Jon Hillis from Environmental Design, Inc. (EDI) talks about what it's like to move large, historic trees as a career, such as how transplanting works, who can hire EDI and what it feels like to be a tree preserver.
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Doug Oster: Welcome to the Davey Tree expert company's podcast, Talking Trees. I'm your host, Doug Oster. Each week, our expert arborists share advice on seasonal tree care, how to make your trees thrive, arborists' favorite trees, and much, much, more. Tune in every Thursday to learn more because here at the Talking Trees podcast, we know trees are the answer. I'm joined this week by Jon Hillis. He's the Vice President of the Central Division of the Environmental Design Incorporated. That's in Austin, Dallas area. Jon, we want to talk to you today all about moving trees. Tell me a little bit about what environmental design does.
Jon Hillis: Thanks for having me. We're an interesting company, I think in a niche that's not well-known in the green industry. Certainly, tree transplanting has taken place for centuries, but our specialization is in really large tree transplanting, and large tree supply, and that sort of thing. We also delve into other parts of the industry, but it's an interesting group that we relocate trees that are 100 years old on a monthly basis, trees that are really heavy lifts.
I've seen that it's really the education throughout the industry and of the public. Although I've been with environmental design for 24 years, every week, or every month, I get the question, "I didn't know you could relocate a tree successfully that's that large." After hundreds and hundreds of trees, literally thousands probably that are successfully moved and I can go back and drive by them today, after 20 years later, and they're doing better than they were when we moved them, the efficacy is really there. It's a big daunting process for most people when they see it, but we've gotten it down to a science, and an art with our company and we've been able to do it successfully for a really long time now.
Doug: That was my first question, like how big can a tree be? That's been answered, a 100 year old tree. Talk about a couple of the reasons that people would have to move a big tree like that.
Jon: There are mandates in a few cities that-- Austin in particular has a code that's written. It's an ordinance that is enforced for trees of a certain size. Here in Austin, a tree named a heritage size tree is 24 caliper inches or larger. Those trees are protected. In most cases, we'll say developments and that sort of thing, developers and landowners are, if they have construction planned, it's mandated they either design around those trees or they relocate them. Generally, with trees that size, the relocation takes place on site as opposed to trying to go down the road with a 100 year old tree.
However, we have relocated some trees down the road on several occasions. That's one reason that someone would relocate a tree. Most of the time it's due to construction. We do golf course work for new construction and that sort of thing. Then many times, the developers want a large feature tree and a focal area. Maybe it's a restaurant with a deck area or something like that. Preservation of the large tree canopy, I think in every city should be a priority to be honest, but that's not always the case. That is one reason for sure that trees get relocated.
Doug: How did the company start with this? It's just a very, specific thing to do, but obviously it's needed.
Jon: It started well over 40 years ago. Tom Cox is our founder. It started out where it was more of a landscape type company. We ended up purchasing a patent for the world's largest spade from a gentleman. It's a 14 foot diameter hydraulic tree spade. Much different than what you might see, a truck mounted spade. This thing arrives on site on 318 wheelers and you have to put it together and assemble it using small cranes or large forklifts. It's a very efficient means of relocating trees up to say 18 inch calipers, so 40, 45 foot tall trees with 30 foot spread.
We got into it through that avenue originally. Then over time, there's trees that are much larger than that need to be relocated as well, the company started using different methods. We've patented a method here recently as well. It's called Arbor Lift, whereby we roll trees on cylindrical airbags. We don't use a crane to hoist them. Over time, we just saw that need, our owner kept growing the company and we saw a greater need for that type of service. It continued to grow over time and until the point where every division moves or supplies, large trees every month.
Doug: What would be the smallest tree that you would move? How do you decide if it's the right job for you?
Jon: I'll toot our horn here a little bit. We feel like we're the best in the world at what we do. We go from moving, just a little over a week ago, a tree that is over a million pounds in Florida, in Fort Lauderdale. It was an African rain tree actually for a developer of a high rise development, to seeing the need for other services within this green industry. We also will move trees that are, 2 to 4 inches in caliper.
Some of the other services we've gotten into over time are custom growing. We'll do tree farming for master plan communities and developers that have larger pieces of land and want to utilize their land and resources and grow trees out over time and actually save them very significant amounts of money on using their own trees and resources to grow them, and then planting them at a larger size.
At that larger size, when you have time and can do some custom grow operations, there's some real significant cost savings in doing that. As we've seen with the freezes in the last couple of years, especially in Texas and the South, and then construction demands continually shrink the supply of trees and different species, where it's getting harder and harder to locate, procure, the species you want.
