As a graduate of Texas A&M’s prestigious business management program, Joe Lawton wanted to do something that was interesting and impactful. He found his calling while working for Tree Shepherds. “Trees are a passion of mine. The International Society of Arboriculture [ISA] certification is the first step of the rest of my career. I want to become a Master Arborist. And what better impact than to help every tree I work with outlive me.”
In the fall, Lawton will celebrate five years with Tree Shepherds. His commitment to understanding and preserving urban trees is representative of the company’s founding principles. “We care for your trees” is not just a slogan to Lawton. It’s an intentional approach to making a difference for future generations in Denton County.
Lawton’s recent promotion to Director of Plant Health Care demonstrates Tree Shepherds’ dedication to a wholistic approach to tree care. Lawton is tasked with the oversight of the PHC team and its operations. His background in business management and IT translates well into troubling shooting tree work.
“You can put anything under a microscope, and then, be concerned at what you find. But in most situations, you need to step back and evaluate the tree. Does it look to be discolored or deformed? Does it have a lot of dead wood? If not, then perhaps there is not a serious problem. Maybe there are other things that can be done other than, say an insecticide. Perhaps we need to deal with other factors that might be stressing your tree, such as soil covering the tree’s root flares.”
“Trees are living things just responding to the environment. So, to give a tree its best chance of survival you have to take it all in–what’s above it, what’s below, the microorganisms around it.”
Lawton’s training as an arborist began with an interest in rock climbing. Through a mutual friend, he was introduced to Clayton Geer, part owner of Tree Shepherds. Geer, in need of another tree climber, offered Lawton an opportunity to transform his rock climbing hobby into a new career as a climbing arborist. Lawton found the journey up wonderfully challenging and transformational.
“To become a climber with Tree Shepherds, they want you to know how to prune from the ground. We do a lot of pruning work at Tree Shepherds. And it’s even harder to prune in the tree. It’s a whole different perspective from the canopy. You really have to combine some 3D spatial reasoning. You have to think about what’s below me, where’s the sun, what already has plenty of light opening, this area is thick, etc. Pruning is close to art. There’s art to rigging and removal, as well. We have some very gifted climbing arborists at Tree Shepherds.”
To be able to sit for an ISA certification exam, an arborist has to work in the field for three years or have a degree in horticulture or another related field. Lawton’s journey towards ISA certification was no exception. But it was working on a ground crew that made the difference.
“Pruning on the ground, I began to love the whole process. And then I realized that I was a tree nerd. And I’m definitely proud of it.”
For Lawton, being impactful as an arborist, includes helping homeowners make decisions about their landscape.
“When it comes to tree selection, you can throw a lot of money at a project to make it work, but sometimes it’s more responsible to work with the environment that you have.”
“As arborists, sometimes we have to set the expectation for the client for the home and the yard that they have. Most people don’t pick a yard because of the amount of sunlight or the soil composition. They don’t consider what the previous owner put into the yard. You have to take each stress factor into consideration when making a recommendation for tree care. And often, we have to approach one issue at a time to see how the tree responds. Trees respond, both positively and negatively, on a much slower time scale than other plants. Weather—freezes, droughts, excessive rainfall—are also unforeseeable factors that also come into play. It’s often challenging but always rewarding. Trees are miraculous. And if you do this job long enough, they will surprise you.”