The Arborists

After a very hard winter, Islanders share their stories of caring for our trees.

Yuliya and Dillon Bilzerian with Max and Marie. – photos by Lynn Christoffers

Josh Scott, Beetlebung Tree Care, ISA Certified Arborist, West Tisbury

West Tisbury


Why trees?

I fell in love with trees and the care of trees early on, when I worked for my uncle, Albert Fischer, on the Kennedy estate up in Aquinnah. For about 10 years we worked all the orchard, all the shade trees — all the gardens, the lawns, the roads, the beach. Just the two of us on 400 acres. Quite an endeavor. That experience gave me a real appreciation for the outdoors and working the land.

My grandfather, Ozzie Fischer, always had a knack for horticulture. He worked the Keith Farm all his life, and then bought Beetlebung Farm next door. After he became friends with arboretum founder Polly Hill, he planted a lot of trees on his property. I helped him on Beetlebung Farm with the trees.

When I was about 18, I watched the tree crews clean up after Hurricane Bob hit the Island. I instantly kind of clued in: I was athletic and I loved trees; that work was something I wanted to pursue. At the University of Vermont I did my studies in landscape horticulture and urban forestry, then worked with arborist David Slade here on the Island and down in Connecticut. I learned how to prune, learned how to climb; learned all about the safety procedures … then worked for Arborway Tree Care in Jamaica Plains, and got great experience there.


Twenty-six years in business

I came back to the Island and started my landscaping and tree business when I was 20 years old, focusing my energy into arboriculture. I’m now 46, so it’s been 26 years since I had my first clients. Just lawn mowing accounts at the start; I was living in a shed on my grandfather’s farm in Chilmark — that was the beginning. A couple mowers and a chainsaw … but before long I started doing fine-tuned technical tree work. I always had such wonderful clients and beautiful properties, and it was working with those properties that grew my business.


Five divisions

We’ve grown into a company of five divisions: arboriculture tree work; landscape construction; landscape maintenance; plant health care; and fine gardening. Beetlebung is a comprehensive tree and landscape company now.

Our current staff is six full-time, year-round tree workers; five to 10 full-time landscape construction workers; 10 landscape maintenance staff; three integrated pest management and plant health care workers — at its peak (maybe 12 field workers in the winter, to 30 in the summer). Six people in the office. I’m a certified arborist, as is Matt Flanders, our operations manager; we are both licensed pesticide applicators also. We have quite a team — it takes a village — an army. The whole backbone of our company is our employees, the wonderful people who work here. We are like a family.


When is your busiest season?

Tree work is really year-round. The least busy time is August, when our clients are finally here — late July, early August — that month window. They say, “Stop making noise! I’m here with my family, enjoying the Island. I have only six weeks here.” We may have a lot of work in the summer, but we have to be respectful of neighbors and owners in residence only a short period of time. It’s then we give our crew a little break: eight-hour days, instead of twelve.


STORMS! How much of your workload is dictated by the weather?

Early this winter we had a nice, perfectly laid-out schedule: All through April we were booked for pruning, view clearing, light tree removal, landscape construction. Then the first big windstorm came and added a month to our schedule for the tree and construction crew. Then the second storm with heavy wet snow added another month. We are the biggest tree company on the Island, and doing well, but we are still catching up from those winter storms! With trees on houses, trees smashing cars, on barns, trees on pools, fallen over driveways, yards, power lines — there became urgent work we had to attend to. We had to reschedule … we have thousands of clients, and we needed to prioritize and be sure to take care of everyone’s needs.


Do different trees have different needs?

Different trees have different cultures, habits, different pests, different susceptibility to certain storms. A lot of evergreens are very susceptible as more air flow is going through the forest, right to the trees that have their needles on them. This winter so many pitch pines, spruces, and Leyland cypress fell as they were uprooted; with pitch pines we’ve seen crack in the base, crack in the top — so many different incarnations of tree damage. The ground was very wet — the water table this winter was the highest I can remember. You are seeing ponds in fields that were normally fields. Wet, wet, wet. You combine that with the heavy wind — that’s what Hurricane Bob was — a lot of rain and wind.

In the summer with the hurricanes, the deciduous trees with leaves on them are more susceptible. Black oaks are the most prominent trees on this Island — they’ve been stressed by drought and caterpillars over the course of the years. Anytime you see a black mark, a wound, that’s where the tree will break, in those defective areas.


Multiple hazards

Multiple facets of tree work are hazardous. It’s one of those professions where you can’t make a mistake — everything has to be very precise. There can be brutal consequences of not following procedures correctly. Storm damage is most hazardous: Trees are weighted, broken, and under tension. Cut a certain limb and it releases — things fly around. The most accidents happen when untrained people are doing tree work — homeowners or inexperienced workers.

We train for every single situation. It takes years to become proficient and safe as a tree worker. We start our staff on the ground, continue to train, train, train … We have very specific technical equipment, all new and maintained to make things safer.


Tree worker with clear head

To work in trees, someone has to have a clear head, a calm mind, and has to be very methodical, work well with others, and have their wits about them on a daily basis. All our tree workers are required to wear a helmet and chaps when using a chainsaw. The last thing we want is anyone getting hurt. It’s really hard when we see other workers without safety gear, since we know the consequences.


After 26 years, what’s the main draw for you?

It’s the dynamics of it: You never get bored, as it’s a very fast-paced, exciting industry where you are always learning. It is amazing how the industry has evolved, and the high level of expertise. Working on this Island is so inspiring as its so beautiful –there are so many different unique areas ecologically we get to experience with our clients. They are great people who love their trees and love their landscape. It’s satisfying to watch these properties change, and grow, as we deal with different climate scenarios and stresses.; 508-645-2877


Dillon and Yuliya Bilzerian, Bilzerian Tree & Land, Vineyard Haven


How did you learn tree work?

Dillon: I was born on the Island; my family is Hungarian, Armenian, and Czech. My dad has been here since the late ’60s. He taught me basically everything about tree work. He cleared his whole 10-acre property himself, dropping trees in the Tisbury woods, bringing them home for firewood. We would also take dead trees from my uncle’s properties — that’s how I learned.


Tell us about your staff.

Yuliya (Dillon’s wife): Our staff count is four men and one girl — that’s me. Dillon started the company in 2014, and I got involved after the first year, starting by helping with lining up jobs, answering phone calls, and doing all the billing for the company. For about a year now, I’ve been going to job sites and doing estimates. I like to observe when they are doing a job; I find it really interesting.

Collin Shea is the foreman of the company. Before working for us, he had done more landscaping than tree work, but he learned really fast, and is very responsible. We are blessed to have him. Finding good help is really hard on this Island, especially in this business …


Dillon: I was doing all the bucket work until Collin took over. I’ve taught him what he needs to know; we work well together. He’s taken the role seriously as a professional. I train all my staff on the job.


What is hazardous tree removal?

Dillon: You have hazardous trees that become uprooted, they may have become rotten. It could be from bugs, a disease, or the wrong conditions: not enough sunlight, too much sand in the ground, which makes the roots weaker. A lot of different things come into play. Trees will fall if they are not pruned or taken care of. Then trees can end up on your house or on your car. You need to catch that before it becomes a problem.


Full-service tree and landscape work

Dillon: We do hazardous tree removal, vista views, brush cuttings, clearings, stump grindings, bluestone patios, and full yard installations. We are mainly a tree company that also does landscaping. One benefit when we do a job is that we’ll do the whole job, with the cleanup included. We stump grind also, which makes a big difference.


How many clients do you have?

Dillon: Hundreds at this point.

Yuliya: I get about five phone calls a day.

Dillon: Most clients call us at least once or twice a year. For some, we go every week to mow and maintain flower beds. We do yard cleanups and spring cleanups as well; fertilize, lime, and top-dress and seed. Then when summer comes, you have a full green lawn that came back like it was picture-perfect.


Favorite thing about the business?

Dillon: I would say hazardous tree removal … you don’t see it every day, it’s a difficult job, and a very stressful job. It is satisfying doing a service to the community, protecting homes from damage and helping in a big way. We’ve had trees that fell into houses, we’ve saved multiple houses from trees that were leaning, about to fall — removed those trees and saved the house and cars. It wears you out, but at the same time you are helping people and protecting their homes, and people appreciate that.


Yuliya: Our staff! We’ve only had this business for four years, but our biggest asset is our crew. They are awesome and work very hard. We treat them as family, that’s very important.


Dillon: It’s a team, and everybody works together. You move up in the company, and everyone is proud of what they do … learning new things every day. We’ll be expanding in the future. We may have two bucket trucks; we have two chippers already. We will soon have a Bobcat. We have a landscape crew for the summer for mowing and weekly maintenance, keeping two crews going full-time. It’s a full-service company.; 508-560-1565


Stephen Masterson, ISA Certified Arborist, Masterson Tree Care, Oak Bluffs


What tree work are you doing here on Lambert’s Cove Road?

This is John Brennan’s property in West Tisbury. He wanted his apple trees brought down to an orchard-style pruning, so that’s what I did this spring. He is very happy with them, and I think we are going to have a really nice product. This is kind of a unique situation — he had an older, more mature apple stand. This was a renovation, a rejuvenation pruning …


Tell us about pruning.

