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Tree Care Services (From CHECKBOOK, Spring/Summer 2013)
Go to Ratings of 59 Puget Sound Area Tree Care Services


Tree Care

Our ratings of area tree care services will help you find professionals who provide sound advice and high-quality work. But before hiring any company, get competitive bids from several. For tree removal jobs, we find big price differences—from $350 to $1,040 for one job for which a CHECKBOOK shopper received bids—and you usually don’t have to be home to get bids. 

Get the details of what will be done in a written contract. It should specify who will clean up afterwards, haul away debris and wood, and remove the stump. What is not specified in writing is very unlikely to get done. 

Also check whether a company’s liability insurance and worker’s compensation insurance is currently in effect. Ask to see certificates of insurance, and call the company’s insurance carrier to verify. This is a serious concern because high-powered equipment, heavy branches and trunks, lofty heights, and proximity to power lines make tree work dangerous. 

You don’t need an advanced degree in arboriculture to spot many potential tree problems. Like most plants, trees have ways of indicating distress. Several times a year, examine your trees for the following— 

  • Discolored leaves, and thinning in the tree’s crown; 
  • Roots pulled loose from the ground and fungal growths on roots or trunk;  
  • Dead and fallen branches more than two inches in diameter; 
  • Deep vertical cracks on opposite sides of the main trunk; 
  • Sawdust on the trunk from wood-boring insects; 
  • A trunk that noticeably leans in one direction, and a branch canopy that is not roughly balanced; and 
  • Other unusual deformations and deposits on leaves, limbs, and bark. 

You can admire its beauty, draw inspiration from its steadiness, enjoy the sound of wind rustling its leaves, seek its shade for protection from the sun, climb it, swing on its branches, perhaps build a child’s playhouse in it. A tree is a treasure. Indeed, a fine tree may add significant value to your property. 

On the other hand, a sick or damaged tree may be unattractive or unsafe. 

This article will advise you on how to tell if your trees need work, get help determining what care is needed, choose a professional to do the work, deal with the company, and do a few tasks yourself. 

Do Your Trees Need Help? 

You don’t need to be an expert to spot many potential tree problems. Like most plants, trees have ways of indicating distress. Several times a year, examine your trees for the following— 

  • Discolored leaves, and thinning in the tree’s crown; 
  • Roots pulled loose from the ground and fungal growths on roots and main trunk; 
  • Dead and fallen branches more than two inches in diameter; 
  • Deep vertical cracks on opposite sides of the main trunk; 
  • Sawdust on the trunk from wood-boring insects; 
  • A trunk that noticeably leans in one direction, and a branch canopy that is not roughly balanced; and 
  • Other unusual deformations and deposits on leaves, limbs, or bark. 

Other reasons for tree work include eliminating the risk to your house or to electrical or other utility wires from rubbing limbs or precarious overhanging limbs; increasing light and breezes reaching your house, garden, or lawn; and protecting foundations and drainage systems from invading roots. 

In many cases, the problem and the solution will be obvious—removal of specific limbs or spraying for an easily recognized pest, for example. But sometimes diagnosis and treatment for trees may be as difficult as for humans. At those times, you need expert advice. 

One source of advice is tree care companies—which will send a representative to your home to offer recommendations and a proposal for treatment. But don’t assume that all tree care company estimators can determine what’s wrong and prescribe the correct treatment. 

Many trees are lost because they don’t receive correct preventive treatment—often because they are inaccurately diagnosed or “experts” offer bad advice. Tree care companies sometimes create problems by wiping out pests’ natural predators. Or spray unnecessarily for problems that would have cured themselves. When we have tested companies by questioning their experts, we often received wrong answers. 

For your trees’ health, as for your own healthcare, the best advice is to get more than one opinion. Invite representatives of several companies to your home to offer estimates. Ask them to explain what they plan to do and why. You can also get advice from the sources listed below. 

