Money Can Grow On Trees: Tree Care

More contractors have found profitable sales reside in the trees on their customers' properties.

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November 22, 1999
Bob West
Business/Finance

How many times do lawn care or landscape contractors mow, spray or irrigate around trees, all the while muttering under their breath about how these trees get in their way?

Contractors that only see trees as obstacles in their path aren’t looking closely enough to realize the true potential for profits these trees offer. Meanwhile, competitors may be building a tree and shrub division that generates highly profitable revenues.

"Contractors are clearly looking to get involved in tree and shrub services because they already have the clients and the clients have additional needs the contractors can service," noted Brian Barnard, division manager, Nu-Arbor Products, Grand Rapids, Mich.

"We see our largest growth sector being "from the ground tree care," or those tree care services that are done on the ground or in ladders only," noted Nate Dodds, general manager, J.J. Mauget, Arcadia, Calif., adding that this is the work contractors generally gravitate toward.

THE MICRO APPROACH. One of the trends driving contractors’ interest in tree and shrub services has been the increasing popularity of microinjection products and technologies.

Microinjection allows contractors to apply a small amount of concentrated fertilizer or pesticide product directly into the tree immediately beneath the bark layer.

"The benefits to microinjection technology are a dramatically reduced application rate, applying pesticides within the plant to keep it out of the air and minimizing applicator exposure," explained Dodds.

"Traditional tree care has been based around spraying product up into the trees," commented Chip Doolittle, president, ArborSystems, Omaha, Neb. "I think contractors will always be spraying, especially larger trees, but then contractors have to make sure that they post properly, pre-notify neighbors, barricade and cone during the application. At what point isn’t spraying economically worthwhile? This is especially true for some of the more heavily regulated states, such as California."

Test Tree Techs
If you're a lawn care or landscape contractor with visions of new profits to be gathered up via new tree care services, be prepared for an extensive and oftentimes frustrating learning curve with your employees.

"Contractors don't want to learn that they have to take care of trees differently than they take care of turf," noted Chip Doolittle, president, ArborSystems, Omaha, Neb. "Lawn care is basically taking care of one tree – turf. Whereas tree care means oaks and ashes and maples and so many other trees."

"I've always considered trees more difficult to care for than turf," agreed Lance Schelhammer, president, Grass Roots, Lenexa, Kan. "It takes quite a long time to train a good tree care technician who is capable of practicing an integrated pest management approach when some trees are loaded with problems and others only have a few problems."

"Of course, once that dedicated employee learns the ropes and realizes how much money he's making for his boss, he may just go into business for himself," Doolittle added.

Microinjection has also benefited from the industry-wide push to taking a more integrated pest management approach to lawn, tree and shrub care.

"We’re seeing a big push for lower toxicity materials and more targeted IPM approaches," observed Dodds. "That’s where manufacturers are headed with products that have a long, safe residual.

"We’re also seeing a greater acceptance of combination products that allow contractors to handle multiple treatments in one application," continued Dodds. "This is particularly important for microinjection since this is an invasive process and contractors want to minimize any tree wounds, no matter how minor they are."

Those minor tree wounds lead to many of the concerns surrounding microinjection, such as whether or not drilling a small hole or pushing a piece of metal into a tree is actually healthy for that tree.

"The wounding of the tree is one of the real bugaboos of microinjection," recognized Doolittle.

"The impact of the microinjection will vary from tree to tree, but contractors should understand that the wound has very little impact on a tree’s health when the application is handled properly," noted Dodds. "And, again, the microinjection eliminates the problems, such as with drift, posting and applicator exposure."

"Microinjection also saves contractors time by allowing them to make applications to trees in parking lots even if cars are present or to trees in areas with a lot of pedestrian traffic around," added Doolittle.

"We still spray some trees because sometimes only spraying works," noted Lance Schelhammer, president, Grass Roots, Lenexa, Kan. "But we would always rather microinject than spray. The residual of microinjection products is phenomenal on piercing, sucking pests. Plus, control can be season-long depending on the tree size."

