An unusual company

This week I’m in Charlotte, NC as a guest of Bartlett Tree Experts.  In addition to providing tree services, this company also maintains the Bartlett Tree Research Laboratories and Arboretum. The latter includes over 300 acres of tree collections and ongoing research trials.  Here’s a sampling of the tree research we had a chance to observe:

Demonstration espalier pruning…

…and pleaching

Comparison of root barrier materials.  This area was covered with a sidewalk for a number of years and then exposed to observe tree rooting patterns.  The purpose of the research was to find which barriers were most likely to prevent sidewalk lifting and cracking.

A control – no barrier, lots of roots!

Black plastic – lack of rigidity allows roots to grow over (and through) the plastic, then under the sidewalk.

18″ rigid root barrier.  One of the more effective means of keeping roots out.

Removing circling roots before planting

A tree whose roots had been corrected before planting.  I think this had been planted in 2007, then lifted a few weeks ago.

A tree without root correction.  It didn’t grow any better than the corrected tree, and those circling roots are well on their way to becoming girdling roots.

This company employs a number of PhDs whose research is routinely published in arboricultural and horticultural journals.  It was fun to finally meet these researchers whose work I’ve been following for years.

Wouldn’t it be great if more companies put this much effort towards research?

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Linda Chalker-Scott

Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott has a Ph.D. in Horticulture from Oregon State University and is an ISA certified arborist and an ASCA consulting arborist. She is WSU’s Extension Urban Horticulturist and a Professor in the Department of Horticulture, and holds two affiliate associate professor positions at University of Washington. She conducts research in applied plant and soil sciences, publishing the results in scientific articles and university Extension fact sheets. Linda also is the award-winning author of five books: the horticultural myth-busting The Informed Gardener (2008) and The Informed Gardener Blooms Again (2010) from the University of Washington Press and Sustainable Landscapes and Gardens: Good Science – Practical Application (2009) from GFG Publishing, Inc., and How Plants Work: The Science Behind the Amazing Things Plants Do from Timber Press (2015). Her latest effort is an update of Art Kruckeberg’s Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest from UW Press (2019). In 2018 Linda was featured in a video series – The Science of Gardening – produced by The Great Courses. She also is one of the Garden Professors – a group of academic colleagues who educate and entertain through their blog and Facebook pages. Linda’s contribution to gardeners was recognized in 2017 by the Association for Garden Communicators as the first recipient of their Cynthia Westcott Scientific Writing Award. "The Garden Professors" Facebook page - "The Garden Professors" Facebook group - Books:

16 thoughts on “An unusual company”

  1. It would be great if more companies (not just in this industry) put more effort into research, however most are in no position financially to do this. Perhaps if the gov’t would deregulate and cut taxes…

  2. Our local Bartlett has been a great supporter of the Master Gardener program. Their employees give generously of their time and expertise to help us become better tree stewards in our community.

  3. I think it would be great if instead tree care companies jointly contributed to research not affiliated with any company- you know, sort of like land grant university research.

    Seems like a not very efficient model to have every corporate tree care company doing independent research but it certainly beats no research.

    I’d rather have research done by people who are not directly connected to the profits of a tree care company… Incidentally, Bartlett has to pay for their research from profits and their pricing for service has to reflect this.

  4. Also, Linda, I think you should check out how they use their research- just google Bartlett Research…. I think you’ll find they end up marketing a lot of worthless treatment for profit such as injection fertilization. Typical corporate BS in other words.

  5. Alan, I just spent two days listening to the researchers at Bartlett talk about how their research influences their services offered. For instance: they do not market compost tea applications, as their research has shown it to be worthless (just like the independent university studies). We didn’t see any work on injection fertilization, so I can’t address that one.Actually, I think it would be great if “every corporate tree company” did independent research. That’s experimental repetition, which makes the results that much more powerful.I do think it’s unfair to suggest that their research is driven by profits. From what I saw, their research drives what they offer for services. Sure, it will cost more money, just like hiring a certified arborist costs more than hiring the guy with a chainsaw in his pickup.

  6. Linda, did you check out their website? I think to be fair to me and readers in general you should do so to see if their conclusions generally follow your knowledge of current research. When they were conversing to you, I assume they were aware of their audience.

