Musings on Tree Work and Plant Health Care After 40 Years in the Industry

The composite at the top of the page depicting various PHC practices is courtesy of Randy Cyr, operator of Greentree, a consulting arborist company based in Greenville, South Carolina, and a former TCIA member.

This is the first installment of a three-part series on the evolution of plant health care over the last 40 years, including some of the tools, people and practices that have influenced the author as well as the industry.

Everyone has a story of how they came to be working in the arboriculture/plant-health-care industry. My own may be similar to yours, or maybe it is completely different. I am here today due to a serendipitous moment. It is my father’s fault.

He was a newspaper writer/columnist/editor for the Commercial Appeal daily newspaper of Memphis, Tennessee, and, as such, was invited to speak at many civic clubs and garden clubs. When he did so, he always mentioned what his sons were doing. At one of these speaking opportunities around 1973, he mentioned I was in forestry school at the University of Tennessee. At the conclusion of his talk, Nat Dunn, an elderly horticulturist, landscaper and consulting arborist, came up to my father and introduced himself. He gave him some pamphlet information on Mauget tree injectors from the J.J. Mauget Company, as well as information on how to appraise the value of a tree from the American Society of Consulting Arborists. In addition, he asked my father to let me know of his interest in visiting with me sometime when I returned home to Memphis.

In late 1974 or early 1975, I finally met with Mr. Dunn. He gave me more information on tree injection and tree appraisal. I took this information with me when I went to a summer job as a “timber sale preparation specialist” with the U. S. Forest Service at Gallatin National Forest, out of Big Timber, Montana, in the summer of 1976. We worked out of a tent camp about 20 miles from the nearest road. We’d be in the woods for 10 days and then would get four days off. Near the end of the summer, one of my camp mates said, “Cortese, you need to go back to Tennessee and do something with these tree injectors you’ve been talking about all summer.” It was a crucible moment for me. I had not realized that I had been using my camp mates as a sounding board for this revolutionary new concept of injecting trees systemically, similar to getting a shot from a medical doctor.

I graduated in December 1976 and attended a seminar on Mauget tree injection in Dallas, Texas, February 2, 1977, meeting arborist J.J. Herod; Dale Dodds, head of the Mauget Company; and Dr. W. D. Thomas, plant pathologist and researcher for Mauget Company. When I left Dallas that day, I was the new Mauget distributor for east Tennessee, western North Carolina and parts of Kentucky. Six weeks later I started my arboricultural firm, Cortese Tree Specialists, in Knoxville, Tenn.

Thus, each of us has a story on how we have come to be where we are today.

A lifetime journey

I want to ask three questions:

  1. Have you ever climbed a tree? Not professionally, but just freehand climbed a tree?
  2. Have you ever fallen out of a tree? Be honest on this one!
  3. Have you ever been around a tree, saw something in or on or about a tree and wished there was someone around who knew something about trees and could explain what you were seeing?

I have asked these three questions at gatherings of preschoolers through high schoolers, at meetings with garden and civic clubs, with neighborhood groups and at homes for the elderly. The answers to my lifelong survey are as follows: 99.5% of Americans have climbed a tree during their life; 55-60% of Americans have fallen out of a tree; and 99.5% of Americans have wished there was someone with expertise who could explain what they were seeing in regard to a tree. So, what does this have to do with plant health care, or PHC?

Many of you have been to college, some for forestry, horticulture, botany, environmental science or another biology-related field. Some of you have degrees in non-biology-related fields but somehow, by the grace of God, ended up in arboriculture. Some of you have master’s and doctorate degrees in the field. Yet some of you have only a high-school degree. There is no shame in that. Many of those at the best companies I have had the opportunity to come in contact with over the years have had only a high-school degree. I have determined that many of the latter have a higher degree of common sense than some of those with higher degrees. The connection is that we are all “tree huggers.”

If you press them, even the most crotchety old business person, grandma, kindergartner, et al, will remember climbing, falling out of or seeing something about a tree that they wished someone who knew about trees could answer for them.

