Chapter 1. Landscape Trees

Description of the Resource

Landscape trees are the largest and most noticeable natural resource feature of many neighborhoods. Trees provide many economic and social benefits and are an integral part of balancing the built environment with natural systems. The well-recognized benefits of trees, such as beauty and shade, occur in tandem with the growing appreciation of broad environmental benefits and social values related to trees where people live and work.

While landscape trees provide many benefits, their size and proximity to people and structures can result in potential liability risks. When trees are poorly planted or neglected over their lifetimes, the risk of tree failure, property damage, and personal injury increases. These risks, however, can be minimized when trees are planted well and receive proper and timely maintenance. In this chapter, management concepts and practices are introduced to maximize benefits and minimize risks in your community’s landscape.

For most HOAs, the landscape trees you may care for in your community are grouped into two categories—along the street and in common areas. Each type of tree has different management needs.

Street Trees

Street trees are planted in a linear fashion along a road. They may be located on public or private streets and are often between the curb and sidewalk. If the street lacks a sidewalk, trees may be planted a set distance from the curb but within the road right-of-way or easement.

One reason street trees are unique is the challenge of their locations and ownership/management responsibilities. The street-side setting can be a harsh environment for trees to thrive. Street trees often grow in a narrow, restricted area that limits root growth. The soil is usually compacted fill with limited nutrients, oxygen, and water. Furthermore, underground and overhead utilities often share the same limited space, causing further problems. Street trees are also directly impacted by heat and pollution from roads and vehicles.

Because of all these challenges, street trees often have a shorter lifespan than other landscape trees and need more frequent maintenance. These trees often require more pruning for street and sidewalk clearance. They may need to be mulched, watered, and fertilized more frequently than other landscape trees because of the poor growing conditions.

If street trees are located along a public street, it is important to know whether they are under the jurisdiction and care of your city or county. Municipalities vary in whether they or the abutting property owners are responsible for the tree’s maintenance and/or replacement planting. Often, ordinances and governmental policies define what can and cannot be done to public trees.

Common Area Landscape Trees

Trees in community entrances, parks, playgrounds, and other developed recreational or common areas are the second category of landscape trees. These trees are usually found in an open space or lawn setting, and contribute greatly to defining the character of the neighborhood and increasing the quality of life for everyone.

However, unlike street trees, landscape trees are often located near buildings, pools, and people. As such, they require the same diligent management so they do not become a risk and liability to persons or property. However, because they are generally growing in a less restricted, more natural space, these trees should be more vigorous, live longer and require less maintenance than most street trees.


Neighborhood trees are truly a valuable community resource. They provide tangible and intangible benefits for diverse services, such as air pollution mitigation, energy use reduction, increased property value, stormwater management, wildlife habitat, water quality protection, educational opportunities, view screening and privacy, aesthetics, and a sense of security and well-being.

Some examples of the significant benefits trees provide include:

  • A single acre of mature trees removes 20 tons of pollution per year
  • A row of mature street trees decreases dust and other solid pollutants from entering an adjacent street by almost 40 percent
  • Property values are 5-20 percent higher with landscape trees present
  • An average household’s savings on heating and cooling costs is $300 per year

To learn more about the benefits your tree can provide, see Appendix 1-1: Benefits of Trees or visit

Tree Care Best Management Practices

Trees are significant assets. Like all assets, they need to be managed properly and professionally to provide the greatest return on the investment. Whether you perform tree care tasks yourself, with volunteers, or through a qualified contractor, there are common best management practices for tree care and planting that you should know to make your trees safe and healthy.

Species and Site Selection

Arborists have a saying: “Plant the right tree in the right place.” This summarizes the goal of selecting a species for new or replacement tree planting projects that is just right for the location. Trees that are well matched to their environment and site conditions are more likely to grow faster, live longer, look better, and resist disease and insect pests during their lifespan.

Selecting a tree that will thrive in a given set of site conditions is the key to long-term tree survival, reduced maintenance costs, and maximized benefits. Consider the following site conditions before making your choice of species to plant:

  • Soil conditions (e.g., moisture, drainage, pH)
  • Exposure to full sun, partial shade, full shade
  • Is the site extremely windy?
  • Function (e.g., shade, wind block, or view screening)
  • Space constraints above and below ground
  • Presence of underground and overhead utilities
  • Hardiness zone (lowest average temperature)

For more details on these questions see Appendix 1-2: Tree Selection or visit

A site evaluation checklist has been developed for your reference and use when considering new tree planting.

