reporting of the condition, plus mention of all of the potential harms (not to mention the unsightly nature of the dead trees and limbs). I surely caused annoyance but the hazards were eventually corrected, resulting in increased safety and better appearance.

Tree and plant care tips

Here are a few tips about caring for plants and trees:

  1. Take a few minutes to learn about hazardous tree conditions. Dead trees will eventually fall, as will dead branches. What is the probability something will be underneath when it does fall? Branches and trees weigh hundreds or thousands of pounds, so consider the resulting harm. Other conditions, such as a trunk cavity, can indicate a weakened tree. Professional, certified, licensed, arborists can evaluate and mitigate these hazards and risks. Do not cut costs and risk serious physical injury and death, potential lawsuits and negative publicity.
  2. Take a few minutes to identify any invasive plants on your property. Invasive plants are highly damaging to our environment and ecosystem, and we need to manage and eradicate them.
  3. After looking to safety and legal liability, it is time to see to the care of your plants.
  4. Take a few minutes to learn about the proper way to prune and mulch trees and shrubs. Hire appropriately if needed. It is amazing how many landscapers (and even some tree workers) never spent a few minutes to learn the basics. In many managed properties, landscapers are hired based on the price of their bid, not their knowledge, nor the quality of their work. As a result, educational campuses, corporate properties, and personal residences have unqualified landscapers damaging trees and shrubs through improper pruning and mulching.
  5. Proper pruning cuts are made at the "branch collar" and are clean. Do not make "flush cuts" against the trunk. Do not leave "stubs". Arborday.org and other reliable sources can teach you the basics with a few minutes of reading. Trees NY offers a citizen pruner course.
  6. Do not "top" trees, cutting them off at a certain height, leaving unsightly stubs which will regrow weakly, and be subject to failure.
  7. Prune shrubs properly. Many unqualified landscapers want to shear them into geometric shapes. Generally, this is not natural nor advisable.
  8. Mulch properly, and do not mound mulch against the base (trunk) of a tree or shrub. These "mulch volcanoes" can create rot and circling roots and are unsightly. Arborday.org can teach you proper mulching techniques.
  9. Do not hire -- and promptly fire -- any person or company that does the above. Why pay someone to damage your property, make it unsightly, and potentially unsafe?
  10. Hiring a tree worker or arborist? Look for a certification from ISA, International Society of Arboriculture, and licensure by the state (in some states), and proper insurance. Tree work is dangerous and needs to be done properly and safely by professionals. Not every tree worker is a professional.
  11. Hiring a landscaper? A "Master Gardener" certification would be nice, but otherwise do they follow proper horticultural practices? Just because they do it for a living doesn't mean they do it right.
  12. Think about what you can plant. Perennials, shrubs, trees. Choose the right plant in the right place. Choose for diversity, wildlife, and the environment. Look for native plants, never invasive plants. Choose low maintenance. Choose plants that will not outgrow their space.
  13. Take a few minutes to learn about proper lawn care. With proper care and practices, you can save water, and minimize expense, fertilizers, and pesticides.
  14. Leaves are not the enemy and there is no need to be at war with them. Leaves are natural organic material and mulch, and are compostable. We can reduce noise pollution, air pollution, and more harms by using this free organic material and returning it to the soil. Mow your leaves into your lawn, you will improve its health and save on fertilizers. Or rake them to the compost pile. Don't pay landscapers to use their blowers, nor to carry hundreds of pounds of organic material away in their trucks.
  15. Many lawn and landscape care activities can be done by you. This can save you money, give you relaxation and enjoyment, and connect you to the environment.
  16. If you hire, know enough to hire someone with basic horticultural knowledge. Organizations should contract wisely, and consider volunteer activities to care for the landscape, such as by employees and students, and look for partnership opportunities.

Conclusion

We can be good environmental stewards and do our part, and take enjoyment and relaxation in the process and connection to the outdoors. Trees, shrubs, and plants should be properly cared for, and then we can start looking to our part in the larger ecosystem. Let's do it right, and show others the way it is supposed to be. We do not need to accept or continue bad habits and practices that harm the environment or the plants themselves, nor do we need to let them be the "normal" that we and others see. Let's set a good example. Of course, we need to address safety hazards too.

Whether you own it, rent it, manage it, or enjoy a public space, we can help implement or suggest a better way.

Additional reading

Originally posted 2/21/2019. Updated 2/25/2022.