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Health, Science, Environment

Keeper of the trees

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 17, 2009 -Tim Gamma says you'll find about 125 tree service companies in the St. Louis area. So, what sets him apart? First, he's a board certified master arborist. But even more unusual is that he's  president elect of the International Society of Arboriculture. That pretty much makes him one of a kind this year.

He's looking forward to the responsibilities of being president of the society, especially the added travel perks.

Gamma expects to go to Italy, Brazil, Austria and Malaysia, among other countries, over the next two years.

But for now, you might spot him traveling back and forth across the city in his tan Ford F-150 pickup, living out his destiny and saving trees from untimely deaths - or at least unsightly pruning.

Trees in the Family

Tim Gamma always knew he wanted to do something outdoors and wasn't too particular about what. So, given that his father owned a tree business, his career path seemed destined.

"I always say I never filled out a resume," he says.

Before taking over the family business - Gamma's Shield Shade Inc. has been in operation since 1954 - Gamma experienced the many facets of tree care working for his father.

He also got a degree in horticulture and landscape design from the University of Missouri-Columbia.

Today, Gamma, who's apt to talk with his hands and use any available props - pens or coffee cups, for example - to illustrate tree-related scenarios, coordinates project sites and volleys clients' concerns about aggressive fungi, tree-stranded cats (or parakeets) and next-door arbors.

"We get a lot of requests like, 'How can I kill my neighbor's tree?'" says Gamma. "I'm going, 'I know how to kill it, but I'm not gonna tell you'."

"We also get a lot of, 'Can you save my tree?' and I'm looking at it and it's already dead and I say, 'Unless this tree is Lazarus, it's not coming out of the tomb'."

Gamma sees the humor in the high drama of tree care, and the irony of what keeps him in business.

"People's mistakes feed the tree industry," he says. Mistakes ranging from having an inexperienced company go pruning happy on your front lawn's shade tree to inheriting a sappy evergreen too close to a gutter system when you move to a new home.

"Right tree, right place," Gamma says, summing up all that's needed to have happy customers and plants.

Then, there's also the issue of no tree, no place.

"They'll debate whether to plant something for several years," he says. By the time people decide to go ahead, Gamma says, the tree could've already rooted in, grown and be providing the perfect sitting spot.

The Right Diagnosis

In addition to physical placement issues, arborists like Gamma must discern the causes and solutions to myriad tree health problems.

They have to know what insects cause what types of damage, whether a tree looks the way it does because of too much or too little water, and the causes and treatments of common - and not so common - tree disease processes.

"There's a whole slew of disease problems," says Gamma. The key is recognizing what's harmful and what's not.

"Sometimes people call in worried about moss," he says. Calls like that are usually solved with an on-site consultation and the assurance that, yes, the suspected pathogen is moss and, no, moss will not kill your favorite tree.

Native Roots

A benefit - and a challenge - to being an arborist in the middle of the country is the diversity of trees one is required to work with.

The Missouri Department of Conservation estimates that forests in the state include at least 140 tree species. The most common are oak, hickory and ash, says Gamma. In addition to the 140 species, a good arborist should know a number of cultivars, or variations.

Take the red maple, says Gamma. There is the red maple, singular, but more than 50 cultivars of the species.

"About once a year, I run into something and have no idea what it is," says Gamma. "I take a sample and find out."

Anna Vitale is a freelance writer.

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