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Protect branches from chain saw massacres

They seem almost indestructible, able to withstand everything from sidewalks built flush to their trunks to free-wheeling chain-saw surgery. Trees.

Any way you slice them, they'll survive, right?

Not necessarily. Pruning trees is usually an afterthought _ a boring, back-breaking chore that is too often left to the first guy who comes along carrying a saw.

But when done improperly, pruning not only hurts a tree, it can be costly. An incorrectly pruned tree won't allow high winds to blow through its branches, thus risking damage to the tree and anything near it _ including your house.

Let's say you've got a tree with a lot of dead branches and moss, and you think it could be a hazard to your house or pool the next time a strong storm comes along. Most tree experts say that unless you've got the proper equipment and know what you're doing, you shouldn't tackle the job yourself.

That's why tree service companies were invented.

Unfortunately, the tree service industry is not regulated. Anyone with a saw and a spiel can do it.

"A lot of people work with nothing more than a chain saw and a pickup truck," said LaRue Robinson, horticulture agent for the Pinellas County Cooperative Extension Service. "But improperly pruned trees may eventually fall through your house or your neighbor's house.

"There are some good tree people out there," Robinson added. "But we get horror stories all the time. There are a lot of scams, and you have to be careful."

Robinson advises checking with several tree service companies before any work is done and asking three key questions: