By Brandon Gallagher Watson
Picture this: you are standing on your client’s property discussing the service you provide. Congratulations, you have already accomplished the most difficult part of your job — getting on the property. Since we are in the service industry and every job we perform requires us to show up on site, it is easy to forget how you got there. Sure, maybe they saw your ad, or maybe they received a recommendation from a neighbor, but there is also a good chance they saw one of your competitor’s ads as well, and know another friend who used another service. So why are you standing there and not someone else? Often, it boils down to trust. They are trusting that your service will fulfill their need, in the time agreed upon, and for a fair price.
Building on that trust, there are opportunities to expand your business in a manner that is valuable to your clients, and, as a member of the green industry, is a logical extension of what you are already doing. Tree health care is a fairly simple service to add to your business and market to your clients. The start-up costs are low, the profitability can be rewarding, and protecting your client’s trees can set you apart from your competitors.
If your clients already trust you with their landscape, lawn, or property maintenance, you are in the perfect position to start caring for their trees. That said, tree health care is also a service that can seriously damage your reputation if you do it wrong. Screw up someone’s turf pretty bad and you might get stuck re-sodding a section of the property. Screw up someone’s 100 year-old oak tree and there is very little you can do the remedy that. When you take on a new venture, you put the reputation of your business on the line. Your customers won’t care if you’re new at this — they have service expectations that have to be met. So what resources are available to help you be successful?
Starting a tree health care division can seem daunting. There are hundreds of trees to identify, myriad insect and disease problems, not to mention all the products and equipment needed. Maybe the old adage that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step offers some reassurance. In this case, the journey to the first thousand dollars can begin with a single tree.
As overwhelming as it may seem, the vast majority of urban forests are only populated with a dozen or so prominent species. Out of these, there are typically three to five main species that have common health issues, and, from those, one or two can be treated fairly easily without specialized and expensive equipment. Resources such as the International Society of Arboriculture, the Arbor Day Foundation, and your local extension agency are some of the best ways to learn the key trees and their problems in your area.
Once you have learned a few trees and their issues, you can learn how to manage them. Trees are sophisticated organisms. They respond to environmental stresses, defend themselves from insects and diseases, and regulate their growth through a balance of hormonal interactions. They produce sugar through photosynthesis, extract hundreds of gallons of water from the soil daily, and have highly developed internal transport systems. They are also prominent in the landscape, and when something goes wrong it gets noticed. Because complex organisms tend to have more complex problems, tree care is a profession based in science. The more you know about trees, the more successful will be the endeavor of adding tree health care services to your organization.
If your impression of tree care only consists of bucket trucks and heavy-duty spray rigs, you may be surprised to learn that an actual bucket can be as powerful a tree care tool as the bucket truck. Treatments that are applied for tree health care related services use a wide variety of techniques. Some are applied to the soil at the base of the tree using basal drench. Others can be sprayed or injected into the soil with a backpack rig. Still others can be injected directly into the vascular system of the tree for systemic activity. None of the equipment for these procedures will break the bank. Effectiveness does not necessarily come from owning a lot of expensive equipment. It comes from knowing how to use the right tool for the job.
So what is the right tool for the job? The simple answer is “follow the protocol.” A protocol is a detailed plan that includes identification of the problem, treatment procedure, and an expectation of the results you will get. You will not necessarily be judged on how well the application performed, but how closely it aligns with the expectation you set with the client. Making a partnership with a tree health expert can be a great way to start learning the protocols. These can be independent organizations such as universities, extension agencies, and arboretums or commercial arborists in your area. Certain distributors of tree health care products may also be valuable resources for you.
Let’s say you live in the half of the country affected by emerald ash borer (EAB). Chances are you and your customers are already aware the issue exists, as it has been widely covered in the media. How can you begin offering ash protection as a service? The protocol for EAB reveals multiple application methods and chemistries that have been shown in research trials to protect ash trees. There are treatments applied to the soil around the tree, others sprayed on the bark, and others injected using pressurized devices. Some the chemistries are Restricted Use and would require a special applicators license; others have pounds-per-acre restrictions that may limit how many trees you could treat at a given site.
Turning the protocol into a useful guide is the art of tree health. In this case, it says EAB is best treated preventively, which you can use to your favor. If you live in an area where EAB has been identified, and you see an ash tree, it is a candidate for protection. You don’t need to learn how to recognize minute symptoms and signs of the problem; you just need to learn to identify an ash tree. From there, you can talk with the client about the benefits and costs of protecting the tree versus removing the tree before or after it becomes infested. Often, showing tree owners the cost of protection over a decade compared to the out-of-pocket costs and losses of benefits from that tree over the same time help them conclude the tree is worth saving. A soil-applied treatment can be administered in less than 10 minutes, will protect the tree for a year, and be a valuable service for your client. Tree health care is often a repeat-business service, getting you back on the property the following year, which continues to grow your relationship and trust with the tree’s owner.
Every market in the country will have a tree and a problem that you can turn into an opportunity to grow your business and your relationships. Adding tree health care solutions may be a natural extension of your business. If your clients are happy with your current lineup, they may be delighted to see even more services on the next proposal. Tree health care services offer great potential to add to both your top and bottom line. When trust, knowledge and expertise are in place, efficiency and profitability soon follow. Tree health is a great way to turn green into, well, green.
Brandon Gallagher Watson is an ISA Certified Arborist and the creative director of Rainbow Tree Company. Rainbow consists of a full service tree care company; a lawn care and pest control division; and Rainbow Treecare Scientific Advancements, a research & development branch dedicated to developing tools and protocols for science-based tree care. Learn more at www.treecarescience.com