Alternatively, you can pay for the services of a consulting arborist. You can get the names of consulting arborists who belong to the American Society of Consulting Arborists (ASCA) at, or by calling 301-947-0483. To become an ASCA member, an arborist must have at least five years experience in arboriculture and a four-year degree in arboriculture or a closely related field, or a corresponding number of continuing education credits. ASCA members must also receive 30 continuing education units every two years to maintain their membership status. Additional requirements for “registered” ASCA members include successful completion of the ASCA’s Consulting Academy and the successful review of three consulting reports. 

The International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) ( has similar requirements for certifying arborists. An arborist must have at least three years of experience in arboriculture (or a combination of experience and education) and pass an exam. Certification is valid for three years; a certified arborist must then accumulate 30 continuing education credits every three years to maintain certification, or retake the exam every three years to recertify. 

Although ASCA and ISA members ordinarily operate or work for tree care companies, you can ensure their objectivity by agreeing to pay a consultation fee and explaining that you won’t necessarily use the arborist’s company to perform the services they recommend. 

Naturally, the amount of effort you’ll want to put in to getting sound advice depends on how highly you value your trees and how much you expect the work to cost. 

Finding Help 

Our Surveys of Customers 

Our Ratings Tables will help you choose companies to offer advice or perform work. We surveyed area consumers (primarily CHECKBOOK and Consumer Reports subscribers) and asked them to rate tree care services they had used. Our Ratings Tables show the results of our survey for tree care companies that received 10 or more ratings. (For more information on our customer surveys and other research methods, click here.) 

Although several area companies rate quite high for the quality of their work, the news is not all good. In addition to complaints of lousy customer service from companies that rate poorly, customers often complained of being overcharged, getting poor results, and having their property damaged by careless, untrained workers. 

Payment Policy 

Check with companies to see how much of the total price you can pay when the job is finished, or even later. Withholding payment gives you leverage to ensure that work is done properly and on time. Most companies will allow you to withhold the entire amount until completion, but a few require customers to pay at least half earlier. If possible, make all payments by credit card, which will permit you to withhold payment under the Fair Credit Billing Act if things don’t go as planned. 


Check whether a company’s liability insurance and worker’s compensation insurance are currently in effect. Ask to see certificates of insurance, and call the company’s insurance carrier to verify. If a company is not properly insured, it may not be able to compensate you for damage it inflicts on you or your property, and may not be able to pay for injury to its own workers, to other persons, or damages to your neighbors’ properties. If the company doesn’t pay, you may be liable—even for injuries to the company’s own workers. This is a serious concern because high-powered equipment, heavy branches and trunks, lofty heights, and proximity to power lines make tree work dangerous. 

Cutting Costs 

Once you are satisfied that the company can do the work well, price becomes your primary consideration. 

Table 1 shows prices a CHECKBOOK shopper received from area tree care companies for a small tree removal job. (Our shopper did not reveal an affiliation with CHECKBOOK when soliciting the bids.) As you can see, the price differences are striking—from $350 to $1,040. Be sure to obtain multiple competitive bids for your work. 

Table 1—Prices Quoted by Companies for a Tree Removal Job

Prices Quoted by Companies for a Tree Removal Job
Companies were asked to quote prices to remove a 50" circumference, 35' tall bitter cherry, remove all debris, and grind stump
CompanyPrice quoted
Emerald Tree Service, Seattle$350
Best Tree Service NW, Mill Creek$450
Stonehedge Tree Experts, Seattle$475
Seattle Tree Preservation, Seattle$550
Out on a Limb Tree, Seattle$625
Arbor Barber Tree Service, Lynnwood$700
Ballard Tree Service, Seattle$1,040

As you solicit bids, keep these points in mind: 

