Horticulturalist travels the world saving trees
You have been called “Mother Earth.” How do you define yourself?
I am an environmentalist. I am a biologist. I am an arborist. I am a mother. I have been called all kinds of names.
You did your graduate studies in Oregon. Tell me about that.
After a knee injury, I moved to Oregon with my parents and went back to school for postgraduate work. While I studied at Portland State, I volunteered with the Soil Conversation Corps. This allowed me to take courses at Oregon State simultaneously in crop science. At a field day, I was introduced to a Monsanto rep. She was about 4-foot-11-inches tall, super spry, and had a truck pulling a spray rig. I told her that I always wanted to be a farmer. As it turns out, my ancestry is a line of cotton growers in Czechoslovakia who emigrated to Texas. And so, I am, by lineage and choice, an environmental farmer. I asked her how I could get a job doing what she did. That is how I landed at Monsanto.
Did you ever worry about the chemicals and how they might affect you?
Prior to ever taking the job at Monsanto, I went through the toxicology of the products. I made all the phone calls. I asked all the questions that no one else asked before they took the job. They had great answers. I worked very closely with the environmental engineers at Monsanto. They were just like me. We were all environmentalists. They weren’t these crazy chemical people that just wanted to spray chemicals everywhere. It was very comforting to know that we all came from the same generation, that same place called “let’s save the planet.” When you can use an herbicide on the Galapagos Islands to prevent an exotic tree from obstructing the Galapagos Tortoises from getting water by using an herbicide, then that is a good story, and I like that. If you can make the waterways swifter so that the water gets out when there is a flood in a dry valley in California, then that’s a good thing. Unfortunately, the good stories often are missed. In the press, “If it bleeds, it leads.” I try to be the scientist with facts and help lead people to truth and an understanding. Eighty percent of us are reasonable, and they just want unfiltered facts. Monsanto brought me from Oregon down to Sacramento. I ended with San Francisco; their most pivotal territory in the United States, which was unbelievable to me. I love San Francisco. I had a nine-county territory, and my job was to grow the sales of Roundup herbicide and Glyphosate products in an area where people are averse to chemicals. In Marin County, for example, people would lay down in the road and wouldn’t let the Caltrans/DOT spray trucks come and spray the blackberries that prevented blight. People literally rode off a highway, one into the ocean. But, I was the diplomat and tried to help educate about the use of herbicides. In fact, I did a lot of habitat restoration projects that were pretty high-profile, like a project to save a duck habitat for the Ducks Unlimited folks. There, we did some aerial spraying. It was a great territory to do unconventional things. We also combined efforts with Phos-Chek. We would Roundup the areas adjacent to roads to keep the weeds out as a fire break. Meanwhile, the planes would drop fire retardants (another Monsanto product) to halt catastrophic firestorms. I loved my job and was there for eight years before moving to Florida, where I currently reside.
What did you do from 1994 to 2004 when you started your company, Biological Tree Services?
I worked in the aquatic industry. I had a very, very large territory and focused on different models of controlling the aquatic plants that impede water movement. In the Everglades, they have Melaleuca trees that are taking over and Australian Pines. In California, I also worked with similar exotic pest plants. So my knowledge base grew considerably.
How did you start your company 13 years ago?
