Tree Surgeon Vs Tree Doctors? How To Choose Tree Surgery Pros (Tree Cutting)

Two tree doctors examine the trunk of a tree with a stethoscope to determine if a tree surgeon is needed after explaining how to choose the best tree surgery professionals and tree cutting basics such as thinning, felling, lifting, and how to spot damaged trees.

Knowing how to choose a tree surgeon vs tree doctors is an important part of taking care of your trees.

No matter how much time and effort you put into pest control and disease prevention, sometimes events beyond your control will do serious damage to your trees.

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When that happens, you may need to call in an expert. But you may end up understandably confused about the best specialist for your needs.

So, knowing how to determine the best tree surgery pros (tree surgeon vs tree doctors) to handle your tree cutting can mean the difference between saving a tree and losing it.

This guide explains everything you need to know to ensure that your forests flourish.

Arborist and Tree Surgeon: What Is the Difference?

If you’ve done any searching for professionals to help you manage your trees you’ve probably seen both arborists and tree surgeons listed, perhaps without a clear distinction between the two.

This confusing state of affairs is not helped by the fact that a lot of the professionals you’re likely to see are cross-trained in both fields.

Graphic showing the differences between an Arborist and Tree Surgeons.

While both types of experts are key to maintaining healthy trees, there is a difference in expertise between the two.

Knowing these differences can help make the problem of how to choose tree surgery pros an easy one to solve.

What Is Tree Surgery?

To start, you may not have heard the term “tree surgery” much in the past. Unless you are a trained arborist (more on this later), it’s not a term that likely comes up in everyday conversation.

A professional tree trimmer using secateurs is pruning a shrub in front of a building.

(Image: Judgefloro8)

In simple terms, tree surgery is a collection of practices and techniques for evaluating, nurturing, and directing the growth of trees.

Common Tree Surgery Procedures

A number of different procedures, some of which you may already handle on your own, fall under the umbrella of tree surgery. Here are some of the most common tree surgery procedures.

Crown Lift

If you want the crown of your tree to be higher, or to let more light through to other plants below, a crown lift may be what you need.

By removing your tree’s lower branches, the canopy climbs higher, which helps to limit the extent of the shadow it casts on other plants nearby.

Crown Thinning

While it may seem a touch counterintuitive, sometimes the best way to support your tree’s growth is to make sure its canopy doesn’t get too big with crown thinning.

By removing dead branches and wood and pruning cross branches, you can decrease the size of the tree’s canopy, which serves several purposes.

Graphics of common tree surgery procedures showing images of before and after of each procedure which include crown lift, crown thinning, felling, pollarding, and removal.

Crown thinning reduces the risk of property damage in two ways; first, it helps keep property safe by removing atrophied portions that could fall off on their own, and it further helps by ensuring that if the tree does fall, the reduced canopy does less damage to whatever unfortunates are located below the tree.

Additionally, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation states that thinning improves air movement through the tree,4 which promotes the health of the plant.


Simply put, this is the process of tree removal. While this may seem to be one of the simplest-seeming procedures you can perform on a tree, there’s more to the process than first meets the eye.

While you can simply chop a tree down, there can be a substantial risk of injury or property damage if you aren’t careful about how you take down such a massive organism.

Depending upon the location and species of the tree or trees you need to remove, it may be best to take them apart in pieces and bring the pieces down instead of living up to the classic image of lumberjacks hacking away at the base of a tree.

More than almost any of the other procedures listed here, you should absolutely not try to perform this procedure on your own.

A lumberjack felling down a tree using axe.

(Image: Josch139)

To avoid injury or damage, be sure to bring in a professional tree service to handle your tree felling. If you have concerns about the financial impact of hiring a service, a tree removal cost calculator could help you figure out how to budget for the procedure.

If the cost seems insurmountable, depending upon the specific circumstances of your situation, free tree removal services may be available to you. There are government programs offering free tree removal for seniors, and you may also be able to enlist your home insurance provider or local utility companies.

Stump Grinding/Removal

Once you’ve felled your tree (safely using a professional tree service to avoid damage or injury, of course), the next step is often to get rid of the stump of the tree and any roots.

Stump grinding is more or less what it sounds like, grinding down a stump to remove the unprepossessing obstacle from a landscape.

