August 15, 2014
The issue of replacing trees under warranty became one of the hottest topics ever among the 900-plus members on Landscape Ontario LinkedIn page.

The issue began generating a buzz, when LO executive director Tony DiGiovanni posted the following, “A member called to say he is being forced to replace trees under warranty even though only 20 or 30 per cent of the tree is dead. Do you have any thoughts on what the warranty standard should be? I checked the Ontario Provincial Standard, but could not find any references.”

A check across Ontario by Landscape Ontario magazine also didn’t reveal any form of standard from an industry or consumer perspective.

Develop guidelines

DiGiovanni says that may change. A discussion has begun with the Ontario government to create a provincial guideline. Two initiatives have come out of our discussions on LinkedIn,” says DiGiovanni. One is the encouragement of including changes in the Ontario Standards and the other is developing independent industry guidelines through LO’s Landscape Contractors and Ground Maintenance Sector Groups. “It’s very encouraging, and I thank those people who contributed the comments on the LinkedIn page.”
Responses show that most members offer warranties, with conditions. Some question if a standard is even possible.

Lost time and money

Jeff Carson, project coordinator at EcoTec Construction in Acton, started the conversation, stating, “You can imagine the lost time and cost to companies for staff to take time to go back to the site to determine the condition of trees.” He says that if a standard was agreed on when a tree was dead, it could be used to resolve questions raised by clients. “We could use it as a reference to help with discussions with clients who at times think a tree is dead when it shows 15 to 20 per cent loss.

“There is no standard definition of severely died back, so contract administrators and inspectors can define die back any way they choose. In some cases we are being told to replace trees with 20 to 30 per cent die back of lower branches with healthy crowns and new growth.”

“The reason that a written spec is not published is because of the complexity of determining when a plant needs replacement,” says Marc Arnold of Rockcliffe Landscaping Design Centre and Nursery in Ottawa. “Some plants may be able to be coaxed back into good health and others may not. For example Taxus species are much more likely to put out new growth from dormant buds and make a full recovery, whereas Thujas do not put out new growth from lower branches which have died back.”

Tim Kearney CLP, of Garden Creations of Ottawa, says Landscape Ontario sector groups need to step in and listen and have the pulse of members and react. “I would like to hear that the Landscape Contractors and Growers Sector Groups work out some policy statement that we all can live with.”

Kearney feels there is not a landscape contractor who hasn’t been touched by this issue in one way or another. “If the policy is done with all parties in mind, it could even be used as a promotional tool to help sell the integrity and intent we all have and want the public to know about.”

Lexi Dearborn of Dearborn and Associates in Barrie says her company provides written instructions for plant care in “both our plant book and in our written contract. We also check the site for two or three weeks after installation to ensure the plant material is being properly watered. We follow this up with an email notification if we feel maintenance is not taking place.”

Tim Kearney says, “My policy for plant replacement is quite simple. As long as you are our client and in good standing we replace it. As long as there are no signs of extreme neglect or vandalism, we replace. The only thing I ask is that the client does do not dig it up. We will. I need to see why it died.”

No water

A number of contractors raised the issue of poor maintenance by customers. Most contractors insist they must plant the tree if it is to be covered by a warranty. Garden centres present a list of requirements to the customer to qualify for the warranty. Lack of watering is the main reason most members cite as the reason for die-back.  

Arnold says, “As contractors, we should try to use our experience in helping to choose suitable plants, ensure that information about plant care is understood by the client, follow-up to see if watering is actually being done and provide a proposal for plant protection for over-wintering. We should not be afraid to inform clients that the warranty is contingent on proper care and if we find such care is not being provided, we should send written correspondence indicating when an inspection was done and what care was lacking.”

He continues, “Last and most importantly, we need to charge enough to cover the warranty claims we encounter. This may mean that for particular jobs we include a higher premium if the survival of the plants is questionable, or indicate in our bid which plants will not be covered under warranty.” Arnold suggested another option is to provide a discount instead of a warranty. “This allows for competitive pricing without any risk.”

Carson says, “In my opinion July and August are best for assessments because trees are in full foliage at this time of the year. For example, this year we were called out to replace 15 trees that a municipal inspector checked in May and said were dead. We mobilized with the new trees only to find that nine needed to be replaced, as the rest were just late to bud out. You can imagine the lost time and cost to everyone, including the nursery, that was gracious enough to take the trees back.”

When is it dead?

So, when is a tree considered dead? Most members replace a tree if 40 to 50 per cent, including leader, is dead.

Tim Kearney says he is finding that larger stock is coming with ridiculously small root balls. “Everyone knows an evergreen will survive for months before finally failing due to root loss. Your clients have paid you significant sums to install lovely gardens, not damaged goods. I say that many of the items we are installing are already damaged goods and will suffer and really show the result after their first winter. No amount of water will prevent the plant from going into shock and shedding branches because of root loss.”

Marc Arnold feels that the main problem stems from customer expectation. He explains that clients want large trees, but contractors many times require smaller and lighter root balls as property access can be tight. “The nursery industry is bowing to pressure from the trade, asking for smaller root balls for large trees. They (growers) do not want to lose the sale and so over time root balls tend to get smaller.”

To continue the discussion on the subject, ‘When is a tree dead?’ and many other topics concerning our industry on the Landscape Ontario LinkedIn site, go to Only members of Landscape Ontario’s LinkedIn page are allowed access, but once you sign into LinkedIn, look for the Landscape Ontario Horticultural Trades Association group.