I was working at Plant Healthcare, a company that was created by a scientist who had won the Waldenberg prize, which is like a peace prize, for his work in forestry. A million dollars from the king and queen of Sweden was the purse for the award. He partnered with a venture capitalist and they started a company selling mycorrhizal fungi. I took fungi courses in college, believe it or not. I had the biggest collection of fungi the professor had ever seen. They recruited me, and I started trying to sell something that no one could see. Guess what? No one would call me back. I was on a mission to prove the value of mycorrhizal fungi, so I would plant trees with, and plant trees without the product, plant tomatoes with, plant tomatoes without … just to show the difference. I worked with the largest tomato growers in the world. I worked with golf courses. I called all my old buddies, and they all believed me, but I could not get any landscape companies to buy. “That costs too much,” they would say. Well, what’s the value? I would show them empirical evidence. I would say, “Look at how big this tree is three years later. Look how big this one is.” By then, our customers have already paid and honestly, they don’t care. So I pivoted. Crops and agriculture cares. If you have more crops, a better load of tomatoes, you will care. But I found it impossible to meet the owners of these big tomato companies, and the farm managers do not really get to make the decisions. I kept running into challenge after challenge. My next-door neighbor in Lakewood Ranch, Florida, Alva Sotomayor, had a tree and we named it Fred. Fred wasn’t doing too well because her house was just constructed around it. The road was built on top of its roots, and there was grass on top of that. It was my job to save trees. So, I said, “Alva, I will bring home some stuff and do work on your tree, Fred, to save his life.” Guess what? Fred looked so much better and kept getting better and better. When Alva sold her home to a builder, he was building his own house on the river and had huge grand Live Oaks with the footers right next to it. Alva told him, “My next-door neighbor saves trees.” This 6-foot-8-inch Canadian, who scares people he’s so big, called me. He said, “I want you to do my trees.” I was trying to get the biggest tree landscape company I knew to do the soil injections of his trees. He said, “Screw them. Here’s my credit card. You go start your own company. I’m buying the spray rig, and you are going to do my trees.” So, I grabbed the kids, hired other children and then their parents. I had all these people working weekends. At some point, I had to tell my boss I needed an exit strategy because my company was growing. The first year, all by myself, was $110,000; the next year was $220k, then $440k, and it kept doubling. Today, we have a highly specialized clientele all over the world. We do everything from lighting to drainage, irrigation and turf. We save plants and trees that others have given up on.
What makes you different from, say, a landscape company?
Well, I really think I am a psychologist and a plant doctor. I take care of people and plants. The people in Sarasota where I live, and other pockets of the world I consult for, are highly attuned to their social responsibility for the environment. They get to a place in their lives where they purchase a lovely home, but they don’t feel right, and they don’t know why. Maybe one day they are sitting on their porch, looking out and going, “Hmm, that tree doesn’t look great, or that palm, something’s wrong with it.” Sometimes they call too late, but they saw it. Then they find me. I have a diversity of referrals from the extension office, to landscapers and other landscape companies because for years, I had been their manufacturing rep or their distribution rep. They knew me to have high integrity, and I do not steal clients. I receive many calls for special diagnosis. So, being a scientist and an arborist and being detail-oriented, I can see the nuances and flaws. I connect with a good number of surgeons because they see flaws. My clients are highly discerning; you could say picky, but I say discerning. They’re highly sophisticated. They know what they like, and they know what they don’t like, but they have difficulty “solving” the outside. They can do it inside with an interior decorator that goes, “Do you like this swath, do you like this color?” But, outside, there are no such exterior decorators to call that know all about the trees, the botany and the weeds and understands the science. So, they find me. It is not unusual to have a husband and a wife with radically different aesthetics. Usually there is one spouse that is linear — a literal black and white thinker, and there is one that is abstract, maybe artsy. Rarely do I find agreement on the front end of a project as to what they want. I will go for common ground to a plan. I often begin with the colors they like and/or don’t like. “Oh, I don’t like orange. I like blue, or I like pink.” That is enough, and I can start there. Admitting what they like and don’t like, that is all psychological. Over the years, I have built strong relationships and have great connections, great ties and great colleagues. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll find someone that does. It’s fun to create beautiful spaces for people that really appreciate the creation. It is equally satisfying to do the psychology of getting out of the “first timer” what it is they genuinely want to achieve. Oftentimes, they never know.
Motherhood. You have two daughters. Tell us about Emily.
Emily is 22, and she was born with Turner Syndrome. Turner Syndrome is a chromosomal anomaly. It’s not a genetic disorder. All of a sudden, during mitosis, one of the X chromosomes just disappears. In her case, her dad’s X chromosome disappeared. When she was born, she looked like a pretty little baby, but her feet were puffy. The nurses suggested she might have Turner Syndrome. Syndrome means a collection of things. Emily also had a heart issue, an anomaly of her aorta, where it was narrow. Her heart had to be repaired when she was five days old. So, she was in the intensive care cardio unit in Miami for a little over two weeks. After that, she was diagnosed with scoliosis. She has hypothyroidism. Everything has been managed. She had a lot going on during her childhood, and we would go to all the Turner Syndrome conferences to learn more. The most challenging part of Turner Syndrome isn’t the doctor visits. It is the nonverbal learning disorder. I am sure you have met people before that can’t look at you in the eye or do not read your expressions. They get too close to you because they cannot discern physical boundaries. Emily had to be taught about having a bubble. She breezed through all of the challenges, and all of her teachers and her whole community provided everything that she ever needed, and she’s extremely successful. Emily just graduated cum laude from Lawrence University, and she’s now on a fully paid scholarship in piano performance at University of South Florida for her master’s degree. I never told her she could not do it, and no one around her told her she could not do it. So, I think you have to be that parent that just loves your child, and the sky is the limit.
