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Tree Care Services (From CHECKBOOK, Fall 2015/Winter 2016)
Go to Ratings of 50 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, obtain competitive bids from several. For tree removal jobs, we found big price differences—from $900 to $2,200 on one job for which a CHECKBOOK mystery shopper received bids. 

It’s pretty easy to collect proposals from companies. Typically, you don’t have to be home when bidders are looking at the job—but do include a thorough description of the work in a written contract that specifies who cleans up afterward, hauls away debris and wood, and removes 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 are 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, or bark. 

Remember the trees in The Wizard of Oz, the scary guys who talked tough and threw apples? They didn’t look very happy, you’ll recall, so it wasn’t surprising their bite was even worse than their bark. 

Healthy though they appear most of the time, on occasion your trees might become equally shady characters, done in—and perhaps ultimately brought down—by disease or damage or both. 

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 perform a few tasks yourself. 

Help Wanted? How to Tell If Your Trees Need It 

You don’t have to be an expert to spot many potential tree problems. Like most plants, trees have ways of indicating distress. Examine your trees several times a year 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; letting light and breezes more readily reach 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—removing specific limbs or spraying for an easily recognized pest, for example. But sometimes diagnosing and treating trees are as difficult as they can be for humans. At those times, you need expert advice. 

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

Many trees are lost because they don’t receive the right treatment—often because they are inaccurately diagnosed or because self-styled 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. 

The best strategy 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, look to the services of a consulting arborist. Get the names of professionals who belong to the American Society of Consulting Arborists (ASCA) by visiting or 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 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 program 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 must also 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 consulting fee and explaining that you won’t necessarily use the arborist’s company to perform the services it recommends. 

Naturally, the effort you put into getting sound advice will depend 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 that can offer advice and perform the work. We asked area consumers (primarily CHECKBOOK and Consumer Reports subscribers) to rate tree care services they had used. Our Ratings Tables show the results of our survey for 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 by companies that rate poorly, customers often complained of being overcharged, getting poor results, and having their property damaged by careless, untrained workers. 

Complaint Records 

For firms that were evaluated in our last full, published article, our Ratings Tables also show counts of complaints we gathered from the Consumer Protection Division of the Washington Office of the Attorney General for a recent two-year period and complaint rates relative to the volume of work companies do. For more information on reported complaint counts and rates, click here

Payment Policy 

Check with companies to see if you can wait until the job is finished before paying for the service. 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 harm it causes you or damage it inflicts on your property, and may not be able to pay for injury to its own workers or other people, or for damage 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. 

Making Sure the Price and Job Are Right 

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

Table 1 shows prices a CHECKBOOK mystery shopper received from area tree care companies for a typical tree removal job. As you can see, the price differences are striking—from $900 to $2,200. Be sure to obtain multiple competitive bids for your work. 

Table 1—Prices Quoted for Tree Removal Work

Prices Quoted for Tree Removal Work

Companies were asked to quote prices to remove a 35' pine tree, remove all wood and debris, and grind stump.
Company Price quoted
Washington Tree Experts, Seattle $900
Seattle Tree Preservation, Seattle $965
Davey Tree Expert, Bellevue $1,120
Northern Arboriculture, Lake Forest Park $1,150
Custom Tree Service, Edmonds $1,250
Bartlett Tree Experts, Kenmore $1,430
Ballard Tree Service, Seattle $1,500
Blooma Tree Experts, Seattle $1,550
Smith Brothers Tree Service, Snohomish $1,800
Budget Tree Service, Mountlake Terrace $2,200

It’s pretty easy to collect proposals from companies. Typically, you don’t have to be home when bidders are looking at the job. But keep these points in mind as you solicit bids: 

