Talking Trees With Davey


By Katie Elzer-Peters

I am deeply suspicious of anyone with a bucket truck and a chainsaw. That translates into a fear of anyone getting near any of my trees. My eyes were opened and I felt a renewed sense of trust after talking with R. J. Laverne, Manager of Education and Training for Davey Tree. He is responsible for training all of the arborists that pick up a pruning device in the name of the company. His credentials are ironclad. On the academic side R. J.’s background includes degrees in Biology, Forestry, and a Master’s degree in Remote Sensing. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Urban Planning at Cleveland State University. R. J. is also a Board Certified Master Arborist (ISA), a Registered Consulting Arborist (ASCA), and a member on the Advisory Board for the School Forest Resources and Environmental Science at Michigan Technological University.

R.J. and I chatted for almost an hour about the way Davey takes care of trees and the broader ecosystem in which they grow. He began by outlining the Davey philosophy. “What we really focus on here at Davey is not only taking a scientific approach to tree care and landscape maintenance but also a broader understanding of how what we do on each individual landscape affects the overall environment of that community, region, state, or country.”

daveytreeThis holistic approach to care means the trees are healthier, as well. “It’s like taking care of yourself,” he pointed out. “If you eat healthy, exercise, and are in good shape you can ward off those bugs like colds and flus. It is the same thing with trees. Good soil structure, the right pH, and the right conditions matched to the right tree translate to far fewer problems with the tree.”

He says the biggest problems Davey staff encounter would be entirely avoided by planting the correct tree for the site. “Think about the mature expected size, particularly around utility wires, so that the tree doesn’t end up having to be repeatedly and harshly pruned.”

The most interesting part of my chat with R. J. was when I asked “What is something you’ve learned the hard way that you can pass along to other GWA members?” R. J. is a storyteller, so of course the answer wasn’t straightforward. Hang in there. It’s worth it.

R.J. started with a tongue-in-cheek declaration, “During 135 years in business we’ve noticed that we’ve never received a phone call from a tree asking for help. We have never witnessed a tree writing out a check for our services. The consistent pattern that we see is that it is a human being calling and asking for help for their tree.” Over the years he has discovered that temptation is to run to the tree to diagnose whatever problem the tree might have and immediately take care of that. “That’s not what we do.”

He illustrated this by describing a client who had a large old oak tree with a severe amount of decay, so much that the tree was on the verge of falling. The usual recommendation would be to remove the tree immediately. “[But] in this case, the tree is on a property that is a home for physically disabled people.” The tree served not so much as shade but also as a source of recreation for residents who come out on the porch and enjoy the view of the tree. “They enjoy listening to and watching the birds and other animals that call the tree home.”

Fortunately, the tree wasn’t tall enough or close enough that it would strike the building or people around the building if it fell. “We determined, along with the client, that the aesthetic value of the tree exceeded the risk of the tree falling apart.” So the Davey staff set up a perimeter around the tree so that people could not get too close to it and put themselves at risk of injury. “We were able to preserve the tree for an extended period, recognizing that the residents of that property had a strong emotional attachment to the tree.”

davey-pruning-from-the-groundR.J. went on to another example. “On the flip side of coin, we had another client – a young couple – that purchased a house, in part because of the large, healthy, structurally sound, beautiful oak tree on their property. Within a year of moving in they had a baby. The baby’s room was directly under several large branches of the tree. The clients became more concerned about the safety of the child than the tree. In that case, they elected to have the tree removed.”

In both of these examples if the arborists weren’t paying attention when talking to the client they would have failed in the first objective of business: delivering what the customer wants and will be happy with. He summarized by adding, “The only way to understand that is to listen to what the clients have to say and build a plan taking that into consideration.”

It can be tempting, as a garden communicator, to immediately apply the “known and tested solution” for a problem without looking below the surface. R. J.’s stories contain good lessons for all of us. Make sure we really understand the motivations and goals of the clients before we give them a course or prescribed plan of action.

One of the benefits of being a member of GWA is the amazing contacts we make with others in our profession, including allied members and sponsors. Sure, these industries send us messages and information about their products and services, which can be helpful. But if you pick up the phone and call or shoot them an email or two, you can also find expert advice and answers to technical questions.

There are plenty of tree tips and care information that GWA members can find by visiting the Davey Tree website or emailing the staff. “I am happy for GWA members to call or email if they have questions.” You can email R. J. directly at You can also contact Jennifer Lennox with Corporate Communications at who will route questions to the expert best prepared to answer them.

Meet the Author

GKatieWA member Katie Elzer-Peters is a freelance writer, editor, and marketer. She lives in Wilmington, North Carolina, where she reads literary fiction and trash, paddleboards,
gardens, and takes her dogs for walks. Her website suffers from “cobbler’s son has no shoes” syndrome, but if you want to talk business, you can visit her online at 

Author: GardenComm

GardenComm, formerly known as GWA: the Association for Garden Communicators, provides leadership and opportunities for education, recognition, career development and a forum for diverse interactions for professionals in the field of gardening communication. GardenComm members includes book authors, bloggers, staff editors, syndicated columnists, free-lance writers, photographers, speakers, landscape designers, television and radio personalities, consultants, publishers, extension service agents and more. No other organization in the industry has as much contact with the buying public as GardenComm members.

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