One pro digs up big business

How many times have you heard this: Do one thing, and do it well. There’s nothing wrong with diversity, but there is also nothing wrong with focusing on the core business.

That is the mantra at Colorado Tree Spade. The company, located south of Denver in Highlands Ranch, has a range of tree spades, investing in equipment that allows it to serve tree moving needs not only in the metropolitan Denver area, but also on specialty jobs across the country and in Canada. Because of that, it can make a profit without ever pruning or fertilizing a tree.

Photos courtesy of Colorado Tree Spade.
This rig owned by Colorado Tree Spade is one of only three Holt 124s in the country, and it can save and move trees up to 24 inches in diameter.

The other mantra at the company is: “These trees can be moved, they can be saved.” Those are the words of owner Susan Pfeifer, who bought two used tree spades in 1984 more as a business venture than a desire to be in arboriculture. She saw it as a good way to make a living because a friend of hers had been doing it. However, as the company grew over the years, she also came to realize that this was an important service. Even large, unwanted trees can be saved, moved and valued by another owner.

A tree spade is an unusual piece of equipment, in that it digs a tree out of the ground, transports it to a new site and replants it without the excessive manpower needed to box or bag a tree. It’s highly specialized, and it isn’t cheap. Pfeifer says she charges $2,500 to move a large tree, which at her business is 24 inches in diameter. With high fuel costs, it is expensive to transport trees any distance, and the health of the tree must be considered. If it is in poor health to start with, it may be a risky proposition to extract and move it.

Colorado Tree Spade owns 11 spade trucks, ranging from 24 to 124 inches, which is the diameter of the hole that’s dug. The Big John 24-inch spade will easily remove a tree up to 1.5 inches in diameter, roots and all. The Holt 124 is designed to remove an 18-inch tree, but Pfeifer says they can stretch that to 24 inches under the right circumstances. She notes that there is one spade that is larger, called the White Elephant, but there is only one of them in the U.S., and it would not be efficient for her to buy one.

The spade removes the dirt at the destination site.

“These are the largest spades in Colorado,” she says of her collection, and she will send a truck and crew a long way if the economics are right. She needs to have a good price and a number of trees to move in order to send a truck to Florida or California, which she has done in the past. The company, which has three full-time employees including Pfeifer, can move any species of tree. However, most of their work is in the winter, because deciduous trees are best moved when the leaves are off.

Custom rings are lifted around the tree so that branches can be tied for transport.

The process is pretty simple, once you have the right tree spade and an experienced operator. The spade first digs a hole where the transplant tree is destined to go. Then, it moves to where the tree is located and digs it out. The big spades have four or more hydraulic blades, and each works its way down into the soil a bit at a time. The tree is lifted free and planted in its new site. Often this is some distance from the original site, though the Holt 124 is too heavy and tall to use on the highway, so it is used only to move trees short distances.

There is prep work to be done with tree branches so that they can be tied against the trunk for digging and transport. The company has built a series of custom steel rings that open and fit around the tree and squeeze the branches in tight. A crane or the company forklift is used to raise the rings from the bottom upward, and the branches are tied tight as the ring elevates. The ring comes off the top when the branches are all tied down. The rental crane is the only piece of equipment the company doesn’t own. Most trees lie horizontally on the truck during transport, but the Holt 124 carries such large trees that they lay at about 45 degrees on an articulated trailer.

The spades are tough and versatile, Pfeifer says, but they can be damaged by large rocks in the soil. Trucks have water tanks to provide a liquid lubricant in the soil as the blades penetrate. In general, the units are pretty low-maintenance, though expensive. The 90-inch machine cost $138,000, and the 124 was about $250,000. There are only three of those in the U.S., apparently, and a new one would cost a lot more now.

Now that the company has a full complement of spades, Pfeifer is concentrating on improving the business side of the company. She used to drive a truck and dig trees, but she wants to let her two capable employees do that while she focuses on finding more work. There are a lot of trees that could be saved and moved, but potential clients, like housing developers, still have a chain saw mindset.