  • Because it can be difficult to reach estimators, be prepared to leave a number where you can be reached during evenings and weekends. 
  • Not every estimator actually shows up as promised—no-shows are a common complaint about tree care services. Invite more companies than you need to come out; then, once you have enough bids, promptly cancel the others. 
  • Estimators usually come during daylight hours. You typically don’t have to be home, as long as you provide careful instructions on exactly what work you want done. 
  • To make sure you know exactly what is being offered, request itemized, written bids. 
  • If the following services are not included in a written bid for tree removal or pruning, they probably aren’t included in the price: cleaning up the area afterwards, hauling away the debris, cutting wood to desirable firewood lengths, splitting wood, stacking wood, and removing the stump. If you want such work done, ask the companies to include it in their bids. 
  • Other points to clarify in tree removal or pruning bids (and in the contract that follows) include: dates by which work will begin and end, whether branches will be lowered or dropped, who is responsible for damage, and, in general, exactly what will be done (for example, “removal of all dead, dying, or weak branches of at least one-inch diameter”). 
  • Points to be covered in bids (and contracts) for spraying include: type of spray and spray equipment to be used, pest or disease to be treated, and what you must do to prepare (for example, cover lawn furniture). 
  • Finally, bids for fertilizing jobs should specify the type and amount of fertilizer to be used, and how it will be applied (for example, by drilling holes in the ground or by injection into the tree). 

You may be able to get a better price for pruning and removal jobs if you can schedule work during winter, when companies are less busy and there is less debris to haul away. And a group of neighbors may be able to negotiate a lower price by contracting for work at the same time. 

After you obtain bids on the work you want done, have the chosen company write up a fixed-price contract for both you and the company to sign. 

Work You Can Do 

If you want to do some work yourself, here is some advice on pruning, fertilizing, and planting trees. This information will also help you evaluate the work of professionals you hire. 

Planting New Trees 

The International Society of Arboriculture recommends the following when planting new trees. 

The ideal time to plant most types of trees and shrubs is during the dormant season—in the fall after leaf-drop or early spring before bud-break. Weather conditions are cool and allow plants to establish roots in the new location before spring rains and summer heat stimulate new top growth. However, trees properly cared for in a nursery or garden center, and given the appropriate care during transport to prevent damage, can be planted throughout the growing season. In either case, proper handling during planting is essential to ensure a healthy future for new trees and shrubs. 

Before you begin digging a hole for your tree, locate all underground utilities. Call 811 to have authorities locate and mark all underground lines. 

If the tree you are planting is balled and burlapped, or bare rooted, be aware that the tree’s root system has been reduced from its original size during transplanting. As a result of the trauma caused by the digging process, trees commonly exhibit what is known as “transplant shock” (TS), which is characterized by slow growth and reduced vigor following transplanting. Proper site preparation before and during planting, coupled with proper follow-up care, shortens the duration of TS and allows the tree to more quickly establish in its new location. Carefully follow these eight simple steps to significantly reduce the stress placed on the tree at the time of planting: 

1.    Dig a shallow, broad planting hole. Make the hole wide—up to three times the diameter of the root ball—but no deeper than the root ball. The hole must be wide because the roots on the newly planted tree must push through surrounding soil to establish. The existing soil on many planting sites has been compacted and is unsuitable for healthy root growth. Breaking up the soil in a large area around the tree gives the newly emerging roots room to expand into loose soil and hasten establishment. 

2.    Identify the trunk flare. The trunk flare is where the roots spread at the base of the tree and should be partially visible after the tree has been planted. If the trunk flare is not partially visible, you may have to remove some soil from the top of the root ball. Find the flare to determine how deep the hole needs to be for proper planting. 

3.    Place the tree at the proper height. Before placing the tree in the hole, check to see that the hole has been dug to the proper depth and no deeper. Most of the roots of the newly planted trees develop in the top 12 inches of soil. If the tree is planted too deep, lack of air makes it difficult for new roots to develop. It is better to plant the tree a little high—one to two inches above the trunk flare—than at or below the original growing level to allow for some settling. To avoid damage when setting the tree in the hole, always lift the tree by the root ball, never by the trunk. 