This is a relatively simple and non-disruptive procedure, but it doesn’t get rid of the roots underground, which can cause problems for other plants in the area.

To get those roots out, it may be better to dig out and remove the whole stump, but roots can cover a much broader area than the stump might lead you to believe, so you may end up with a substantial hole in your landscape that you will need to deal with if you elect for stump removal.


Pollarding is a pruning technique that dates back to Rome in the 1st century BC and is often used either for wood or to create fodder for livestock, according to Wikipedia.5

This rather extreme form of pruning involves removing most or all of a tree’s branches, which leads to a more manicured appearance and can help keep the tree at a more manageable, semi-juvenile size.

What Is an Arborist?

When you hire an arborist, you’re consulting a professional with an analytical eye. As stated on Wikipedia,6 arborists make a point of not missing the forest for the individual trees.

Their focus is on keeping individual trees as healthy and safe as possible. One of the primary skills arborists are trained in is the examination of symptoms and their analysis to diagnose diseases.

An arborist should be able to look at what’s wrong with your tree, identify what ails it, and inform you as to what options are available to solve the problem.

What Does an Arborist Do?

Arborists can also assess how a tree interacts with the environment around it. You may want to hire an arborist to take a look at your garden, landscape, or wherever you want to add trees, and tell you what types of trees would be the best fit.

They will make this assessment based on a number of factors, including plants and animals that are there already, the type of soil, and numerous other environmental details. This can be a vital service, as it ensures that you are choosing plants with a very good chance of survival in the environment available to you.

Other arborists specialize in one specific type of tree, so you may see some experts advertised as palm tree doctors or other such specialists.

What Is a Certified Arborist?

If you’ve been comparing and contrasting tree trimming services, you may have seen some that advertise having a certified arborist. As a part of the process one goes through when they decide to become an arborist, once an individual has worked for at least three years in the tree trimming industry they can take an exam covering various aspects of arboriculture.

If they pass, they are recognized by the International Society of Arboriculture as a certified arborist, indicating that they are an expert in the field.

What Is a Consulting Arborist?

Often, a tree trimming service will have an arborist on staff, so you as the client can benefit from their expertise in the field. However, you may feel after conferring with this expert that you aren’t sure if every procedure they want to perform is necessary or accurately priced.

In those situations, you would want to seek out a consulting arborist. These experts, typically independent of a trimming company, can assess your needs and help you to suss out what you actually need to be done and how much you should be prepared to spend on it.

Naturally, this may not be free, but the cost of a brief consultation could potentially save you a lot of money on tree trimming.

What Is a Tree Surgeon?

Tree surgeons are the people who will actually be pruning, felling, or removing your trees. While this may seem like a less specialized pursuit than being an arborist, the level of precision they bring along with their having to ensure that potentially hazardous work is done safely requires a significant degree of specialization as well.

Tree surgeons are much more than just “people who cut down trees”.

Why Use a Professional Tree Trimmer?

You may be wondering, if you are an experienced gardener, why use a professional tree trimmer? One of the myriad difficult tasks tree surgeons specialize in is felling trees.

As discussed previously, this can on the surface appear to be a simple task; humans have been chopping down trees for about as long as we’ve had tools. However, so many things can go wrong, especially in densely packed residential areas, that knowing how to bring down a specific tree without taking surrounding plants or structures with it is a vital skill.

Even more minor procedures benefit from this level of skill, chainsaw pruning and other such heavy-equipment procedures are still better left to trained experts than well-meaning amateurs. If you’ve ever hired a tree trimming service, odds are that most of the people who worked on the tree were tree surgeons.

Having these experts use their skills to shape your trees can definitely pay off in the long run; healthy, well-maintained trees can add a lot to the property value of a home.

Choosing the Best Tree Specialist (Tree Surgeon and Tree Doctors)

For most people, a lot of the difference between different tree trimming companies is imperceptible, and how to choose tree surgery pros can be a mysterious proposition.

Without any point of reference, you may be understandably concerned about making sure you don’t get ripped off.

Graphics of best practices in hiring tree specialist including, checking credentials, getting multiple estimates and references, no trusting too low prices, being wary of extreme techniques, and checking their insurance and licenses.