  • Because it can be difficult to connect with estimators during working hours, when crews are out on the job, 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 actually need; then, once you have enough bids, promptly cancel the remaining visits. 
  • If you won’t be home, provide careful instructions as to exactly what work you want done. 
  • To make sure you know precisely 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 afterward, hauling away the debris, cutting wood to desirable firewood lengths, splitting wood, stacking wood, and removing the stump. If you want any of these services, ask companies to include them in their bids. 
  • Other points to clarify in bids for tree removal or pruning (and in the contract that follows) include: exact work to be done (for example, “removal of all dead, dying, or weak branches of at least one-inch diameter”), dates by which the work will begin and end, branches to be lowered or dropped, and precise responsibility for any damage caused. 
  • 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 preparations you must make (for instance, covering lawn furniture). 
  • 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 or removing trees if you can schedule work during the winter, when companies are less busy and there is less debris to haul away. 

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

Branching Out: Work You Can Do 

If you want to try your hand at particular tasks, 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 (ISA) 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, 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 starting to dig 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 by 90 to 95 percent from its original size during transplanting. Reacting to the trauma caused by digging them up, 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 itself in the new location. Follow these eight simple steps to significantly reduce the stress placed on the tree while you’re planting it: 

1.    Dig a shallow, broad planting hole. Make it 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 have to push through surrounding soil to establish themselves. 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 hastens establishment. 

2.    Identify the trunk flare. The trunk flare, where the roots spread at the base of the tree, should be partially visible after the tree has been planted. If the trunk flare is not partly 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 correct height. Before placing the tree in the hole, check to see that you’ve dug the hole to the right depth but no deeper. Most of the roots of 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. To allow for some settling, it’s 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 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 backfilling, have someone view the tree from several directions to confirm that the tree is straight. Once you begin backfilling, the tree becomes 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 pockets, 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 was grown and then dug out properly at the nursery, staking for support is not necessary in most home landscape designs. Studies have shown that trees establish themselves 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 will hold 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 at the base of the tree. It acts as a blanket to hold moisture in 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 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 planting. Prune sparingly just 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 ( 


No matter who does it—you or 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); and 
  • Branches that unacceptably obstruct your view or desired breezes. 

Though most trees can be pruned at any time, the best opportunities occur late in the dormant season and 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 made at an angle of roughly 30 degrees and away from the main trunk. 

Figure 1—Proper Cuts for Pruning

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

Also, keep in mind that pruning coniferous trees—they have cones and needles—such as pines, spruces, firs, and yews is different from pruning other trees and shrubs in one important respect: They don’t replace growth. If you prune them for shape or size, you’ll have to live with the results. 


Though 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 diseases and pest infestations, certain trees should never be fertilized. Fertilizer-induced difficulties 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 fertilizing more often than once 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. 

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. 3 

Extra Advice:
Please Don’t! 

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:
Complaint Department 

Here are surveyed consumers’ most common complaints about tree care companies: 

  • Customer service—lack of responsiveness, poor communication or rude treatment, failure to deliver on promises. 
  • Price—too expensive. 
  • Poor work or results. 
  • Failure to complete contract—billed for incomplete work or failed to perform all contracted tasks. 
  • Poor or insufficient cleanup
  • Damaged home or belongings. 
  • Incompetence, poor advice, or untrained workers. 
  • Unnecessary delays—took too long to complete work, was late for or missed appointments. 
  • Unaccommodating policies—unwilling to address or resolve disputes. 

Extra Advice:
Expert Advice 

Your county’s cooperative extension office has master gardeners whom you can call for advice and can help you diagnose plant problems if you bring or send them specimens. Other local sources of gardening expertise: 

Washington State University Extension 

Bellevue Botanical Garden
12001 Main Street
Bellevue, WA 98005

Center for Urban Horticulture & Library
3501 NE 41st Street
Seattle, WA 98105

Lake Wilderness Arboretum
22520 SE 248th Street
Maple Valley, WA 98038

Plant Amnesty

Washington Park Arboretum
2300 Arboretum Drive East
Seattle, WA 98112

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