4.    Straighten the tree in the hole. Before you begin backfilling, have someone view the tree from several directions to confirm that the tree is straight. Once you begin backfilling, it is difficult to reposition. 

5.    Fill the hole gently but firmly. Fill the hole about one-third full, and gently but firmly pack the soil around the base of the root ball. Then, if the tree is balled and burlapped, cut and remove the string and wire from around the trunk and top one-third of the root ball. Be careful not to damage the trunk or roots in the process. Fill the remainder of the hole, packing the soil firmly to eliminate air pockets that may cause roots to dry out. To avoid air-pocket problems, add soil a few inches at a time and settle with water. Continue this process until the hole is filled and the tree firmly planted. Applying fertilizer at the time of planting is not recommended. 

6.    Stake the tree only if necessary. If the tree has been grown and dug properly at the nursery, staking for support is not necessary in most home landscape situations. Studies have shown that trees establish more quickly and develop stronger trunk and root systems if they are not staked at the time of planting. However, protective staking may be advisable on sites subject to lawnmower damage, vandalism, or windy conditions. If staking is necessary for support, two stakes used in conjunction with a wide, flexible tie material holds the tree upright, provide flexibility, and minimize injury to the trunk. Remove support staking and ties after the first year of growth. Leave protective staking in place as long as necessary. 

7.    Mulch the base of the tree. Mulch is simply organic matter applied to the area at the base of the tree. It acts as a blanket to hold moisture and protect against harsh soil temperatures, both hot and cold. It also reduces competition from grass and weeds. Some good choices are leaf litter, pine straw, shredded bark, peat moss, and wood chips. A two-to-four-inch layer is ideal. When applying mulch, make sure you don’t cover the actual trunk; it may cause decay of the living bark at the base of the tree. A mulch-free area one to two inches wide at the base of the tree is sufficient to prevent moist bark conditions and decay. 

8.    Follow-up care. Moisten but don’t soak soil; overwatering causes leaves to turn yellow or fall off. Water newly planted trees at least once a week, barring rain, and more frequently during warm weather. When the soil is dry below the surface of the mulch, it is time to water. Continue until mid-fall, tapering off as temperatures drop. 

Other follow-up care may include minor pruning of branches damaged during the planting process. Prune sparingly immediately after planting, and don’t begin necessary corrective pruning until the tree has had a full season of growth in the new location. 

You can find the above advice, as well as other information on tree care, on the ISA website ( 


Whether performed by you or by a professional, pruning is important to a tree’s health. Targets for pruning are: 

  • Dead, dying, and unsightly parts of trees; 
  • Sprouts growing at or near the base of a tree trunk; 
  • Branches that grow toward the center of a tree; 
  • Crossed branches that rub together; 
  • Branches that interfere with power or telephone lines, or that might rub against or fall on your house (if power lines are the problem, leave it to a professional); 
  • Branches that unacceptably obstruct your view and desired breezes. 

While most trees can be pruned at any time, the best times are late in the dormant season or very early in the spring before leaves form. 

Pruning directly above a branch or bud growing toward the outside of a tree tends to broaden the tree’s crown. 

To prevent stripping off bark, stub-cut all branches that are too large to be supported by hand. Stub-cutting requires three saw cuts: First cut upward, about halfway through the limb and a foot out from the point of the final cut. Make the second cut a few inches farther out on the limb, cutting down from the top until the limb is severed. Finally, saw off the stub. 

In sawing off the stub, follow Figure 1. Note that the final cut should be typically made at an angle of 30 degrees or so away from the main trunk. 

Figure 1—Proper Cuts for Pruning


Do not paint wounds where you have removed branches. The prevailing scientific view is that wound dressings do not stop decay or rot, and may interfere with a tree’s natural healing process. 