Here are some best practices you can use to make sure that you have the smoothest, best possible experience with tree specialists.

#1 Check Their Credentials

As a general rule, you want to avoid picking a tree trimming service because they left you a door knocker or made a cold call. Make sure that the company you choose is based on research and comparison between multiple options.

First, when looking at different companies, make sure to check and make sure they have the appropriate credentials. In particular, arborists or tree doctors (or companies that employ arborists) should be certified by the International Society of Arboriculture.

ISA-certified arborists have been tested and found to be well-versed in everything it takes to care for and maintain trees. You can rest assured that they will be up-to-date on the very latest best practices and techniques for taking care of your trees.

#2 Get Multiple Estimates and References

Even among certified arborists, there’s a wide range of labor, materials, and other costs that factor into a company’s billing. Getting estimates from multiple companies can help you make sure that you avoid unnecessary costs and can be sure you are getting the best possible rate.

One company may be able to do in a few hours what another company is going to need days to do; all manner of different factors could contribute to different quotes, and in order to make the best choice for your budget and needs you should make sure you have options. You should be able to request references from the companies you’re considering; these should factor into your decision, and you may want to check online for additional reviews.

#3 Be Wary of Topping or Other Extreme Techniques

In just about every possible scenario, a trained arborist won’t suggest any drastic pruning practices like topping (removing the entire canopy), because these practices can leave your trees worse off and weaker or more dangerous to be around, according to the Oregon Department of Forestry.7

A person in blue with a hard hat on a truck lift, trimming down a tree that obstructs an electrical cable.

(Image: Judgefloro10)

Similarly, make sure the company isn’t planning to use spurs or spikes to climb the tree, as these punch holes in the bark that can be pathways for infection. A trustworthy arborist will probably be able to present you with multiple options so that you can have more control over what happens to your trees.

You also want to make sure they tell you what kind of equipment they’ll use and how they’ll approach the job. If your tree is planted in the middle of your award-winning bed of begonias, you’ll want to make sure they’re not planning to wheel all sorts of heavy machinery right over your flowers.

Be sure to communicate any of your concerns or priorities with the company so they can address them in their plan.

#4 Don’t Trust Prices That Are Too Low

It’s only natural to love a bargain, but sometimes it’s best not to go with the lowest price on offer. If a company quotes you an estimate that’s significantly lower than others (remember, you should be getting multiple estimates), it may be because their labor practices, maintenance policies, or equipment quality is lower than it should be.

It may save money up front to hire such a company, but the costs of repairing the damage they might do to your trees could end up costing you more over time.

You may also find that a suspiciously cheap quote is also paired with a number of hidden fees, extra charges, and other ways of running up the tab, which could also end up being more expensive than the market rate. Going with a company closer to the market rate ensures that the company is going to be professional and more likely to be upfront with you about costs.

#5 Check Their Insurance and Licenses

You want to make sure that the tree-trimming company you’re going to hire has all of the appropriate licenses, and that they are up to date. These licenses verify that they’re in compliance with the requirements your state has put into place.

You also want to make sure that they have the proper insurance,3 which would cover any injury to workers or damage to property should something go wrong in the process.

If a company’s licenses are out of date, or they don’t have insurance coverage for this kind of work, they may not be qualified to take care of your tree at the level the state requires. While state regulations may seem overly confining and restrictive, these laws are in place in order to ensure that you are protected and given access to a higher level of care.

Without licenses, even if they may solve your short-term problem, you may be getting set up for worse issues with your tree’s health down the line. Similarly, without the insurance in place, if something happens to one of the workers while they are trimming your tree you could be liable for medical treatment and potentially compensation for the injury.

Even if the company is at fault, that can then devolve into a lengthy legal battle which would consume further resources.

How Much Does Tree Surgery Cost?

Naturally, taking care of a plant the size of a tree is going to require you to spend a decent amount of money. The exact cost, however, will depend upon where you are and the specific tree being trimmed.

Nationally, the average cost of tree pruning services is between 400 and 800 US dollars, while tree removal is going to be more expensive, especially for larger species or older specimens, which could potentially cost $1,500 or more.

A tree trimming cost calculator can help you get some idea of how much you’ll need to pay for tree trimming.

How Can I Be Sure I Need a Tree Surgeon?

