Caldwell Tree Care, an accredited, 24-year TCIA member company based in Roswell, Georgia, is one of the arboricultural partners that works with the Atlanta Botanical Garden, a 30-acre site in midtown Atlanta. They have been privileged to be the primary partner working within the Storza Woods area of the Garden. Caldwell crews work each year with Garden staff to maintain the area throughout the year, as well as with event designers/installers for the Nature’s Wonders section of the Garden Lights, Holiday Nights event. The consistent presence of their crews around the Garden provides Caldwell with the opportunity to monitor the condition of the trees throughout the year as well as observe changes over time.
Enjoyed from the forest floor and on the Kendeda Canopy Walk, Storza Woods constitutes 10 of the Garden’s 30 acres. It is one of the few remaining secondary-growth, mature hardwood forests in greater Atlanta. Storza Woods originally belonged to the Gentlemen’s Driving Club. Although purchased from farmers in the 1870s, it had never been intensively farmed or cleared. The Driving Club put in several trails for horseback riding, which are still present today.
Before 2015, Storza Woods was managed as an urban woodland “natural area,” meaning that invasive plants were removed and overall tree canopy and forest health was promoted, but little horticultural cultivation was conducted. An endowment created by Eleanor Storza in memory of her husband, Francis, provides funding for maintenance of the woodland. In conjunction with the development of the Canopy Walk, phased woodland horticultural efforts began.
In 2017, Andrew Blenk, BCMA, plant-health-care technician with Caldwell, observed artist’s bracket (Ganoderma applanatum), a heartwood rot fungus,growing in a 44-inch DBH southern red oak with a canopy at or above 100 feet. The subject tree was one of the main trees involved with the net structure that supports the extensive Garden Lights display. As each year passed, Blenk recorded the infection spreading, until early 2020, when he recognized that visible root rot had exceeded the acceptable threshold for the likelihood of failure. He also noted in his written report that the weight of the nets and lights would contribute to the possibility of failure.
Kevin Caldwell, CTSP, company president, shared these findings with Garden staff, adding that a phototropic lean and growth of the tree made the Canopy Walk a definite failure target. The risk was not only to the walkway, but also to the supporting structure due to the proximity of the tree to some of the support stanchions.
Plans were made to perform the removal in May 2020.
Because of the tree’s location and lean, the use of a crane was not feasible. Caldwell staff had to consider the protection of other trees and cultivated undergrowth in the area. This was, after all, within the confines of a botanical garden. Garden staff put protection in place for planters and much of the soft ground in the area, while the Caldwell crew used plywood to protect concrete walkways from the mini skid-steer used to remove debris.
As for the removal process, the only option was to remove the tree in sections using multiple rigging setups for control and to reduce impact. Terry Ferdarko, Caldwell operations manager, and his crew used surrounding trees to help secure nets that remained in the work area and as supplemental-rigging anchor points to ensure a controlled descent of each piece.
The crew got lucky with the weather, Ferdarko recalls. “It was Goldilocks weather – not too hot, not too cold,” he says.
Also, because of COVID-19, the Botanical Garden had closed to the public, so there were no pedestrians to work around. “They had shut the Garden down, so we had free rein,” Ferdarko says. “It was fantastic, we didn’t have to wait for anybody.”
Ferdarko was the crew leader and lead climber. Jerome Catlin and Edwin Baldwin were on site each day of the removal. Jerome Catlin managed the ropes, making sure each rope handler knew their task, as some setups involved long leads with multiple relays. Baldwin worked the ropes and managed the drop zone. Willie Catlin, Jerome’s brother, served as a second climber, both for relief for Ferdarko and as backup in case of an emergency. Ferdarko and Willie Catlin have been working together almost 20 years.
Mike Gullicksen and Michael “Junior” Gullicksen, father and son respectively, were on site during a portion of the work, with Junior working ropes and operating the Ditch Witch SK1550 mini loader and his father operating a grapple truck.
“We didn’t even manage to chip anything, we were so confined,” says Ferdarko. “We could rope it down and cut it into smaller sizes. It was all we could do to rope it down and get it out of the area.”
The landing zone was actually at the base of the tree, where there was access for the mini loader. Much of the rigging involved bringing pieces 70 to 75 feet from the outside of the canopy back into the trunk.
“That’s why we ran a three-line relay system, to put it into one crotch, transfer it to another one and then go to the third, landing crotch,” says Ferdarko.
They put several blocks in the tree beforehand, Ferdarko says. “At any one time, we had at least five blocks and lowering lines throughout the tree for transfer.”
Communication between the climber in the tree and the crew on the ground was maintained through the use of Sena SPH10 Bluetooth 3.0 stereo headsets, and this was a key aspect of the job, Ferdarko says. “Some days you can get out there and not even need to have a conversation with the people who are working with you, you just know intuitively what they need. For this, we just needed a lot of discussion. But everybody (Garden staff and Caldwell crew members) knew what our work zone was and that they were not to enter into it.”
A 4-stroke RopeTek Wraptor motorized ascending device was employed for the many trips needed up and down the tree. Because all debris had to be carried out to the grapple truck, some of the large trunk sections had to be cut small enough for the Ditch Witch to handle them.
“We ended up having to cut them into fairly small-sized pieces and put them onto the forks of our mini,” says Ferdarko. “Our mini grapple wouldn’t get around it. It’s always the trunk wood that’s the hardest part.
“It was a good job,” says Ferdarko, but he warns that such a removal has to be taken on with forethought, and Kevin Caldwell agrees.
“You’ve got to propose a job like this with careful forethought and provide adequate time to safely complete it,” says Caldwell. “It’s a labor-intensive job. But it worked out great. It ended up being a lot more efficient than I anticipated it being. We had a lot of things on our side. We had great weather, and we didn’t have to wait on any pedestrians.”
Dave Dechant, another local arborist well known for his expertise in the area of tree removal, was on site for part of the work. He remarked to Kevin Caldwell in a phone conversation following the completion of the removal that he was not aware that this level of expertise was still found in the field today.
“The work was completed over a span of seven days, including setup and final removal of the debris,” says Caldwell. “The workers paid special attention to the debris clean-up and stump-grinding efforts, again due to the setting. The area was left in good shape to support the Garden staff’s efforts to restore the area. Of course, it will be another 100 years before it can be fully returned to its
There was no damage to the pedestrian elevated walkway and its supporting structures. The crew was able to re-establish the support system and nets needed for the Holiday Lights event. Caldwell crew members, who will be on site to install this year’s show, will have what they need to install an amazing display once again.
Caldwell Tree Care expressed its gratitude to the Atlanta Botanical Garden for its partnership and confidence in their work.
“The success of this job was due to professionalism, talent, knowledge and skill on both sides,” says Kevin Caldwell.