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Kunming 'tree doctors' to maintain Olympic venue

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Another day at the office for Jon Picker
Another day at the office for Jon Picker

The 2008 Olympics have already focused global attention on Beijing, but other cities will also host selected competitions. Regatta events will take place in Qingdao and soccer/football matches will be held in Shenyang, Qinhuangdao, Tianjin and Shanghai. Even Hong Kong – technically an 'international' flight from mainland China – will host the Olympic equestrian competition this year.

The decision to hold equestrian events in Hong Kong is tacit acknowledgment that the equestrian facilities and traditions in the former British colony are superior to anywhere on the mainland. Despite the existing world-class facilities, organizers of the equestrian events in Hong Kong are addressing even seemingly minute details. A prime example of this attention to detail is the hiring of Kunming-based arboricultural consultancy Asia Tree Preservation (ATP) to ensure that tree shade at the Hong Kong Golf Club complements equestrian events rather than interferes with the events and their broadcast.

ATP was established in Kunming last year by the father-son team of Don and Jon Picker plus longtime friend Jeff Legue, all certified arborists and Kunming residents. Don Picker has 25 years of experience as an arborist, a profession he says the average person has some difficulty understanding.

"Usually I'll tell people we're 'tree doctors'," said Picker, adding that despite the lack of general knowledge of arboriculture in Asia, the profession is quickly taking a foothold in this part of the world due to the training work done in Singapore by Dr Bill Fountain of the University of Kentucky.

"In Singapore, there's been about two or three hundred arborists certified in the last six years," Picker said. "Malaysia and Hong Kong have become increasingly interested in arboriculture in recent years too."

What is arboriculture? In a nutshell, it is the selection, management and removal of shrubs and trees with the aim of reducing hazards and promoting harmony with an area's needs. Arboriculture has been recognized as a profession for about 40 years.

Beginning this week, ATP will be helping the 122 year-old Hong Kong Golf Club with the management of its banyan trees and eucalypts, some of which are as high as 30 meters and require climbing and pruning by trained professionals. ATP was initially hired to help the golf club prepare for the upcoming Hong Kong Open golf tournament, after which they were asked to assist with the maintenance of the grounds for the Olympic events this summer.

Despite acceptance in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia, arboriculture has yet to catch on in mainland China, said Don Picker, who is Chairman of the International Safety Committee of the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA). Picker is also an ISA-certified arborist. Last year he helped with the translation of the organization's Tree Climber's Guide into traditional Chinese – he said he hopes to help with a simplified Chinese version for the mainland soon.

According to both father and son, Kunming could use the advice of a professional arborist, particularly with regard to the practices of 'topping' trees (cutting off the tree tops to encourage horizontal growth) and painting the lower portions of trees white.

ATP: Kunming needs better tree maintenance
ATP: Kunming needs better tree maintenance

"We'd like to see the elimination of 'topping' in Kunming," Jon Picker said. "Topping exposes the trunk of the tree to rain, which leads to core rot, and the branches that grow after topping are susceptible to breaking in the future, which creates a hazard."

Strolling virtually anywhere in Kunming one is able to see trees that have been topped. Most trees have also had their lower portions painted white, a practice that the Pickers cite as a major peeve in tree maintenance in Kunming.

"Historically, a lime base paint was used to repel insects and there has also been an illumination element to the white paint on trees," Don Picker explained, "But now it seems that the practice exists primarily because people think it looks beautiful."

After finishing their work in Hong Kong, ATP hopes to focus on cooperation with local universities in Kunming. However, as Don Picker acknowledges, few people appreciate the work of arborists as the aim of their work is generally subtle and unobtrusive.

"The challenge in our industry is that the average person doesn't really look at trees until something grabs their attention, which usually happens after some kind of environmental damage occurs or a tree has been pruned," the elder Picker said. "Arboriculture is both a science and an art - we prune in a way that doesn't alter the tree's appearance."

Related Links:

International Society of Arboriculture


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