A second point I wish to make is something one of my forestry professors told us back in 1973, in freshman Intro to Forestry class. He said, “At your current level of education, you know more than 90% of the public know about trees. There is another 7% who know somewhat close to what you know, then there are 2% who will challenge you on what you know and 1% who truly know more about trees than you do.” The lesson is to realize that you know more than you think.

A lifetime journey. Graphics courtesy of the author.

What may be missing is belief in yourself and passion for plant preservation! I have been working in arboriculture professionally since 1977. The only difference between any of you and me may be 40 years, 20 years or 15 years, or some of you may be more experienced in PHC than I am. It is a road. We are never totally there. We are on a lifetime journey of learning.

A great starting point, and one I have used and relied upon heavily as a resource for a PHC program, is the local agricultural extension or cooperative extension service agent. They are located in just about every county in the United States. They are a wealth of knowledge to help jump-start your operation and get you started on the right foot.

The author’s mentors included, clockwise from top left, retired professors who were at the University of Tennessee while he was a student; Spence Rosenfeld, founder of Arborguard Tree Specialists of Atlanta, Georgia, and a former TCIA board member; Sharon Jean-Phillippe, professor of urban forestry, UT; Gene Hyde, city forester/arborist, City of Chattanooga, Tenn.; Bruce Webster, Tennessee state urban forester; the late Bob Ray, founder of Bob Ray Company, Louisville, Kentucky; Kevin Caldwell, founder of Caldwell Tree Care, Atlanta, Ga, and a former TCIA board chair; Randy Cyr, founder, Green Tree Doctor, Greenville, South Carolina; Dave Leonard, founder of Dave Leonard Tree Specialists, Lexington, Ky.; Dr. Douglas Airhart, professor of horticulture, Tennessee Tech University, Cookeville, Tenn.; Sam Adams, operations manager, Cortese Tree Specialists; and, from left, Art Modderman, Grand Rapids Tree; Walt Money, Guardian Tree Experts; Dr. Alex Shigo and Jim Cortese at the first National Symposium on Systemic Chemical Treatments in Tree Culture in 1978.

They can supply you with, or direct you to, all of the information you need to get your state pesticide-applicator and restricted-use pesticide-applicator licenses, a business charter for your state and any other regulatory information you need to be legal – and legal is important!

Extension agents are very familiar with the specific plant insects, plant diseases and soils for their particular area of the country and recommended treatments for such. They usually have many publications, and they are constantly putting on training and educational sessions.

Education and training.

In each state, the agricultural extension service has entomology, plant-pathology, tree-identification and soils laboratories. For a nominal fee, samples can be sent in for diagnosis and analysis.

Lastly, when you have made friends with your extension agent, they can be a great source of client referrals. However, you should know that they usually give your name along with the names of other competent companies. They also usually do not endorse specific companies or products.

Mentors

I am where I am today not because of my intelligence or personal brilliance, but because I have been blessed by God and good mentors along the way. As I mentioned previously, I am a graduate of the University of Tennessee in Forestry, class of 1976. My former professors were my first professional mentors: Ed Buckner, Cary Schell, Dave Ostermeier, Ivan Thor, Hal Core, John Rennie and others. Then, in February 1977, I met Dale Dodds of the Mauget Company while learning how to give trees shots. Not long afterward, I met Walt Money, a Mauget distributor and former president of Guardian Tree Experts out of the Washington, D.C., area.

Walt took me under his wing, and I followed him around the South for my first eight years in business, putting on eight injection seminars per year. He took me to his home and office in northern Virginia, discussing trees and business along the way. I learned what I call “Moneyisms,” such as, “You can’t make money in the tree business until you get out of the trees,” and “Plant-health-care treatments are the profit in the tree care business.”

Then there was the day in 1978 when I found myself at the first Tree Injection Symposium held at the University of Michigan, and I, a nobody, was sitting next to Dr. Rot, also known as Dr. Al Shigo. This was just before he changed our industry forever by instigating the revolution in arboriculture with his CODIT (compartmentalization of decay in trees) theory, sealing his fate as the father of modern arboriculture. I am, and all of you are, “Shigots!” A Shigot is a sapling of the Shigo. He has touched us all.

