The Tree Doctors Are In

On a dark, drizzly morning in late summer I’m riding shotgun in Gary’s red F250 as he makes his rounds to some ailing Antrim County trees. Pumps, hoses and sloshing drums of fertilizer and pesticide cram the truck bed, creating a fire engine feel. The interior is filled, too: wads of Kleenex wedged between the foggy windshield and a dusty dash, piles of business cards, crumpled receipts and pens jammed atop the visors, a half-empty bottle of Diet Rite Pure Zero cola tottering in the cup holder. Even the small gap in my door’s armrest is occupied: two flashlight-sized light bulbs rattle around inside.

Over the whine of the windshield wipers, we discuss the list of house calls Gary will make today. Because it’s late in the summer, we’ll hit fewer than 10. On a typical day in the height of the season, May and June, he’ll make up to 32 in a day, tending trees at private homes, country clubs, outlet malls, condo associations – just about anywhere but orchards and Christmas tree farms. I ask Gary what kinds of calls drive him batty. Without a split-second’s hesitation he squawks, “Gardeners! Gardeners kill me!”

He barrels around a bend in the road and offers a classic case: a longtime client, a dear lady, he says, but one who’s redone her yard about three times. Always planting things, moving things, breaking ground here, bringing in a front-end loader to haul rocks there. “I’ve told her time and time again, all you’re doing is killing your trees,” he says, his scratchy voice rising in pitch. “Good viable tree roots, what they do is spread out and then come up under the surface so they can get their nutrients. Not down,” he says, waving his finger at me. “There’s nothing down there. Nothing. No water, nothing! Everything’s up! All the roots come up!

“So what happens with a person who’s always breaking up these gardens, running heavy equipment all over the place, compacting the soil? She’s not letting anything into the roots!” He sighs, shakes his head. “She’s got a beautiful garden, and it’s just tough for her to understand why her trees aren’t.”

The Tree Doctors do minister to ornamentals – mountain ash, hawthorns, magnolias – and a few bushes – junipers, arbor vitae, even some roses. But mostly they deal with native trees: spruces, firs and tamaracks. Different types of maples, beech trees, aspens, poplars, red oaks, white oaks, a few pin oaks here and there. This surprises me. You’d think that native trees, being, well … native, wouldn’t require any human intervention.

When I mention this, Gary snorts. “Right up there is a woods,” he says. He motions through windshield. “See that nice woods? What happens to the weak trees in that woods? They die. Now, what happens to the weak trees in a nursery?” His voice grows louder with each sentence. “They get sold and planted in your yard! And then you call me and say what’s wrong with these trees!”

Just then, we pass a nursery. “I didn’t orchestrate this,” he says, then reignites. “What we’re doing is taking trees out of nature, half of which wouldn’t live in nature, putting them in a yard, a hostile situation in dirt and areas they weren’t meant to be in, and we’re asking them to grow and be pretty! If left to their own devices, do most people have problematic trees? Sure! And you know why? People!”

So obstacle No. 1 for trees – clearly, people. But obstacle No. 1 for Tree Doctors? Time. Say a tree gets planted with the burlap still covering the root ball. Or has wires wrapped around it. (All too common, says Gary.) Like drought, disease, lack of nutrients or any one of a myriad of other troubles that can afflict a tree, five years can pass before the owner sees any symptom of the problem causing it. Yet, says Gary, the client will often expect him to save it in a season.

“‘You’re the tree doctor! Why don’t you save that tree?” he shouts, mimicking a scene he knows all too well. He chuckles, shakes his head. “I get yelled at a lot.”

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