Root Riot: Bob’s Tree Preservation
Something is rotten in the state of Louisiana, but this time it’s not the politics. The land we love and fight so hard to protect from hurricanes, oil spills, and erosion is quietly failing. Louisiana, once famous for its rich, river silt infused earth, has a major urban soil problem. The decline in soil quality due to shifts in landscaping, gardening, and maintenance methods has resulted in the slow, widespread death of trees and vegetation. This, in turn, decreases the amount of clean air. It also greatly reduces the wind barrier protection trees can offer people and property during hurricanes. Less trees to hold the soil together also means more erosion, which, if left unchecked, experts say might leave New Orleans under water in as little as 50 years. Though poor soil quality is a relatively simple problem, the solution is one that no one seems to want to talk about—no one, except Bob Thibodeaux of Bob’s Tree Preservation.
“I’m deeply worried about man’s disconnection from nature. We have so many trees coming down on people’s houses, falling on people, toppling over during storms, and 90% of the time, it’s because of soil decline. That means it’s avoidable,” he says. Thibodeaux has been in the green industry since childhood, when he used to sell potted plants and trees he grew to his neighbors, along with a rich mixture of mulch that he developed from fallen tree limbs and forest debris. Now, at 70 years old, he is the owner of a successful tree preservation company that maintains the live oaks on plantations, university and hospital campuses, and homes across Louisiana.
“I was fortunate to be mentored by people who know the land, know how to take care of the land. Nowadays, that’s our biggest problem,” he says. A lack of awareness and education is spearheading this disconnection. Thibodeaux believes the green industry must do more to make people understand the eco-system, though the reason many in the industry haven’t done it is that they make money off of people not being able to do it themselves. As a result, people don’t know how to manage their own land. Professionals can fix the temporary problems, but not the bigger picture. “We (and by we I mean the green industry) need to educate people,” says Thibodeaux.
“I don’t want to see my grandchildren throwing paper, plastic, aluminum, and tree branches all in the same dumpster. All those things can be reused, but now the attitude is out of sight, out of mind. You throw those branches that fell in the yard away and you don’t have to think about them anymore.” Thibodeaux explains that leaving fallen branches in place is a way of feeding the tree; the carbon from the decomposing branches goes back into the soil and does what no synthetic fertilizer can. “Bottom growth—roots—is what utilizes nutrients in the soil and supports and anchors the tree. Without good roots to support the tree, it will fall.”
Many people eager to fix their soil think they need to take it to a lab to get tested, but Thibodeaux scoffs at this notion. “God didn’t make this land so complicated to take care of. People have been doing this for hundreds of years without taking samples to the lab,” Thibodeaux says. “I teach my customers some simple tests, how to dig into the soil and see activity. Put your shovel in the ground, I tell them. If it goes in easy, your soil is aerated. If not, it’s too compact and there isn’t enough air down there for the soil critters and bacteria. The mix should be roughly 25 percent air. The more earthworms and soil critters you see in your soil, the healthier it is. Soil also has thousands and thousands of microbes in each square foot. They keep the soil healthy, and their food source is organic matter (which is what is too often thrown in the dumpster instead of left to be reabsorbed into the soil).”
If you take the soil and smell it and it has a pleasant, aerated smell, it’s good. If it has no odor or a bad odor, it’s what is called anaerobic, which means it doesn’t have enough oxygen. The soil microbes and earthworms need five to seven percent of organic matter in the soil in order to survive—this organic matter also stabilizes the pH levels in the soil. Also look for at least three earthworms for every square foot of soil—any less, and they’re not happy in that soil for a reason. “I find these little tests are a very simple way to see if your soil is good or not. It’s not rocket science, you just have to know to do it,” he says.
Now that we know the problem, what is the solution? Here are some simple ways to turn your dirt into rich, natural soil: Aerate the soil or have it aerated by someone who knows how. Use compost tea (a liquid fertilizer) and compost in the form of eco-mulch made from native vegetation. Refrain from traveling over wet soil or mowing after a rain (doing this compacts the soil and suffocates the soil microbes). Also refrain from parking unnecessarily on green or lawn areas. Don’t use inorganic materials like red mulch and synthetic garden products. Instead, fertilize your soil with recycled organic and biodegradable matter already on your property—kitchen biodegradable, paper scraps, and fallen vegetation. If a log or limb falls, leave it there. The larger the limb or log, the larger the carbon content and the more important it is to leave it on site in log or mulch form, instead of cleaning the area and hauling it away.
If you don’t like the look of fallen logs and limbs decomposing in your yard, Bob’s Tree Preservation offers a welcome solution. “We take your logs and limbs from your property to be chipped and mulched, preferably composted, then returned to the original site while being mindful of our carbon footprints.” Bob’s Tree Preservation offers this service for individuals, but they also do this for companies and nearby cities. “I’m writing a book about this. The title is a French phrase, one that my wife doesn’t like very much, but it’s meant to be funny: ‘C’est la terre, couillon!’ It means, ‘It’s the land, silly!’ To be a gardener or to take care of any piece of land, you must learn to take care of the soil,” says Thibodeaux. “You’re only as good as your roots.” ✦