Tree and Plant Care

All should know something about the care of plants and trees. Anyone who owns, rents, or manages property that has (or could have) grass, plants, or trees should take extra efforts, to be responsible stewards for their landscape. Further, trees can present legal liability issues. Unfortunately, many people do not know as much as they should. They allow hazardous trees to remain in areas where they could do significant damage. Others unwittingly and ironically pay landscapers to perform acts which damage their trees and shrubs.

As a lawyer, I am conscious of legal liability issues, and one of my hobbies is horticulture and arboriculture. I work with Trees New York, a non-profit that cares for the New York City urban environment through community training and organization. I have counseled friends on tree safety issues (such as dead branches hanging over a child's play-set, where I nagged relentlessly until it was corrected). I have helped many friends care for and prune their trees, shrubs, and plants, sometimes correcting damage caused by poorly trained landscapers. I have been on one organization's property and observed dangerous conditions, and tried to do my part to alert and educate the organization to the risks, so they could mitigate them (yes, more nagging).

Here are a few tips about caring for plants and trees on your landscape.

  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. Invasives 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. Then hire appropriately. 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". can teach you the basics with an investment of three 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. 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.
  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. You can save water, and minimize expense, fertilizers, and pesticides with proper care.
  14. Leaves are not the enemy (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.

Try to be a good environmental steward and do your part. Alas, some organizations and people get used to dangerous or harmful horticulture conditions and it becomes their normal.

Now you can continue to try do better for your property, and the properties of communities that you are a part of. You can implement or suggest a better way. Safety hazards need to be addressed, and trees, shrubs, and plants need to be cared for properly. Then you can start looking more the role your property plays in the larger ecosystem.

Here is a list of resources:

Chinese Seeds, Invasive Plants, and Sowing Opportunity (For people who live or work in NYC, and want to help care for our urban environment).

Great books on pruning, gardening, and growing edible plants listed here:

Our forthcoming book about plants and trees.

Originally posted 2/21/2019. Updated 6/12/2021.