Evaluating Better Trees

by | Jul 21, 2021 | Arboriculture, Business, Environment, Horticulture, Maintain, Nursery, Plants

Florida Grower John Conroy explains the Florida Grades and Standards for Nursery Plants. The resource helps growers, landscape architects, inspectors, and other industry professionals measure tree quality. John discusses how the guidelines have impacted and improved the industry in Florida.

Florida Grades and Standards for Nursery Plants has existed in Florida for many decades.

As stated in the Grades and Standards document, “The nursery industry must precisely communicate the attributes of its valued product.”

Beyond this objective, as it is stated in Florida statutes, industry professionals have detailed specific characteristics (standards) which are used as measures to grade healthy and safe trees which have the best chance for success.

Historically, grading standards focused more heavily on aesthetic considerations rather than today’s process which requires greater attention to structural integrity.

With the advent of stronger and more frequent hurricanes, industry leadership recognized the importance of producing, installing and maintaining structurally sound trees and palms.

Now, the emphasis is on well-formed, architecturally correct, healthy trees.

Considerable resources have been invested in research and in the accumulation of feedback from many sources.

This data serves as the foundation for refining the grading document.

Input for the process of establishing standards to be used in the grading process came from a cross section of green industry professionals: landscape architects, contractors, growers, arborists, maintenance professionals, academics and government officials.

All played a role in the drafting of Florida’s Grades and Standards.

The document is revised every five years based on on-going research data and experience.

In our last column we addressed issues of poor branch structure and circulating roots.

These defects can result in a tree being rejected as non-gradable.

Think of Grades and Standards as a tool of the industry; left in the shed, you cannot effectively evaluate trees.

Failures of trees are often directly related to poorly grown or poorly maintained trees.

This can result in replacement costs, property loss and personal injury.

Obviously, failures aren’t always avoidable but if we are truly responsible professionals the proper culturing of trees can mitigate risks.

Because the general population does not understand arboriculture the question becomes: Are we willing to regulate ourselves and provide better products and processes?

As Dr. Gilman made clear in the last issue of Pro Landscaper, trees behave essentially the same worldwide. “With the enforcement of grades, combined with specifications, the customer gets a better tree.”

Grades and Standards is a required tool in Florida which afford industry professionals the means to evaluate and grade better trees.

Advancement in business is often met with resistance.

Change collides with vested interests, model building, legitimization, implementation, enforcement and other obstacles which create significant headwinds.

A commitment to providing safer, healthier and more sustainable trees has been well served by Grades and Standards in Florida.

Representative views from professionals across the industry share their insights in the value and application of Grades and Standards:

Lloyd Morgan

General Manager, Fish Branch Tree Farm, INC.

John: Do they hold people more accountable?

Lloyd: Grades and Standards offer a common language to growers, buyers, landscape architects, and others. When a #1 grade live oak is on the landscape plan, there is little question about what that means in terms of the quality of the branch structure, root system, and overall health of the tree. If there is a dispute over whether a tree meets the grade, a review of the Grades and Standards document is usually enough to clear up the matter.

John:How have the Grades and Standards impacted growing practices?

Lloyd: Our goal is to produce a Florida Fancy every time. If a tree isn’t at least a #1 grade, it rarely makes it to the job site. The industry as a whole no longer accepts trees of lesser quality. “Florida #1 or better” is a common specification on landscape plans

Scott Travis

Senior Purchasing Manager, Brightview Landscapes

John: Are Florida’s Grades and Standards relevant to your role?

Scott: I would say that 95% of the jobs that we perform specify Florida as #1 or better regarding plant material quality. By applying these standards in grading plant material, the variance that can occur from individual opinion is lessened and more uniformity is achieved

John: Do G&S make your job easier or harder?

Scott: My job has become much easier as the Florida Grades and Standards has been accepted as the plant quality rule. When I first started 20 years ago, prior to the consistent application institution of the G&S, I often may have only tagged two out of every 10 trees in a nursery as which met the quality I desired. Now with greater the uniformity, I can tag almost every commercially grown tree.

John: Do Brightview purchasing agents in other states struggle with material quality due to the absence of G&S?

Scott: There is variance in the quality of plant material by region. Often trees are purchased here in Florida to ship to Texas, but I think that is driven mainly by availability not quality. I have seen great improvement throughout the Southeast in the quality of trees and shrubs though. I don’t know if this has been driven by G&S, but it is a definite possibility.

Joe Samnick

Expert Tree Consultant & National Leader in Forensic Arboriculture, Founding President of the International Society of Arborulture, Florida Chapter

John: Do the Grades and Standards hold people more accountable?

Joe: Every tradesman involved with the landscape is now responsible, through a contractual obligation, to perform to the specificity outlined in Florida’s Grades and Standards. The accountability cannot be denied or circumvented once the contract is in force.

John: Why is it important to include the Grades and Standards in your contracts? Joe: There are is a multiplicity of important criteria contained within the Grades and Standards which is not conveyed in a set of landscape drawings. This includes precise communication between the buyer and the seller, a vehicle for buyer and seller communication, and the details which facilitate that communication.

John: How have Grades and Standards played a role in court cases?

Joe: The landscape bidding process includes but is not necessarily limited to the landscape professional’s architects’ specifications. These specifications include illustrations and narratives that become part of a binding contract between the successful landscape installer who was awarded the bid, and the person that is paying for the landscape installation. This binding contract can hold great peril for all involved: peril found in the compliance, or noncompliance, of the written specifications which formed the contract.

John Conroy is founder, owner and president of Fish Branch Tree Farm, Inc. in Southwest Florida. He chaired the committee for the most recent revision of Florida’s Grades & Standards for palms. The Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association named Conroy their 2019 Educator of the Year.

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