    Maybe I wasn’t fair- I certainly wasn’t thorough (I think that’s your job) but the first thing I found was their self-congratulatory description of soil injection “organic” fertilizing technique. Wonder what they charge for that? On the face of it that seems like utter nonsense to me although they claim it’s based on their research.

    It surprises me that you that you responded without first checking what they are claiming in their marketing.

    It is the service that they provide for their customers that they should be judged by-not by their presentation to academics. I honestly feel you should check out their public web-site and see what you think before giving such a ringing endorsement.

  7. Alan (at least I think this last comment was yours?), the point of my post was not to endorse Bartlett’s services. It was to recognize that at least one tree care company out there performs and publishes scientific research, and this research drives what services are offered. We didn’t discuss fertilizer injections, so I didn’t see their research nor would I necessarily endorse the practice – I’d have to do some additional reading on the topic – and I will. (Maybe one of the Bartlett group can address this?) I do know this company firmly supports serious rootball disturbance of trees and shrubs before planting and recommends organic mulch as the single best thing you can add to landscape plantings. I also know they recommend my website of horticultural myths to their clients and their employees. They’re interested in collaborating with independent researchers.
    Do we agree on every single topic? No, we don’t. I’ve had some robust discussions with the PhDs there, especially on the topic of amending soils with organic material. But we’re able to discuss the topic rationally, look at research results, respect one another as colleagues, and hopefully generate the best possible information for managing urban landscapes and gardens.

  8. Here’s some of what they endorse based on 15 minutes of research on my part- regular injection fertilizer applications of trees and shrubs- regardless of whether greater vigor is desired (probably all the big companies do)- steel cabling of risky large branches- managing apple trees with bi-weekly pesticide applications throughout the growing season with a premix that contains a little something for most apple pests. This last one stood out for me as I manage fruit trees for a living and know how poor this program would be… As far as I can tell their research has very little to do with the services they supply which are pretty much the industry standard….. If they gave up on compost tea applications maybe it’s because applications can’t be made when it rains and they have plenty of things for their spray trucks to do at this time… I think the reason most tree care companies like injection fertilization is it gives them something to do with this very expensive equipment when it’s raining… but then, I’m so unfair.

  9. Alan, I’ll see if I can get one of the researchers at the labs to respond to this comment, ok? Or maybe I can get one of them to do a guest posting. You raise valid points and I’m not in a position to address them, especially those related to pest management. (They are in research meetings for the rest of the week but we’ll see what we can get for next week.)

  10. Linda, that must have been a cool trip! I can’t comment on what services Bartlett markets, but do think that the photos of root research you’ve taken are great, and hope that you might do a post on pre-planting root disturbance and the correcting of root problems.

  11. Thanks Linda, but I still believe you should just go to their website and see what services they are offering. They may say that the website is not frequently updated but ask when last update was- what I’ve mentioned has been outdated for years- you taught me about the problems with steel cables. I was talking to a Bartlett “diagnostician” on one of the sites I work a few weeks ago and he ridiculed another tree care company for using the new cables- said the tree was being girdled. He’d never heard of the flexible cables or related research. As far as I could tell he was much more a salesman than arborist- he couldn’t name a single book on arboriculture he could recommend and he’d never heard of Richard Harris.

    I’m not saying Bartlett might not be a small step above other big companies, only that a lot of the research stuff may be more about promotion than improving practices. It would be interesting to find out if the guys in the field are even opening up balled and burlapped trees when doing installation and doing what their researchers suggest- it would take more time and cut into company profits to do so and they have to compete based on bids. I don’t find employees of these companies to often be well educated about horticulture- pay scales are too low to hire this kind of expertise.

  12. Having served on a Tree Board in a now 21-year awarded Tree City USA city and in a state with an active urban forestry initiative (a la Urban and Community Forestry Program that sprang from the 1990 Farm Bill) I’ve been to several Bartlett sponsored educational sessions where they wow with their Root Invigoration technique and elicit moans at girdled maple tree roots…..I like Bartlett, I really do, but again, having served on a Tree Board, I can’t help but default to my skepticism towards tree companies as being the ones who take trees down. And I personally have spoken with so many poorly informed, supposedly ISA certified arbor
    ists that it’s gotten to where I really only want to talk to my city arborist. My tax dollars are paying him to enforce the tree ordinance and keep my trees alive and in place. Unfortunately, he does NOT have time to answer every tree question of our citizens. I find that the tree growers – the businesses – are good, practical spokesmen for good planting techniques. Moon’s Tree Farm, here in Georgia, will tell you how to properly get a tree in the ground and care for it. Just some thoughts.

  13. My entire reason for this post was to showcase the research that a tree care company is supporting with serious dollars. How that translates to the business end, or to individual employees, is beyond my abilities as a scientist. As with any profession, you’ll find a range of competancies and I always encourage any consumer to press any company for evidence-based practices in their work. If you’re not satisfied with the level of current plant and soil science information an arborist or other professional possesses, by all means take this up with whatever supervisory agent there is: the home office, ISA, etc. It’s not a perfect world, but I have yet to see another tree care company do what Bartlett has in terms of objective, peer-reviewed research.

  14. Linda, my entire reason for injecting my input is that I believe that anyone reading your post would conclude that the service provided by this company would reflect the research your coverage admiringly reports and therefore trust them to be more competent and trustworthy than other tree care companies. I believe that such trust could lead to signing expensive contracts that include services that their landscapes don’t actually need. You must realize that your coverage puts the entire company in a very good light and they must realize that you are a business ally for this reason.

    I admit to having a subjective perspective- I’m a small business that sometimes competes with these kinds of corporate giants- but it is a competition that I generally win because I’m so specialized (fruit trees only) and it would be very difficult for them to offer the same kind of expertise. Fruit trees in the northeast require quite a bit of skilled maintenance to be productive, so I never have to invent work to stay busy….

    What I suggest to someone who is considering hiring any tree care company for the general maintenance of their trees is that if they want to avoid unnecessary services they’d better read a good book on arboriculture such as Harris’s book published by Prentice Hall and also make good use of their cooperative extension and the horticulturalists employed there for a second opinion about treatments proscribed in any contract. I believe that it is the industry standard to offer unnecessary maintenance to enhance profits and any company that doesn’t do this would be at a huge competitive disadvantage……

    As far as the usefulness of the Bartlett research, I really don’t know. I’m unaware of anything that has come out of the Bartlett research that has been groundbreaking and would make me inclined to subsidize it by paying extra for their service- maybe you could provide an example. As far as the research you showed, it all seemed to be about well established issues and not very imaginative ….

    Bartlett has a good reputation, however, and if their bid was competitive, I’d certainly consider using them for services I knew were necessary. As a small business owner I do tend to prefer hiring companies where the owner is in the crew- with these big companies the smartest folks always seem to be in sales and not in the trees….

  15. I’ve been to Bartlett’s Lab. I recommend tree services because although I’m a ISA certified arborist (a program I wholeheartedly support because of the required ongoing education), I do not do any tree service work. In our area Bartlet costs a little more but every worker is well-trained. I work with several other tree services that I could say the same of and some of those are national companies. In our area there are smart guys and a couple smart women climbing.

    Bartlett really pushes the entire tree industry to do better and so whether you agree with every thing they do, I don’t, I certainly give them much deserved respect. For a private company to invest money that could go into their bottom line into research is an unusual business model in our industry.

    As for fruit trees, you are fortunate to have a niche you know so well. I am certain that if you are educating your clients well, and if your results are good, that you have no need to worry about competition. That is how I have built my business and my clients rely on me. My clients ask for local companies to perform their tree work and so I’d imagine people might have the same general bias in your part of the country.
    Tree companies, even arborists that I have known for many years and I know to be quite good, will sell services that clients insist on even if they are not effective, such as injection fertilization, because the clients want to feel like they have done something. They will also sell services that I object to such as topping in shopping centers so that the signs can be seen. They say they can’t talk the owners out of it. I wish this didn’t happen because it would educate the public better. I know of only one arborist that will walk away from these bad opportunities, there may be more, but we have many tree companies here and so are far from a critical mass.

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