Contractors noted that microinjection systems are less suited for applications to trees less than 3 inches in diameter or larger than 12 inches in diameter, as well as evergreen and needle trees where technicians cannot easily reach the tree’s trunk.

Microinjection’s affordability offers another key benefit over spraying.

"Now our tree technicians don’t have to pull a hose around a yard and they can make applications just as quickly with microinjection," added Schelhammer. "There’s no mixing of products or large storage of pesticides, and microinjection is less labor intensive."

Contractors have also found that despite the increased product prices for microinjection products, profits are consistent with spraying services at the same prices because microinjection is less labor intensive and one application often lasts an entire season that would require three spray treatments.

"There will come a time when the federal and state governments and agencies put so much effort into eliminating spraying trees that microinjection will essentially be mandatory," noted Schelhammer. "Contractors should start making the switch now."

Injection Tips. . . . . .
For most trees, you may inject them at a height that is most comfortable for you. This is usually at the belt area. If you are treating for insects that may be working along the trunk area, you may need to treat them at the root flare. If the tree is of light color or has smooth bark, you may inject at the root flare to prevent "bleeding" that may discolor the bark.

Among the easiest trees to inject are elm, ash, oak, cottonwood, linden and birch. On difficult trees, such as hackberry, it may be necessary to inject them at the flare where the bark is more pliable. On trees with deep fissures, such as cottonwood and some oaks, it may be necessary to position the injection at a 45-degree angle. On thin-barked trees, you may find it necessary to reduce the amount of pesticide per injection and increase the number of injection sites.

Timing of the application is very important. Spring through summer is the ideal time for injection. Specifically, each tree needs to be inspected. The bark needs to be pliable and that depends on the weather in your location. Injections too early or too late in the season may cause the pesticide to leak out anywhere around the injection point. This is because the bark is not pliable enough to hold the pesticide. Although some leaking is normal, if excess leaking happens in the spring, wait a few more days and try it again. If this happens in the fall, you will either have to reduce the amount of pesticide to be injected and add more injection sites or wait until spring to inject the tree. – ArborSystems

ALTERNATIVE OPTIONS. Tree care is not just pesticide applications. Avoiding pest and disease attacks can be accomplished by proactively keeping a tree healthy.

"Trees in an urban environment require routine fertilization because they aren’t growing in a natural setting with regular plant decomposition into the soil that provides necessary nutrients," according to Barnard.

Options for tree fertilization range from injections via backpack systems or hand-held injectors to 18-inch-long plastic cylinders inserted into the soil to deliver oxygen, water and nutrients into a tree’s root system.

"Most liquid or powder products need to be mixed with water and injected under high pressure," noted Barnad. "But using a concentrated form of the product eliminates the mixing, and hand-held or backpack injection units can deliver the fertilizer deep enough into the root system."

"As with microinjection of pesticides, fertilizer injections also eliminate the need and expense for heavy equipment," added Barnard. "Plus, if a tree is 315 feet away from the spray truck and the truck is only carrying 300 feet of hose, the technician on that property has a problem. But that’s not the case with injection systems that can go anywhere."

Additionally, delivering the necessary nutrients to the root system encourages deeper, healthier root growth for trees.

"When important nutrients can’t penetrate overly compacted soils, the roots are forced to come up to the soil where they can get these nutrients," explained Dave Allen, vice president of marketing, RootWell, Waterford, Mich.

Barnard was quick to note, however, that contractors expanding into tree and shrub services often err by applying turf management practices to trees.

"A lot of contractors use too much nitrogen with trees, but nitrogen isn’t as important to trees and shrubs as it is to turf," he explained. "Instead, tree applications should feature low levels of nitrogen in a readily usable form that can be delivered over a long period of time when necessary. Otherwise, too much nitrogen promotes excess vegetative growth and can make the tree or shrub particularly appealing to insects."

The author is Editor of Lawn & Landscape magazine.