If you’re not familiar with the signs of a tree’s health, it can be difficult to figure out whether your trees even need help in the first place.

Graphics of warning signs: when to call an arborist for tree care showing seven warning signs including trees with dead or detached branches, cavities or rotten wood, mushroom presence, dead trees within its vicinity, leaning trunk, multiple branches on one point of trunk, root damage.

Here are some of the warning signs that you may need an arborist:

Large Dead or Detached Branches

If your tree has any large limbs that are dead or even detached and just held in place, this could be a major risk.

If a strong wind or some other force jostles them loose, these large branches pose a significant threat of injury or property damage for anyone and anything below them.

Cavities or Rotten Wood

This can be harder to assess from the exterior, but if you notice your tree has any major cavities or large portions that appear to be rotten, you’ll want to call in an expert.

An arborist can help determine if these are signs of a deeper problem, and they can give you recommendations to make sure you can avoid the problem.

Presence of Mushrooms

Mushrooms feed on dead and decaying organic matter, so if you notice an abundance of them growing around your tree, you should call in an arborist to make sure the decaying thing they’re feeding on isn’t the tree itself.

Adjacent Fallen or Dead Trees

If other trees growing near yours have fallen or are dead, it could be a sign of some kind of bigger issue in the area. Calling in an arborist can help you identify an issue and come up with solutions to stop whatever issue there is to keep it from spreading.


If you notice a tree is leaning over more to one side than it used to, that could be a precursor to the tree falling all the way over. Make sure you confer with an expert to correct the problem before you have to deal with a tree that’s fallen over uncontrolled.

Multiple Branches Growing From One Point on the Trunk

If too many branches are growing from one point on your tree, that puts a lot of mechanical stress on that point, which could lead to a section of the branches breaking off of the tree and falling to the ground.

Root Damage From Construction or Landscaping

If there has recently been construction or a change in the landscaping near your tree, there could have been damage done to the roots.

You may be able to see the roots pushing against or through pavement, or severed roots projecting out of the ground, but even if you can’t see the damage it could still be there.

An arborist would be able to make sure that the tree will be able to recover from the disruption to its environment.

Prevention is better than cure, you may also want to confer with an arborist before making such a change to make sure that you are able to avoid damaging your tree.

How Is an Arborist Different From a Landscaper?

While landscapers and arborists often work together, they do have separate areas of expertise.

Landscaping is a much wider-ranging profession; you would want to hire a landscaper for issues like lawn care, irrigation system installation and maintenance, mulching, garden bed preparation and maintenance, and general issues of aesthetics.

A group of professional tree trimmers removing the trimmed leaves from a coconut tree near a body of water.

(Image: Blake Handley11)

Arborists, meanwhile, have a focus on trees and their health. While they are conscious of aesthetics, their priority is in analyzing the environment and giving recommendations about what’s best for the trees.

How Often Should I Have an Arborist Inspect My Trees?

As is often the case with healthcare choices, be they for humans, pets, or plants, prevention is always more effective than cure. If you own any trees, it is probably a good idea to have a certified arborist come through and inspect them at least once a year.

Even if your trees are fine, an arborist can make you aware of any changes you can make to continue to support the growth and development of your trees.

If they catch a problem in its nascent stages, they can give you a simpler, less costly solution than you might have access to once the problem has time to develop.

Can Arborists or Tree Surgeons Work Near Power Lines?

As the population has grown, people have started to live in closer and closer proximity to each other. Particularly in suburban areas, you may have power lines or other utility lines near your tree that pose a significant obstacle.

First, if your tree grows too close to the power lines, it can be a severe fire risk, especially if you live in a fire-prone area. Second, those same power lines pose a significant threat to any humans who get near them.

The good news is that there are definitely arborists and tree surgeons who are trained to safely work on trees that are near power lines.

There are even many utility companies that will trim trees back from power lines for free! You should definitely reach out to your utility provider to see if your tree qualifies for this service.

If your utility company doesn’t offer to help, the bad news is that the increased risk posed by the proximity of the power lines means that you may end up having to pay a higher price in order to get your tree trimmed away from the lines.

How Urgent of a Problem Is a Dead Tree?

