Today is Arbor Day during a pandemic. And while normally, communities would be gathering to plant trees, instead many today are quietly honoring the solace nature brings in such a crisis. Unfortunately, it’s also a time of financial insecurity for many, including landscape clients. In such times, landscape maintenance can be one of the areas where people tighten the strings and reduce their budget. When working with clients, it’s important to know how to handle such reductions while still keeping a contract. Luckily, landscape maintenance is often not all or nothing.
It can be difficult to advise a client where money can be saved knowing we want to do what’s best for the entire landscape. However, there are many things you can consider when reducing an annual proposal for tree health care. Is the treatment preventative or therapeutic? Is it an aesthetic issue or something more detrimental? The more variables we can consider, the easier it will be to meet a client’s budget and feel good about the choices made.
Conversation with the client is the first place to start. Often clients have far different priorities than we may assume. For instance, it’s easy to think that an aesthetic issue, such as apple scab, would be a good place to start reducing cost compared to treatment of a more detrimental issue, such as needle cast on a blue spruce. However, ugly trees can be depressing, especially if there is a personal attachment to the tree. What if your customer planted that crab apple on Arbor Day with their family? That tree is going to be their number one priority, whereas the blue spruce may have a specimen maple located behind it that could be better appreciated with the spruce gone. Only with conversation can we find what the true priorities are. Our professional opinion of health and design can play an important role in that conversation.
After prioritizing with the client, the fastest way to reduce a budget is to reduce labor. Most plant health care is heavily weighted towards Spring applications. But when we build plans with alternative treatments that spread labor more evenly throughout the season, everyone wins. It allows service of more customers with a smaller work force, which in turn it makes you more efficient.
Many pests such as caterpillars emerge in the spring as new growth emerges. Spring defoliators are far more hazardous to a tree’s health than late season defoliators, therefore they are a priority to control. Unfortunately, you cannot spray all our client’s trees on the same day. It may take weeks to get through your customer list, especially in bad years with large gypsy moth populations. Using injectable products, spring damage can be greatly reduced by a fall application done the previous year. By spreading the work load out, it allows room to take on new clients in the normally busy Spring season.
Health Is Wealth
Obviously, healthy trees require less care. Using a paclobutrazol-based plant growth regulator has many benefits beyond growth regulation. It reallocates the plants use of energy and changes the physical composition of the leaf material. When the energy a tree uses on outward growth is reduced, an uptick is seen in the production of stored energy and defense compounds. On trees treated with a growth regulator, we see a much thicker leaf cuticle which makes the tree a less favorable host for many fungal pathogens. There’s a great reduction in sycamore anthracnose, drought stress, apple scab, and many other common issues typically treated in the spring. In the Northeast, one application of growth regulator will provide three years of benefits and can be applied any time the tree is transpiring. A growth regulator, then, allows you to greatly reduce your spring fungicide applications.
Preventative plant health care is often seen as a good place for reducing the budget since it means putting money into a problem that doesn’t even exist. However, preventative plant health care is often far cheaper than therapeutic care. When we can make minor adjustments far in advance of an issue, it takes very little input. Typically, when a tree or shrub falls to an affliction such as verticillium wilt, borers, phytophthora, armillaria root rot, or a host of other issues, it’s due to an existing level of stress on the plant. Stress comes from inciting factors such as compacted soil, drought, poor soil composition, or the urban environment in general. While these stresses can start the spiral of death, they can also be remedied on a limited budget for great long-term results. When only secondary issues directly in front of us are treated, we are doomed to get stuck in a repetitive circle of costly treatments that can easily exhaust a client’s budget. The most economically viable plan is to treat the issue, but then start treating the inciting factor of stress.
For instance, there are many ways to de-compact soil. Using an air spade is a common way to alleviate compaction, but is very high in labor. And if you only air spade and walk away, the benefits will be temporary. It’s still the same soil under the same conditions. Another way to de-compact soil is to increase microbial activity and organic matter. When you change the soil composition, you make a lasting change.
Try adding a natural whole tree mulch over the root zone and then applying a molasses based liquid fertilizer to the newly created mulch bed. The liquid fertilizer greatly increases microbial activity so the mulch will start to biodegrade at a much faster rate. This will naturally de-compact the soil and add much needed nutrients to plants. This long-lasting effect of soil amendment will greatly reduce labor over time.
When we think outside the box of normal treatment methods, we can come up with many creative solutions. Budgets are always changing and so must care of trees. Considering all options when maintaining plants, getting ahead of problems before they start, and having good conversations with clients, will put you in a much better position to meet the needs of potentially reduced budgets.
Brewer is Northeast Regional Technical Manager for Arborjet, manufacturer of formulations and delivery systems in plant health care.
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