Physiologically, are there distinguishing characteristics with people that have Turner Syndrome?
Yes, I can pick out individuals with Turner Syndrome, but most people cannot. They tend to be short. Women our age that have Turner Syndrome are probably 4-feet-6-inches tall. They didn’t have the science of human growth hormone back in the day, so today they can achieve the extra six inches. Emily made it to 4-feet-11-and three-quarters. On her driver’s license, they gave her 5-feet. Their necks tend to be short on their body. They are wider. Their arms are held a little differently. Their ears are rotated back. Emily has a 30 percent hearing loss. The fact that she plays piano blows my mind. She can play Rachmaninoff, and you would not know that she couldn’t hear some of it. Their breasts tend to be further wide-set. With her scoliosis, Emily is slightly bent over with a pretty severe S-curve. Their hands and feet can be puffy with edema. They can have a boxy build, almost androgynous. Because their sense of space is off, you don’t want to put a glove on their hand and throw a football or softball because it potentially will hit them in the face.
You taught your girls as a single mother that they could do anything. Where does that come from?
I just believe in myself. I never had a barrier that I didn’t try to surpass. Being girls, when we were girls, they said you cannot do this or could not do that. I played football, and I was a cheerleader at the same time I played football. It was not because somebody dared me to do it. It was because I had curiosity. Why can’t I do that? Why is it only that the boys in the neighborhood get to be padded up and play football? That didn’t seem right. I have always had a sense of fairness and justice. I didn’t want to have any limitations. No limitations, not for me or my daughters.
Do you treat plants the way you treat people? You find the exceptions, what some might call “the misfits,” and you love them until they are strong.
I’m a misfit. I really relate, and it’s so funny because my sister’s the same. We’re from the island of misfit toys. I relate to those misfit toys.
Because no one loves them. It’s true. I don’t want to be a misfit toy. Nobody wants to be a misfit toy. There is no one else that would care to even ask that question. That’s the sad part. No one asks us those questions. Who really cares, you know? You do. I do. So, I take all the misfit plants. They’re broken, they’re tattered, and if I can save them and make them whole again, then they will live in my yard until they die. And if they rebound and do super well, then these beautiful plants become a gift to my favorite clients. I will give them my favorite one of these or my favorite one of those. But no matter what, the plant will be a gift because I am just renting this place on earth.
So, why did you care for plants and not people?
That’s a good, good question because there is an answer. If they die, it would not be as tragic. If the tree dies, and I just had one die, it is a different kind of sad. Just this week, there was a tree I wanted to live more than anything, but it was too far gone when I was brought in. It feels really bad, but you learn something from it. I cannot make everything live. I cannot take a tree that has five percent of life left and save it. The cancer already took it, but I didn’t give up trying. And for those that hired me, that’s what they wanted. The psychology for them was that they loved that tree, too. They let me do the other two trees, and thankfully, they are doing fine. We intervened in time.
Do you attach to trees?
There was a forester from Maine who told me once that he could see an aura around me when I was out near the trees. I thought he was making it up or being goofy or something. Every day he would come up to me and say, “There’s really this sense that I feel that the trees are safe with you.” I think it’s their own thinking, imposing it on me and the plants. But the truth is, I am doing everything that I know to do, at that moment in my life, for the plants’ well-being; for their plants. I’m not attached to people’s trees so much as I’m attached to them being attached to their tree. That is what matters to them and therefore is important.
If you could have one conversation with a person that is either living or dead, who would that person be and why?
A: Bill Gates. I want to be on his African team of saving hungry children. I don’t know him, but I found out that he already has an established means of getting things done in poverty-stricken areas of the world. I haven’t seen anything yet about mycorrhizal fungi or some of the technology that I do. They cut down trees to build fires to keep kids warm and boil food. I think that I have a place in that. I have always wanted to go to Tanzania and to untamed Africa. Someday, I’m hoping that my serendipity will introduce me to the Gates. They would know that I am a good bet, and I would be a good patron to help them with the goodness that they can do.
What do you want to be remembered for?
That I made a difference. That one person can make a difference. I changed the world in my own small way.