Planting Process

Once the tree has been selected, purchased, and brought to the site, the planting process is too often performed poorly, which can lead to long-term problems. If it is performed poorly or improperly, whether done by volunteers or landscape contractors, then you have wasted time, money, and a perfectly good tree. If done well, the benefits of your labor and expense will be repaid many times.

An extremely important rule to remember when planning a tree planting project is “Call before you dig!”. Before you plant any trees, make sure that you are aware of the location of all underground utilities. To be certain that you do not accidentally dig into any lines and risk serious injury or a costly service interruption, first mark the proposed locations of the new trees. Then call your utility company or utility protection service to mark the locations of underground utilities to reveal any potential conflicts ( This is a free service.

Three types of landscape trees are available: containerized, balled and burlapped, and bare root. Each type requires different handling during the planting process. However, for all three types, it is important to find and expose the root flare and plant the tree so the flare is just above ground level.

Digging a proper hole is key to a successful planting. The hole should resemble a shallow basin with the depth no deeper than the height of the rootball or where the root flare begins. The width of the hole should be two to three times the width of the root ball.

Once the tree has been positioned in the hole, backfill half-way with the native soil you removed. It is not recommended that any soil amendments or fertilizer be used at the time of planting. Water the backfilled soil thoroughly to remove any air pockets. Complete the rest of the backfilling to the natural grade and finish by creating a shallow saucer of soil around the tree and water again.

Pruning is not recommended at the time of planting except to remove small dead, broken, or rubbing branches. Staking newly planted trees is not recommended unless the planting site is in an open, high-wind area or for the visual benefit staking can provide to protect newly planted trees. If staking is used, avoid the most common mistake of making the ties and other binding too tight. Newly planted trees should be able to flex and move with the wind, allowing them to grow strong and be better equipped for normal winds when no longer supported with staking. Stakes and other support materials should be removed from the tree at the start of the second growing season.

The United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service offers a detailed manual of planting in Appendix 1-3: Tree Planting.


Tree pruning is performed for three main reasons: public safety, tree health, and property aesthetics. You want your tree to be safe for the community, healthy so it can be enjoyed, and aesthetically pleasing to add more value to the neighborhood. Proper pruning methods depend on the age of the tree.

Young Tree Pruning

Pruning new trees can usually start during the second year after planting. Correct pruning of a young tree will result in a healthier, safer mature tree. Removing small limbs is easier and less costly than waiting until the limbs are large. Often called “structural pruning”, the goals of pruning a young tree include: creating good spacing between branches, encouraging a central leader, leaving only well-attached branches, and establishing good clearance between the ground and the first branch. When pruning a small tree, remove no more than 25 percent of the live branches within a single growing season. It is recommended that at least 50 percent of the tree’s foliage be distributed on branches originating from the lower two-thirds of the tree.

Mature Tree Pruning

Mature tree pruning is primarily performed to eliminate dead branches, reduce risk, correct storm damage, and provide clearance for buildings, utilities, streets, and sidewalks. Pruning mature trees can be dangerous and usually requires the expertise of an arborist. Pruning is preferably done in the winter or dormant season when the branches are more easily seen, diseases are less likely to spread, and there is less stress on the tree. However, most pruning can be done throughout the year. When pruning a mature tree, never remove more than 20 percent of the live branches in one growing season. Typically, mature trees only need general pruning every 5 to 10 years.

No Topping!

Topping is the improper and extensive cutting of tree branches to stubs. Other names for topping include “heading”, “tipping”, “hat-racking”, and “rounding over”. Topping creates many problems for both the tree and the property owner, including stress, decay, sun damage, hazards, disfigurement, and higher long-term maintenance costs.


Using mulch is beneficial for trees because it mimics the natural environment of the forest. Proper mulching is probably the single best action you can take for both newly planted and mature landscape trees. Mulch provides protection from mowers and string trimmers and reduces root competition from weeds and grass. It also helps maintain soil moisture, moderate soil temperature, mitigate nutrient and organic matter deficiencies, and… it looks great!

There are two important rules when mulching a tree:

  1. Never pile the mulch onto the trunk of the tree, creating a “volcano” shape. This can damage the trunk.
  2. Never mulch deeper than four inches at any time.

A mulch ring is generally saucer-shaped and should be as wide as possible (to the edges of the crown) but at a minimum width of three feet to prevent mowing equipment from damaging the trunk. Even better than mulching individual trees is to “group mulch” multiple trees that are growing close together. This makes mowing even easier and benefits the trees more. Many types and colors of mulch are acceptable, but organic material such as wood chips and leaves are best.

