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Caring for trees is a growing passion for arborist

By Cindy Atoji Keene

There’s a big difference between a certified arborist and Joe’s whack-a-tree and lawn mowing service. The amateur outfit is likely to be seen topping trees that grow too large, the horticultural equivalent to doing surgery on the wrong limb. Can’t identify a tree? The non-certified tree worker might be seen consulting a smartphone app, while the trained arborist is able to identify them through their leaves, bark, and other traits.

Arborists do much more than just take down trees, as John Murphy of NatureWorks Landscape Services in Walpole can tell you. Ask him about strategies to deal with carpenter ants, indicators of stem decay in trees, or his opinion on soil amendments, and he’ll tell you about the best treatments and approaches for tree health care. “Whether it’s an ornamental tree or a large shade tree, we try to preserve trees as long as possible. Promoting longevity for trees is very important to me, and yet, not every tree is a keeper, so removal is also part of the workload,” said Murphy, who is a Massachusetts Certified Arborist, a voluntary certification for the tree care industry that is a symbol of professionalism in arboriculture within the state.

When it comes to the general health of trees in eastern Massachusetts, Murphy gives a “poor” grade. With a warm winter and spring, trees have been leafing out several weeks early and facing pests like the invasive Asian longhorned beetle and the winter moth caterpillar. “There are so many diseases in our neck of the woods,” said Murphy, 28, who said that improper pruning alone can weaken or deform a tree.

Q: What are your suggestions for the typical homeowner?
A: Maintain your trees as best as possible if you want your yard looking nice and neat. Don’t let it get to the point where a plant is too big for the area , and don’t allow branches to get too long, as heavy wind, ice and snow can then cause damage. To properly prune, follow the natural growth habit.

Q: Arborists are often required to climb trees with ropes, harnesses and other equipment, or use lifts or cranes. What’s the tallest tree that you’ve climbed?
A: I've scaled some pretty tall trees, like a 100-foot pine tree in Concord that was being choked by a bittersweet vine, which can take over the tree and eventually kill it. We used a rigging system to scale the tree and remove the vine.

Q: What has changed in the landscaping business since you first started?
A: I’ve been doing this since I was 14, when I was mowing boy for a landscape company. I went back every summer while in high school, and when I was 17, got to use heavy equipment like the bucket truck, which was great fun and sparked my interest. Back then, I didn’t know the scientific stuff I know now. As we get more scientific evidence, some things become obsolete. For example, a decade ago, concrete was put in cankers to fill holes in the tree, but now it’s left to scab over.

Q: What’s your favorite kind of tree?
A: I like the beautiful bark on the Japanese stewartia and also enjoy a dogwood, when pruned properly.

Q: Have you ever fallen off a tree?
A: Knock on wood, no, I haven’t. In this job you have to stay focused. You can’t let your guard down and get too cocky when you’re up there.

Q: Do you prune the trees in your own yard?
A: I live in a condo, but my girlfriend and I are looking to buy. I’m looking forward to having my own yard and maintaining it.

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