If you have a tree on your property that you know or suspect to be dead, you’ll want to make sure it’s removed. While this may seem like a lower-priority need (after all, the tree can’t get more dead), with a dead tree there’s no real way to be sure of when exactly it will fall over, which can be unsightly and a big issue for whatever is underneath.

So if you have a dead tree on your hands, make sure that you consult with an arborist and seek out a tree surgeon to fell the tree safely.

Becoming a Tree Specialist: Tree Doctors and Tree Surgeons

If you want to be able to take care of your trees without having to schedule a tree trimming service, or if you are interested in this as a career, you should know how to become an arborist or tree surgeon on your own.

Becoming an Arborist (Tree Doctors)

Becoming an arborist is a process that starts with background education. You’ll need at least a high school diploma or GED, although additional education in a field like environmental science or horticulture helps too.

Depending on which state you are in, you may need to earn a state license as well.

The most important part of the process, any aspiring arborist needs to have experience working in the field, most often with a tree-trimming company.

While you may have to start on the ground floor, you can pick up a lot of on-the-job training and valuable experience, in addition to a solid foundational understanding of how to be safe in your practices when it comes to working with trees.

Tree surgeons at work, cutting down a massive old tree situated in a residential garden.

(Image: Pauline Eccles12)

Finally, once you’ve picked up the required three years of experience, you can take the test to become a certified arborist!

This process may be too involved for someone who’s just hoping to use this knowledge for their own personal needs, but if this is a career that interests you it can be an economically viable one; the average arborist salary in the US is around $76,000 per year.1

This is a notable step up from tree surgeons; according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, tree surgeon salary totals an average of slightly below $50,000 each year, so if you’re interested in this field it may well be worth the investment.

Tree Climber Wanted: Becoming a Tree Surgeon

While professional tree surgeons may not have the same salary highs as arborists or tree doctors, the barrier to entry is a little lower as well. While generally a high school diploma or GED is required, most of the training and education requirements for tree surgeons are met in the process of doing the job.

You can complete training for a number of different specialized roles while working as a tree trimmer.2

You can earn more by completing certifications either as an arborist or as a more specialized tree worker, and the good news about this physically demanding job is that the demand for workers in this field is expected to increase over the next decade.

Because of their size and length of life, trees are both a central part of landscaping and a complex plant to have to manage.

Educating yourself can be an important step in the process of making sure you know how to take care of your tree, how to choose a tree surgeon and choose between arborists (tree doctors) vs tree trimmers.

Read More About Tree Doctors and Tree Surgeon


1Indeed. (2022, October 26). How To Become an Arborist (With Steps, Skills and FAQs). Indeed. Retrieved June 30, 2023, from <>

2Indeed. (2023, January 26). How To Become a Tree Surgeon (Tips and FAQs Included). Indeed. Retrieved June 30, 2023, from <>

3DAVETHETREECENTERS. (2023, February 3). How to Choose a Tree Surgeon. The Tree Center. Retrieved June 30, 2023, from <>

4Bedker, P. J., O’Brien, J. G., & Mielke, M. M. (2023). HOW to Prune Trees. USDA Forest Service. Retrieved July 7, 2023, from <>

5Wikipedia. (2023, April 14). Pollarding. Wikipedia. Retrieved July 7, 2023, from <>

6Sullivan, R. (2023, June 15). Arborist. Wikipedia. Retrieved July 7, 2023, from <>

7Oregon Department of Forestry. (2023). An Oregon Homeowner’s Guide to Tree Care. homeownersguidetotreecare.pdf. Retrieved July 7, 2023, from <>

8Men of the Philippines with secateurs pruning shrubs Photo by Judgefloro / CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication. Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved July 7, 2023, from <>

9Photo by Josch13. Pixabay. Retrieved from <>

109040Photos taken during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic in Baliuag, Bulacan 19 Photo by Judgefloro / CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) Public Domain Dedication. Resized and Changed Format. Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved July 7, 2023, from <,_Bulacan_19.jpg>

112020 01 29b tree trimming at KBK 4 Photo by Blake Handley / Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0). Resized and Changed Format. Flickr. Retrieved July 7, 2023, from <>

12Tree surgeons at work, St Mary’s Churchyard – – 831946 Photo by Pauline Eccles / Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0). Resized and Changed Format. Retrieved July 7, 2023, from <>