There are two tidbits of conversation from that day in Michigan so long ago that I remember today as clearly as if it were yesterday. Dr. Shigo said, “If you want to know trees, you must touch trees.” Dr. Shigo, who would never endorse a specific method of tree injection, also said, “If you are going to inject a tree, make the wound as small and as shallow as possible; however, we will have arrived when we can introduce therapies via the lenticels of the bark.”

In 1978, I was a sponge and absorbed all I could. I did not know what a lenticel was. But I can tell you now that we, as an industry, are arriving because there are therapies for trees that can now be delivered via the lenticels of the bark. I also can tell you I am saddened because many of the systems we use today make much larger wounds in trees than I would like.

Then there are my colleague mentors, too numerous to mention here.

From our mentors and colleagues, we learn both the good and the bad. Hopefully, we learn more of the good things about arboriculture. The good thing about mentors is that they help us to not re-create the wheel over and over. We have the ability to learn from our mentors’ successes and mistakes. I still consider myself a sponge. When we stop learning, we start dying!

Education and training

Employee training in proper procedures for the various jobs is an absolute necessity.

Accidents happen for only two reasons: employees do not know what they are doing (lack of proper training) or they are not paying attention.

Education is a never-ending process and challenge. You must educate yourself before you can educate and train your employees. This does not mean you have to know everything; you do, however, need a conceptual understanding of each job in your company. You will find that many of your employees will become better at certain aspects of the business than you ever will be. This is alright. It is as it should be. I once met a fellow at one of my PHC seminars back in the late 1980s. He was distraught that he only had a high-school education. I counseled him to hire employees who were smarter than he was. He still had control of the business, but he could use their smarts to help him build a first-class business organization. They could then train other employees. His is now one of the more progressive arboricultural firms in his area of Tennessee.

If you treat your employees as trained monkeys and not as skilled craftsmen and craftswomen, then you are missing the boat. It is easier to correct an employee who has done something wrong than to start over from scratch. You have to instill pride in your employees. They have to understand why they have to do a particular treatment in a particular way. By treating the employee with respect and by teaching them, you have long-term employees. They become committed to you. Yes, some will jump ship, but many will be appreciative and will stay with you.

It is hard to find “good” employees today. It was hard to find “good” employees in the 1980s. Thus, you have to train them and educate them in what needs to be done. You supply them with books. You send them to conferences and seminars. You hold in-house training sessions. You play all ends against the middle and do what is necessary to get them trained. Here are some local examples of training I have used:

• Through the University of Tennessee agriculture program, we could, for a nominal fee, hire a specialist to train my PHC crew on how to prune different species of fruit trees properly.

• The local Red Cross, for a nominal fee, would come to our offices and train the employees in first aid.

• The local highway patrol would come out to the office and give lessons on how to drive more safely and defensively.

• At no cost to me, I could get the local TVA credit union to open savings and checking accounts for my employees. It always amazed me how I was not just an employer, but a marriage counselor, financial advisor and even a barber for a few.

A few of the primary goals of this training are to:

• keep your employee from accidentally injuring or killing themselves, your client or a passerby;

• keep your employee from accidentally killing or disfiguring your client’s plants and/or property; and

• improve the employee’s attitude and sense of self-worth.

Educated employees are usually happy employees.

Next

In the next segment of this series, we’ll discuss schools of thought on PHC programs and get into sick trees and plants, fertilizers and fertilizing.

Jim Cortese is an ISA Board Certified Master Arborist (BCMA); a member of the American Society of Consulting Arborists (ASCA); president and CEO of Jim Cortese Consulting Arborist, based in Knoxville, Tennessee; and president, CEO and the major stockholder of TIPCO (Tree Injection Products Company), Inc., a seven-year TCIA Corporate Member company also based in Knoxville. He started both TIPCO, a distributor of plant-health-care products nationwide, and Cortese Tree Specialists, Inc., in 1977. Cortese Tree Specialists, a TCIA member company since 1980, had an average of 15 full-time employees for the 35 years prior to its sale to The Davey Tree Expert Company in 2013. He also serves as a TCIA business mentor.

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