We have increasingly gotten calls from developers and landscape architects to customize the offerings of species and trees and start with smaller trees on long range projects that may not be planted for two or three years. We can double the size of the trees and install them at approximately half the cost of what it would cost to procure them at the time of planting. Plus those people are able to get the trees they want initially right off the bat and they control their own destiny.
Doug: How about homeowners? Are you working just for a regular homeowner that might have this amazing tree, doesn't know that it could be moved, they're sweating it. They're like, "This tree means everything to me." Then they realize, "Well, haven't you heard about your company?" Then they're like, "Oh my gosh, I can't believe it. I can move the tree." Do you get some of that?
Jon: We absolutely get that. Every day we get a call like that for sure, which is a neat thing, and we're able to help somebody out, even if it is a small tree. I got a call to move a couple of memorial trees. You don't think about that. These were dedicated plantings, and time passes, and somebody decides they want to build a swimming pool. That tree's right in the way in their backyard, so we can help those folks out too.
Doug: Talk a little bit about the process. Is it different for every size tree?
Jon: It's a little bit different for different species. Most of the concepts are the same. Then it's slightly different as you move geographically, maybe from say Florida, where the root ball sizes are not necessarily that up. You don't have to create as large a root ball for a tree down in the South and some areas of the Southeast, as you would say in the North or the Midwest. The process we use is generally speaking, we try to adhere to a ratio of trunk caliper inches, or trunk diameter inches to root ball diameter inches. It varies. For instance, a 1:10 ratio, if you have a 4-inch caliper tree, you might have a 40-inch diameter root ball. It depends on seasonality, condition of the tree, and that sort of thing. There's different methods obviously to relocate the trees that we utilize as well, depending on size, species, and that sort of thing.
Doug: How about timing? As you said, the season. Sometimes the tree has to be moved, something's happening, and the season doesn't matter. It's either the tree is moved or it's going to be cut down. Talk a little bit about when the best time is for you to do this job, and I'm sure it depends on what part of the country we're in.
Jon: It depends on what part of the country you're in. As you said, we can't control construction schedules all the time. You can't fit those with the season. There's an optimal time, obviously, in most cases to move trees. In the South and the Midwest, the optimal time is say, October through February. However, we use different measures like root pruning in advance to harden off roots, so we'll cut those roots, some of the surface roots early on, take care of the tree, mulch it, do some health improvement tasks like fertilization, some insect treatments, supplemental watering. Then when we can come back, and actually fully excavate the tree, and move it to its new home.
We relocate trees. I don't shut down my business in August here just because it's hot. We will take some more extreme measures to mitigate for that seasonality that we're missing out on, so we may create a larger root ball. We may take some different precautions before we relocate the tree. Then aftercare is probably as important, if not more important than some of the processes that go into it if you do it right.
Doug: Let's talk a little bit about aftercare. I want to hear about that. What are you doing when you move a huge tree to make it happy once it's in its new spot?
Jon: We give the tree a really good start to begin with, and we oversize the root balls. Generally, what we'll do is, we'll suggest an automated watering system, either drip tubing, that's evenly spaced across the entire root zone area, plus even beyond the root zone area to encourage those roots that you've cut to move the tree to grow out into that native soil or your amended backfill soil that you put around that tree. You want consistent moisture. Not too wet, which causes fungal issues, and obviously not too dry, which causes desiccation and death to the roots. There's a balance in there, but it's mostly about managing moisture. I would say the most important thing is the moisture management.
Doug: Does it have to be cabled up there so it doesn't fall over, or when it goes into the planting hole, it's ready to go, it can stand on its own?
Jon: Smaller trees generally might need some staking or some guiding. Our larger trees that we move, say heritage-size trees, 24, 34, 40-inch trees, they generally don't need any support, unless we see some deficiency in the root ball, they're standalone. The other main thing about aftercare though is also drainage so that you're making sure you're not planting a tree in a bathtub, in a solid rock area, or you have some way to relieve that water.
Doug: It must be quite a show. I can just imagine everybody from the area coming out to watch this.
Jon: We do get an audience. Many times we have to beat them back and get them away from the danger zone, but it is a fun process. It's something that I've had passion for for years. You can be driving by, people tell me, "I see this tree slowly moving while I'm driving by that looks like the forest is moving. It creates some rubbernecking on the road sometimes." it is quite a sight and not something that you would see every day. Some people don't see it in a lifetime, but it's something we enjoy.
Doug: It really seems daunting to me. I think it seems daunting to a lot of people to think about moving a tree like that because it's nature. I know the tree has to make it. I know that's your responsibility and everything, but, boy, it just seems daunting and quite a responsibility.
Jon: It is, and we feel the pressure to some degree on these moves. We like to say that we've done so many of them. We go above and beyond in our preparation and our method. We're a mix of heavy construction meets some engineering, meets tree care afterwards that really makes these things successful. We've done it so many times now, we've figured out the formula.