For more details on proper mulching, see Appendix 1-4: Mulching or visit


Trees require certain nutrients to function and grow; therefore, fertilization is an important aspect of tree care. A tree may be stressed and start to decline if nutrient deficiencies exist; however, only a soil test can determine if fertilizing is necessary. Soil tests are often done at no charge by your county cooperative extension service. Fertilizing can improve overall health, growth, and appearance; but, if fertilizer is not necessary or applied incorrectly, it may not benefit the tree at all. This will cost the association time and money, and may even adversely affect tree health. Be aware of how much and what type of fertilizers or broadleaf weed killers you or your lawn care contractor applies to the lawn around landscape trees. Trees are broadleaf plants and these lawn care products formulated to kill broadleaf weeds can be detrimental to trees.

There are many types of fertilizer—a balanced mix of all nutrients, single nutrients, beneficial fungi, and organic compounds. Fertilizer also comes in liquid and solid forms. Fertilizer can be applied by injecting liquid nutrients into the soil, spreading granular fertilizer on the soil surface, or by drilling small, deep holes in the ground and adding fertilizer to the backfill.


Removing a tree is rarely desired, but often is required if the tree has been severely damaged by storms, is dead of natural causes or insect or disease infestations, or is harmed beyond repair by construction projects or other means. Typically, stumps and all large surface roots are ground to a depth of 18 inches to facilitate replacement tree or turfgrass planting. Remember to locate the underground utilities before the work begins. Large tree removal should usually be done by a qualified and insured arborist.

Insect and Disease Control

Insects and disease are always present in the landscape and are part of nature. Healthy trees can generally withstand minor infestations with no ill effects on health, safety, or aesthetics. However, severe infestations of native or exotic insects and disease can damage or destroy trees. Proper management and observation is critical to minimize tree loss due to insects and disease. It is recommended that homeowner association leaders and property managers have a general understanding of what your trees may be susceptible to. Annually inspect your trees to detect problems early. Look at the size, color, and density of leaves and inspect the trunk, branches, and leaves for holes or other damage. If you notice evidence of damage, you can try to identify the issue by submitting samples to your local cooperative extension office or contacting a certified arborist to diagnose the problem and recommend treatment. Plan your landscape to include a wide variety of tree species. A diversity of trees will help control the incidence of insects and disease and lessen the impact to the neighborhood if trees die from severe infestations and must be removed.

Owner/Management Best Management Practices

As an HOA leader, there is a business side to managing landscape trees. You don’t have to be an expert in every aspect of tree management, but you should be aware of:

  • Local tree laws and regulations
  • How to hire a contractor
  • How to monitor work projects
  • How to use volunteers and educate residents

With this knowledge, you will be able to do the right thing for your trees and use homeowner association funds, staffing, and resources efficiently and effectively to maximize the benefits of this valuable, significant natural resource.

Having a management plan for landscape trees may be a useful tool. This plan not only describes and documents the tree resource in your community, but also organizes related resources, such as budgets and personnel, to make effective and efficient management easier for you.

One of the main reasons for properly managing trees in an HOA setting is to minimize potential liabilities trees can pose in a residential neighborhood. The safety of people and the protection of buildings and other property structures must be a high priority.

How to Hire a Contractor and Manage a Project

For most tree planting and maintenance tasks, you will likely hire a tree service or landscape contractor. Tree care and planting requires specialized equipment, training, and insurance. Choosing the right professional is important. The International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) and the Tree Care Industry Association (TCIA) provide a search feature on their websites to help find certified arborists and companies in your area.

When considering a contractor, don’t be afraid to ask questions, such as:

  • When will the work be started and completed?
  • Who will be responsible for the clean-up?
  • Is this the total price?
  • If I would like more to be done, what is your hourly rate?

Do not automatically accept the lowest estimate. You should examine the credentials and the written description of services from the companies that submit bids to determine the best combination of price, work to be done, skill, and professionalism to protect your investment.


When evaluating a potential contractor for your tree maintenance or planting project, there are five main qualifications you should ask about:

  1. Education. Especially for consulting projects like storm damage assessment, tree value appraisal, insect and disease diagnosis, you should ask for the consultants’ educational accomplishments, including college, trade schools, certifications, continuing education courses, and special training.
  2. Memberships. Ask about membership in professional organizations, such as the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA), the Tree Care Industry Association (TCIA), or the American Society of Consulting Arborists (ASCA). Affiliation with industry organizations demonstrates a company or individual has a willingness to stay current on the latest techniques and information as well as an overall dedication to their trade.
  3. ISA or State Certification/License. Ask if the contractor holds an ISA certification and/or a state-issued professional arborist license. To be certified, individuals must have basic qualifications and pass an exam. Certification is maintained through continuing education. Certified arborists should be current in technology, industry accepted standards, best management practices, and arboricultural technology, as well as knowledgeable of acceptable and effective practices.
  4. Proof of Insurance. Ask for proof of insurance and verify coverage with the insurance company. A reputable contractor should have insurance to cover personal and property damage as well as workers’ compensation. If you hire an uninsured tree worker, you can be held liable for any damages or injuries that occur while they are on the job and on your property.
  5. References. Ask for references from past customers, and do not hesitate to check them or to visit the locations where the company or individual has performed tree care work.