Unless they are growing in extremely poor soil, most trees never need to be fertilized. Urban trees are more likely than suburban or rural trees to be planted in soil that lacks sufficient nutrients for satisfactory growth and development. 

Because giving them extra nitrogen—a main component of most fertilizers—can actually worsen pest and disease problems, certain trees should never be fertilized. Fertilizer-induced problems include increased severity of fire blight on crabapple trees, higher populations of aphids on tulip poplars, woolly adelgids (similar to aphids) on hemlocks, and obscure scale (armored insects) on red oaks. 

If you decide that fertilizing is right for your tree, follow these guidelines: After transplanting a tree, wait a year before applying fertilizer. Mature trees will not benefit from fertilizer more often than every two or three years. Fertilizing the lawn or gardens around a tree also fertilizes the tree. The best time to fertilize is autumn, when the weather is cool and soil moisture plentiful. 

A fertilizer such as 10-10-10 (numbers refer to percentages of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potash in the mixture) is best. Fertilizers with urea or other organic sources of nutrients have the advantage of breaking down slowly, providing a long-lasting effect. 

To apply fertilizer, use a crowbar to pound holes 12 inches deep and 18 to 24 inches apart at the tree’s drip line (the line around the perimeter at the outer tips of the branches). Fill the holes with fertilizer to within a few inches of the top, and fill the remainder with sand. Avoid burying the fertilizer too deep in the soil, because roots are seldom more than a foot deep. 

Determine how much fertilizer to use by measuring the trunk; experts recommend one cup of fertilizer per inch of diameter. 

Extra Advice:
Tree Care Don'ts  

Both you and your tree care company should avoid several all-too-common practices: 

  • Don’t climb trees using spikes. This is extremely damaging. 
  • Don’t top trees. 
  • Don’t allow the pruning of branches to rip bark below a cut. 
  • Don’t paint wounds. 
  • Don’t fill cavities with concrete. 
  • Don’t unnecessarily enlarge or “point” tree wounds. 
  • Don’t leave rope or wire wrapped around a trunk. 
  • Don’t spray unless there is a clear need to control a specified pest or disease. 

Extra Advice:
What Goes Wrong 

The following summarizes the various kinds of complaints of tree care services by surveyed consumers. 

  • Customer service—Lack of responsiveness, poor communication or rude treatment, failure to deliver on promises. (Mentioned in 32 percent of complaints.) 
  • Price—Too expensive. (27 percent) 
  • Poor work or results. (18 percent) 
  • Failure to complete contract—Billed for incomplete work or failed to perform all contracted tasks. (13 percent) 
  • Poor clean-up. (12 percent) 
  • Damaged home or belongings. (12 percent) 
  • Incompetence, poor advice, or untrained workers. (9 percent) 
  • Promptness—Took too long to complete work, or was late for or missed appointments. (9 percent) 
  • Reliability—Unwilling to address or resolve disputes. (3 percent ) 

Extra Advice:
Expert Advice 

Cooperative Extension agents will give you advice by phone or at their offices and will help you diagnose plant problems if you bring or send them specimens. Each Cooperative Extension office also offers a publications catalog listing guides you can send for (some of which are free) on plant-related topics. The addresses and phone numbers of the local agencies are listed below. 

Extension Offices 

WSU Extension

King County
1000 Oakdale Ave SW, Suite 140
Renton, WA

Kitsap County
345 Sixth Street, Suite 550
Bremerton, WA

Pierce County
3602 Pacific Avenue, Suite B
Tacoma, WA

Snohomish County
600 128th Street SE
Everett, WA

Bellevue Botanical Garden
12001 Main Street
Bellevue, WA

Center for Urban Horticulture & Horticultural Library
3501 NE 41st Street
Seattle, WA

Lake Wilderness Arboretum
22520 SE 248th Street
Maple Valley, WA

Plant Amnesty

Washington Park Arboretum
2300 Arboretum Drive East
Seattle, WA

Washington State University Master Gardener Program

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