It’s basically an art and science when it comes to pruning. The science is knowing how much material to remove so the tree or shrub is still healthy. The art is pleasing to the eye. When a proper pruning schedule has been neglected, it’s my mission to reshape and bring things back into form. The reasons we prune are for plant rejuvenation, production of fruit and flowers, and maintaining the shape, health, safety, and structure. Reading the plant is important. Sometimes you need to prune so the cuts are hidden. The plants are taken back proportionately, so the plant looks natural. Your eye leads up the trunk in a natural, easy progression.


What is your health care program for trees?

I’m big on a plant health care program. With a good program, it gives the tree or shrub an extra edge to deal with challenging environmental conditions. I believe one of the most important aspects is the root system. If there is a healthy root system, there will most likely be a healthy tree or shrub. Healthy soil is another key component; having healthy soil will provide essential nutrients for that plant, tree, or shrub to thrive. Pruning is also important. Dead or damaged wood can be carriers for disease and insects; pruning also promotes health through proper airflow, and creates a strong, healthy structure.


Tree climbing

I actually feel pretty comfortable in the trees. I really enjoy it. I’ve been climbing for over 20 years. I always try and be smart about the moves I make in trees, what is necessary to remove and what isn’t. I decide what needs to come out to help the integrity of the tree to make it safer. I follow the latest standard of ISA (International Society of Arboriculture). I’m a certified member.


A truck with all the tools

I’m not a big operation, so I like to be neat, tidy. When I go to a job, I like to have everything that I need — it’s all set up, you aren’t looking for items. Makes the whole experience much more pleasurable. I do work with others on the Island — it’s nice that I can collaborate with other professionals, it works well. And also do my own program.


Tell us how you got started working with trees.

My earliest days working with trees were in Connecticut, where I grew up. A great Island experience for me was with Bob Potter out on Chappaquiddick. I helped Bob with his woodlot management program, selectively harvesting from Pimpney Mouse Farm. One of my first clients introduced me to Polly Hill; this was before she made the arboretum public. I met with Polly at her house, we talked and walked around the property; then, years later, I was invited to be part of the staff. I worked at the arboretum for 12 years. While working at Polly Hill, I was able to study and go for my arborist license. It’s all been a great learning experience.


How do storms affect your work?

Every year obviously is very different. This year the normal scheduling of work for the season got curtailed due to the storm damage. It was varying types of damage: Some trees blown over on the ground, blocking driveways, others on roofs, needing rigging to get trees off the roof, trees on cars. A wide variety of damage found here on the Island.


Are you devoted to tree work?

Yes, I love being outside; I love working with plants, trees, shrubs … I can’t really picture doing anything much different. And there is plenty of work here on the Vineyard. It’s a win-win situation.




Todd D. Vanderhoop, First Light Tree Co., Aquinnah


What interested you about tree work?

I learned to love it, especially the structures of trees and how strong and sustainable they are. How different each species is. The education is endless.


Why the name ‘First Light Tree Co.’?

I am a member of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe. The Wampanoag people are known as the “People of the First Light” — that name we have carried forever. Using that name I feel brings honor to my family, the Wampanoag community, and my business.


Where are your clients?

My business is generated from Aquinnah. But being born and raised on the Island, I have gotten to know a lot of people. Many of my clients have known me my whole life, or know my family. My business has mostly grown from word of mouth. Before I went out on my own, I worked for Beetlebung Tree Care for more than 10 years.


Tell us about pruning for water views.

We prune for water views by light trimming, reducing, and shaping — everyone wants their privacy with tree screening, but also neighbors want to have their water views. We are always trying our best to make trees look as acceptable as possible, as well as giving a client what they desire. Though there are a lot of moving parts and sometimes challenges, we come to a resolution.

As an arborist, I would like to see a tree removed rather than completely structurally deformed by changing the tree so much. I’d rather have a replant project, but with the conservation restrictions, more times than not they don’t feel comfortable letting people remove trees.


What will you do with this cherry tree?

It’s a reduce-and-shape. Anytime I have a tree when I can work with the canopy, I work gradually. This will be an example of reduction to the crown of a black cherry tree. With the homeowner looking at it so constantly, we make it look as best it can.


What is your favorite tree work?

I appreciate the opportunity to contribute to the health and care of trees. I also like to save some choice logs for chainsaw milling, carving, processed firewood, and wood chips. I try to repurpose a high percentage of my work.


Do you see yourself continuing in tree work?

I see myself in the industry for quite some time. I don’t see myself ever not having my hands on the work. That’s huge for me: keeping a quality product for my clients, and maintaining relationships and respect for nature.