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Looking for a tree trimmer? Get a pro

It was early on a Sunday morning when the young, scruffy fellow knocked on Greg Charles' front door. Spotting lots of trees in the St. Petersburg yard, he came calling with a chain saw and a story about how all those big trees needed cutting.

Some homeowners would have listened to the sales pitch, forked out the money and watched those limbs fall. But the man had knocked on the wrong door.

Greg Charles is a local legend when it comes to trees and plants. He has taught thousands of people the ABCs of the landscape field at Pinellas Technical Education Centers, where he's run the horticulture program for more than three decades. His students are the men and women who now own or are employed by Tampa Bay's nursery, landscape and pest control businesses.

Unlike other professional industries, most of the services offered by lawn, tree and garden businesses don't require licensing based on skill and expertise. In fact, anyone with a business license and a lawn mower, chain saw or other equipment can call themselves a landscape professional.

Hiring a company or individual who comes knocking on your door can be dangerous, experts warn. Improper tree work, as well as poor pruning of shrubs and other plants, can spread disease and kill plants. These "door knockers" may offer a sweet deal, but it could result in thousands of dollars in damage if trees and mature plantings are lost. Summer is high season for these self-proclaimed landscapers, who prey on homeowner fears of tree-related damage that could come with tropical storms and hurricanes.

"All these fly-by-nights are going around now telling people they need hurricane cuts and thinning out the center of their trees, which makes it more susceptible to storm damage," Charles says. "You have so many people wanting business that they are going out butchering trees. If we get a significant blow, we'll see those trees go down."

Homeowners can protect their properties and pocketbooks by hiring a certified professional or member company of the Florida Nursery, Growers & Landscape Association in Orlando. The group, which has 2,400 member companies, has certified more than 1,000 individuals statewide, according to Merry Mott, its director of industry certifications.

Certified professionals must pass extensive exams and complete continuing education on such topics as plant care, pest identification, water quality and conservation, fertilization, landscape installation, irrigation repair and landscape maintenance. Charles and other horticulturists have taught the FNGLA-approved courses and administered certification exams at PTEC for decades.

Ken Bishop, owner of Kenny's Landscape Nursery in St. Petersburg, completed the PTEC program in 1991 to expand his company. At age 18 he launched the company as a residential lawn mowing service. Today it is one of the area's most established residential and commercial landscaping companies with 10 full-time employees and a 2.5-acre nursery that grows primarily plants and flowers for its landscape customers. Bishop is a licensed arborist, and the company is commercially licensed to apply pesticides.

A member company of FNGLA, Kenny's often hires PTEC-educated employees, who have knowledge of Florida soils, plant nutrition, irrigation and insect and disease problems.

"It's easy to talk about Florida friendly landscaping, but the professional has to have a lot more knowledge," says Charles. "The push right now is for water conservation. Someone who can just put plants in the ground ends up mixing all kinds of plants that don't belong together, which results in a landscape that's extremely high maintenance. An educated professional will know about plant identification and grouping them based on water needs."

Charles and colleagues at PTEC and FNGLA are on a crusade to educate the public about the industry and the importance of hiring qualified people for the job.

In these tough economic times, many homeowners are tempted by cheap prices, but as with most services, you get what you pay for. "You take the low bid, and guess what? Most of the time when you try to cut corners, you get bit in the butt," says Charles.

Yvonne Swanson is a freelance writer in St. Petersburg and a Pinellas County master gardener. Contact her at yvonnesgarden@gmail.com.

a helping hand

, In support of Greg Charles

If you've attended the St. Petersburg's Green Thumb Festival or other local gardening events, you've probably noticed the bearded man in bright, tropical print scrubs and overalls who's practically a legend in Florida's horticulture field. He's Greg Charles, who has taught horticulture at Pinellas Technical Education Center in St. Petersburg for more than 30 years.

Currently undergoing rehabilitation following a serious injury earlier this year, his colleagues, friends and gardening enthusiasts will honor him and raise funds to help with medical expenses from 4 to 10 p.m. July 18 at Ferg's Sports Bar, 1320 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. The event will feature live music, hourly drink specials, raffles, silent and live auctions and meal tickets. Landscape companies and other businesses throughout the state have donated items and services for auction. The event is free and open to the public.

How to hire a professional

Find a local Florida Nursery, Growers & Landscape Association company or certified professional by calling toll-free 1-800-375-3642 or visiting www.fngla.org. You can also find a certified arborist by calling your local extension service or visiting the International Society of Arboriculture's Web site at www.floridaisa.org.

Be suspicious of services and contractors who promise low prices. Typically they lack experience, the right equipment and insurance. During hurricane season, don't hire a company that advertises "hurricane cuts" of trees and palms. Be cautious of contractors who show up at your door or deliver fliers to your home. Often they'll use high-pressure sales tactics and claim to be working at a house down the street.

Research the company. Check for complaints to the Better Business Bureau at www.bbb.org.

Get written bids from several contractors. Ask for and check local references. Ask for certification of personal and property liability insurance and worker's compensation. Call the insurance companies to confirm coverage. Are permits required for the work being proposed?

Get a signed contract with the total charges and a date work will be completed before work begins.

Never pay for the entire job up-front. If it's a large job, arrange for partial payments as parts of the job are completed. Final payment shouldn't be due until the job is completed to your satisfaction. Always pay by check or credit card.

Yvonne Swanson

Looking for a tree trimmer? Get a pro 07/10/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 10, 2009 5:30am]

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