We use pipe platforms that we drive under these trees, and it's got to be a steel with the rigidity to not bend and flex and have deflection in there so that we can keep the integrity of that root ball solid. We have a method that we pad in, where we put cross beams across all of those pipes, and we chain-tension them. There's a lot of some heavy-equipment-type work that goes on as well, that's not, I would say, your standard landscape contractor could necessarily perform. It is a responsibility.
Moving these trees, if these trees do not survive, we're well over 98% in every giant tree that we move. If they don't survive, that word gets around really quick. That reputation is hard to build up over time. As the saying goes, it takes a really long time to build a reputation up and a really short time to tear it down. We like to continue to do the process, as in improve those processes every year. We're constantly looking at trying to find ways to improve how we're doing things in order to keep that success.
In the end, we're a service company because we have a client and an end user. We want these trees to be viewed by the public too and enjoyed by the public, but we need a satisfied client in the end, and we try to keep that basic tenet for our business.
Doug: Tell me a little bit about your relationship with Davey. At what point do they call you in?
Jon: Davey, they own a small portion of our group. We purchased their large tree moving division some years ago. We have a great synergy with Davey. We're like a sister company to them. They're really old, established company with a great reputation. They have offices all over the US. We cover a couple of offices in the east and west, and north, and south, and they cover the entire country, and we do as well. We have relationships with them, their sales representatives, and their district managers, and those guys know about us and what we do, so they're pretty well-versed in our capability.
Also, we like to utilize their capabilities in tree care and pruning. They're really masters and experts at that. Many times we get them involved and partner up on these jobs where we're moving a large tree, and they can do that really important part of performing the aftercare on the trees. Many times they've got so many guys out there, and they touch so many different points in the industry that they'll recommend our services when they find a client might need a large tree relocation or a large tree supply.
Doug: Is there a way to tell a homeowner when not to try and move a tree on your own, when it should go to the professionals? I'm sure you get that question a lot. I get that question a lot where people just like, "I want to move this tree," and they send a picture, and I'm like, "Call a pro, you're crazy. That tree is way too big" I guess this is a case by case?
Jon: It's definitely case-by-case. We have certain divisions that handle mostly commercial work, but we do also perform residential work. I would say that a homeowner, if you have even just a 2-inch caliper tree, needs a chunk of dirt that's going to weigh a couple of hundred pounds.
I think in order to do that successfully-- If you're digging it out of virgin soil, it's a lot heavier than say a 30-gallon pot at a nursery that has a lighter soil medium. I'd like to say that maybe that's the 2-inch mark is probably where you want to cut it off as a homeowner unless you've got access to some machinery and a little more know-how, then that's probably where I would go.
Doug: If you don't get that chunk of dirt on the bottom of that tree when you're taking it out, your chances of survival are not very good.
Jon: They go way down. You're exactly right. a 3 or 4-inch tree also, sometimes you look at-- We never want to cut a tree down, obviously, but we're the tree preservers, if you will. There are times where we will advise a client that if cost is not necessarily the issue at times, or it is, then we may advise them, we can plant a new tree that's even larger than this for less than it would cost to move this tree.
There are those instances as well. it's a good idea to contact a professional that knows what they're doing and can give you that kind of advice.
Doug: Jon, before I let you go, you led me right to my next question. Talk about how good it feels to be a tree preserver.
Jon: That's really a big deal for us. I think that we need more preservation of large trees, especially large trees. There's a multitude of reasons of course for the-- Becoming a big deal now is obviously carbon credits and things like that and carbon sequestration. That market's still finding its way. Preserving large trees and heritage-sized trees, trees that are, 40, 60, 100 years old or more, I think that's a really important thing for us to continue to do. It makes me feel really good.
I've been doing it for a long time now, but every job is different, and I really look forward to every big move that we do, and I think there's a great deal of satisfaction there in that we can help, the public, we can help people enjoy these large trees for years and centuries to come in some cases. I think our company has done a really good job of continuing that, and that's what we want to keep doing.
Doug: Jon, I have to tell you, that was absolutely fascinating. I could talk for another half hour with you about moving big trees like that. It is so cool, and what a great thing you're doing. Thank you so much for your time.
Jon: Really appreciate the opportunity, and I can plug treemover.com.
Doug: You got it. Thanks again.
Jon: Thank you.
Doug: I hope you found that as interesting as I did. I don't know about you, but I'd love to see how one of those big heritage trees is moved. Tune in every Thursday to the Talking Trees podcast from the Davey Tree Expert Company. I am your host, Doug Oster. Do me a big favor, subscribe to the podcast, so you'll never miss an episode. As always, we'd like to remind you on the Talking Trees podcast, trees are the answer.
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