Joe Russell believes in the adage: Treatment without diagnosis is malpractice. In fact, he’s staking his reputation on it. “No matter how good our skills, we can’t cure a sick or injured tree if we don’t know what’s wrong with it. It’s a process; we’ve got to analyze the problem before we can prescribe the solution.”

Russell and his wife, Shari, are certified arborists with degrees from The Ohio State University in landscape horticulture. Their growing business, Russell Tree Experts, is centered on a holistic approach to tree care.

“Because of a myriad of factors such as the heat island effect [temperatures ranging 20 degrees higher in metro areas than in surrounding forest] soil compaction, rainfall runoff [which is often exacerbated by soil compaction], pollution and lack of proper care in the urban environment, we are losing our protective canopy,” states Russell.

A native of the small farming community of Wellsville, Ohio, Russell always knew he wanted a career supporting life and making it better. After graduating from college, he began working surveying power line and pole locations throughout the Ohio countryside.

Removal of this tree is safe and efficient with a rear-mount loader. Photo: Russell Tree Experts

“My job was to mark GPS coordinates and note where tree growth had interfered with power lines or poles,” he explains. This led to a part-time stint with Dayton Power and Light Company as a contract forester. “Shari and I were able to take the extra income to buy some of the equipment that we would need in starting our business and in starting our family. Like most companies, we began as a bootstrap operation, with a 12-inch chipper and an old truck, but because we concentrated on saving trees and not removing them our business grew pretty quickly. Between 2010-11 we grew 82 percent, and so far this year we are up 64 percent. That says a lot about us, but it also says something about the people we serve; they want healthy, long-lasting trees and foliage in their communities.

“Most of what we do is in residential, however about 15 percent is commercial and another 10 percent is with various municipalities; we serve Columbus, Gahanna, Dublin, Westerville, New Albany, Worthington and also do work for the metro park system,” he continues. “We now have seven certified arborists on staff and can respond quickly to the needs of our clients.”

The crew includes three students from The Ohio State University working this past summer in what amounts to a paid internship. “You’ve got to give something back. We support our university and believe we can help train these future arborists in the best practices and procedures,” notes Russell.

Lightweight PHC trucks increase accessibility to sensitive areas. Photo: Russell Tree Experts

Best practices means that they will learn the holistic approach to plant health care (PHC) in an urban environment. Russell Tree Experts staff confer with clients about tree structure, how trees grow and what practices makes for a healthy environment, after which they might recommend one or more of the following disciplines.

Pruning – Tree pruning creates spaces between buildings, streets, other plants and utility lines. When Russell employees remove dead, diseased and dying limbs that might spread diseases or become safety hazards, they do so with respect for the environment. Little things, such as never wearing spiked boots when climbing, and big things, such as bringing in a crane to safely bring down larger limbs in a congested area, make the difference in a holistic approach.

Pest control – Integrated pest management (IPM) is the comprehensive collection of proactive resources used to reduce pest populations in trees and shrubs. Russell employees are trained to reduce their impact on the planet, while protecting the environment. The company’s IPM program involves biological controls including the use of horticultural oil. However, Russell cautions against a “one-size-fits-all” mentality.

Brace rods are being installed to support this codominant stem situation. Photo: Russell Tree Experts

“Horticultural oils can have a mineral oil base or a vegetable oil base, it’s important on the impact of the surrounding environment to be careful when choosing the right agent. Remember, it’s still a pesticide and should be treated with care and caution. It doesn’t do much good to spray a tree when the insects are dormant; they’ve got to be active for the oil to work effectively. And spraying during a hot or dry spell can actually do more harm than good, causing tree stress and other complications. Ours is not a do-it-yourself industry, there’s a reason why arborists go through a vigorous testing program.”

Fertilization – Tree fertilization, including creating a well-aerated source for growing roots, is important to the overall health of the tree. Shed plant material such as leaves, twigs and organic compost material like fruit is often raked away by well-meaning clients who don’t understand the ecosystem of tree life. Russell Tree Experts provides mulching and aeration and will supplement important nutrients that help plants grow with the vigor found in an undisturbed site.

The company also features what Russell calls “rootzone invigoration systems,” by using air spades to open air passages in the ground surrounding the tree trunk. “This allows for more and faster nutrient intake. Quite often, a distressed tree might have a root system that is entangled onto itself. We perform root-collar excavation, which allows the root system to breathe more easily and complete its essential job.”

Tree removal – Sometimes the decay in the tree is so bad that, “even with all the tools that modern technology offers, we must take a tree down. We love trees, but when the danger of falling limbs, or the possibility of diseased trees causing the spread of their illnesses to other plants and trees, we have no choice but to take them down,” explains Russell. The company practices technical tree removal, a series of steps taken using an arborist’s skill, strategy, ropes and coordination with ground workers to safely remove a tree piece by piece.

Dangerous storm cleanup is faster and safer with the right equipment. Photo: Russell Tree Experts

In considering Russell’s original thesis, that a misdiagnosis is often malpractice, the couple stresses that one of the first steps in finding the cure for a diseased or dying tree is to perform lab tests. “Not each and every tree has to have a complete workup, some tree distress is obvious with a visual inspection, but the more we know, the more we know how to proceed,” offers Russell. “The emerald ash borer is a prime example. I don’t know of any reputable firm that doesn’t know that insect on sight. The difference is in the methodology in providing a solution. Too many companies are ready to cut down a tree infected with the emerald ash borer, and that’s one solution, but we can treat most trees if the damage is not too pervasive.”

In addition to the aforementioned services, Russell Tree Expert, also performs cabling and bracing, which Russell believes is an essential element in tree preservation. “Modern cabling technology gives us a great many sophisticated tools to use, such as shock absorbers and noninvasive hardware. Of course, traditional steel tree cabling and tree bracing rods have their uses. Bottom line, what we would have had to cut down 10 years ago we can now save.”

The company also offers stump grinding and removal, and one division handles larger projects for municipalities and institutions.

The business operates out of a 1,600-square-foot office in Westerville, Ohio, where they maintain a spray rig, three chippers, two buckets, two chipper trucks, a log truck, a dump truck, three pickup trucks and a variety of hand-held equipment.

So, what’s next for the Russell Tree Experts group – continued steady growth through building an infrastructure.

“Shari and I are trained arborists,” Russell says. “We need to improve our ability in the business side of things: hiring good people who know customer service, billing, mechanics. All the things we need to get to the next level. We’re selling our wood chips and unprocessed firewood now, and that should have a positive effect on the bottom line. And, we need to line up more work for the winter months – delay work on jobs where there is no danger to life or property damage, and give the customer a discounted price for allowing us to begin work in the off months. We’ve never had a layoff, and we’d like to keep it that way.”