“That’s a tough thing to deal with,” she says of seeing perfectly healthy trees being cut or bulldozed. She is on a campaign to inform the public that even large trees can be saved, and that her company is the one that can do the job. They have saved even large oaks, as well as many small trees and large shrubs. She says that the trees they have had the least success with are junipers and cedars, but they will try to save them if the client wants to take the risk. She has had some clients who will pay large sums of money to save a favorite tree.

“We try to be extremely honest with people,” Pfeifer says, because there is some risk involved, especially with large trees. The company doesn’t do any post-move care of the tree other than to water it in, which provides moisture and removes the air gaps from the soil to allow the tree to settle. On big jobs where large holes have to be dug, the company will bring in a tractor on a semi trailer just to move dirt around the site. Containers can be used to hold excess dirt if there is no room for it.

Basically, Colorado Tree Spade does not do any other tree work. It has a stump grinder and a wood chipper, and it will use them if asked by a client. They don’t tackle trees larger than the Holt 124 can handle, because that would require boxing it with hand labor. Pfeifer really wants to be able to fill downtime with more spade work. She is putting out brochures, has a nice Web site (www.coloradotreespade.com), has had good success with the Yellow Pages and is spreading the word among the tree care companies she works with. In particular, she wants businesses to know that they can have unwanted trees moved and encourage municipalities to pass regulations against killing trees in developing areas. She promotes the spectacular part of the company—the big tree spades—and picks up work for the smaller equipment because of it. She is also doing the paperwork to be certified as a woman-owned business, which can get her work as a minority with the city of Denver. As a woman in the man’s world of heavy equipment she occasionally meets some client resistance, but she also tries to make it work in her favor.

The Holt 124 tree spade is ready toexcavate a sizeable tree for moving. Once the tree is in the ground its branches are untied and the soil is watered in.

Pfeifer will try to find a home for an unwanted tree if it is attractive and healthy. She keeps a list of people who want trees of a certain type, and she will buy trees for them from developers or homeowners who want a tree removed, knowing that she can resell it. She will also supply nurseries or tree care companies that are looking for mature trees for specific sites. As a last resort, she will remove a choice tree at no cost and find a home for it.

Because these tree spades are so specialized, her employees are trained to do any job, including maintaining and repairing the rigs. Her job supervisor, Jeff Wolff, says that the mechanical and hydraulic components are reliable and hardy; some trucks have over a million miles on them. Both the Holt and Big John rigs are built on Kenworth truck frames (they have one Freightliner), and he and the other operator, James Pfeifer (Susan’s cousin) can do a complete rebuild of truck and spade if necessary. Their oldest unit is 17 years old and has been completely rebuilt.

Wolff emphasizes that it takes a good heavy equipment operator to run these rigs. Even a good operator who has run other equipment will require a month to learn it, because there is also a lot of variation in soils and tree species. The easiest trees to move are deciduous trees like maples that have high limbs. One of the most difficult is ponderosa pine, because it has stiff, brittle branches. Spruce and fir are also fit for transplant success.

However, there is a lot of weight on these rigs when they hold a tree, or even just soil. The Holt 110 weighs 87,000 pounds empty and is 75 feet long, Wolff says. The Holt 124 weighs 97,000 pounds empty and is 81 feet long and 14 feet wide. A 24-inch tree will weigh another 40,000 pounds, and the soil around it is heavy, too. However, even one of these big rigs can be moved into a residential yard by a skillful operator to remove a tree, and the crew is small.

“All it takes is two people, and there are a lot of times when I do it by myself,” Wolff says. The driver acts as the spade operator, and he or she learns a lot about trees over the years.

In fact, Pfeifer, who started out as a businesswoman and then became a heavy equipment operator, now could be considered a certified tree lover. In her zeal to promote the use of her tree spades, she has found a worthwhile cause: saving trees that would otherwise be destroyed.

Don Dale is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor. He resides in Altadena, Calif.