Obtaining Estimates

Ask for an estimate; often there is no charge for this service. Get more than one estimate. You can also consider creating a request for bids that details the work you want to accomplish and provide the request to several companies to ensure all companies bid on the same work. This process will also allow you to more effectively compare their responses. However, you should not always select the lowest bid. When examining bids to determine which company will provide you the best service, take into account all information such as certifications, credentials, insurance coverage, work description, and cost. Most importantly, get the bid in writing. Most reputable arborists will offer the customer time to review the bid and to ask questions.

Contract Specifications

Most companies provide a contract for services, or you can create your own. The contract should cover some general areas with specific details about the work to be performed and will vary based on the type of project. Basic sections in most contracts include definitions, scope of work, liability and insurance requirements, and payment terms. It is also a good idea to reference and require adherence to all current industry standards for work procedures and techniques, safety, hazardous material handling, chemical applications, and plant material quality and size. You may also want to consider entering into an annual contract with a tree care company that can provide the HOA with consistent tree health, safety assessments, treatments, and other services as part of a package with set pricing.

For a more detailed idea of what contracts contain, visit Appendix 1-5: Contracting for Work and Example contract specifications for small and large tree maintenance and landscape tree planting can be found in Appendix 1-6 Example Contract Specifications

Monitoring/Inspecting the Work

Like any purchase of goods and services, you want to be sure you get what you asked and paid for. During the course of the project and after the work is complete, you have the right to inspect the work and ask questions at any time. Do not pay any invoice until you are satisfied with the work. Confirm that the specified work has been properly completed without damage to the property.

Understanding Local Laws/Ordinances

For street trees especially, and even trees on private property, you need to know if any local laws, ordinances, or regulations exist that might affect your tree maintenance or planting project. Some governmental agencies require contractors to apply for permits or a license before they are able to work in the community. Get assurance in writing that your contractor will comply with any local, state, or national laws that govern their work.

Find out if specific regulations exist in your local area that govern the planting of certain tree species or the protection of large trees during construction. By law in some states and counties, pruning and/or removal of trees may be required of the tree owner to maintain adequate sidewalk and street clearance and traffic visibility. Call your local government to see if there are tree regulations or permit requirements.

Using Volunteers

Involving volunteers in the care and planting of trees in the neighborhood can be a valuable resource. Not only can it save money and accomplish a large task in a shorter amount of time, but also it creates awareness among the volunteers and the community about the importance of trees.

Your association can use volunteers to accomplish a variety of important tasks, such as tree planting, mulching, young tree care, watering, monitoring for insects and disease, and performing public education efforts. Sources of volunteers include residents, scout troops, school groups, local master gardeners, and nonprofit organizations.

Homeowner Education

Part of a successful tree management program in a neighborhood is education of the residents. As a leader in the association, you can educate and inform others on how to maintain, plant, and protect trees for the benefit of all. Some fun and effective ways to get educational messages out include:

  • Organizing an Arbor Day event in the neighborhood
  • Hosting a community-wide tree talk with a local expert
  • Writing newsletter articles
  • Posting helpful references on your website
  • Promoting the use of the National Tree Benefit Calculator, which quickly and easily calculates the environmental and economic value of single trees.


The management of trees on homeowner association property and in the neighborhood can be challenging. Balancing the recommendations of experts, the wishes of and needs of residents, realities of limited HOA budgets, concerns for liability issues, the forces of nature, and the desire for all of these factors to be met simultaneously is a daunting task. As a homeowner association representative, you must carefully consider each issue and balance these challenges with an informed understanding of tree needs and benefits. If a practical and reasonable balance is achieved, the neighborhood’s beauty will flourish, property values will increase, and the health and safety of its trees and residents will be maximized.


1-1: ISA Benefits of Trees Brochure
1-2: ISA Tree Selection
1-3: Site Evaluation Checklist
1-4: ISA Mulching Practices
1-5: ISA Contracting
Appendix 1-6 Example Contract Specifications

Helpful Websites