Out and About with AOLCPs

Shaping Beauty in a Chaos of Concrete
By Kathy LitchfieldFrom left: Ralph Padilla, influential tree care figure Alex Shigo, and arborist Chris Roddick

NEW YORK CITY – As a child, Certified Arborist Ralph Padilla would gather “his little band of friends” to illegally sneak over the fence in his Harlem neighborhood for a Hudson River adventure.

Being near a river, lake, forest or in the mountains is healing, he said, and he sought out nature wherever he could.

His mother, a native of Cuba in the pre-Castro days, was his first exposure to caring for plants. Ralph would watch as she lovingly pruned her roses and kept large pots of Sempervivum tectorum (hens-and-chickens) flourishing in the sunshine.

 “We moved to the Bronx when I was 12 and she was always talking about how beautiful it was in Cuba. I kept her sempervivums when she passed away,” said Padilla, a NOFA Accredited Organic Land Care Professional (NY course, 2010).

 Padilla’s first passion in life was music but after two years at the Westchester Conservatory studying piano, he chose plants as a more viable career and pursued horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG). What started as a job cutting grass quickly became a career caring for landscape trees and shrubs. He started tree climbing while working at NYBG.

 “I realized this was it,” he said. “This is what I’d be doing the rest of my life. I had a fear of heights but after climbing thousands of trees my fear faded away. I trust my equipment and I trust the tree. I was in my late 20’s at the time and I worked at NYBG for 10 years before I started my own business as a freelance mercenary tree climber. Companies would hire me to do jobs that their regular climbers couldn’t or didn’t want to do.”

In 1993 he received arborist certification from the International Society of Arboriculture; in 1996, he won the New York State Tree Climbing Championship and competed in the international competition held in Cleveland, OH.  Annually, he hosts a tree climber from another country in his home and has loved meeting adventurous folks from around the globe. This year he will host the 2011 world champion tree climber from New Zealand.

“The great thing about these tree climbing competitions is that they’re a way to coax tree guys into doing the right thing,” he said. “They start to get interested in their craft in a different way. When I left NYBG all the tree companies I went to work for used spikes. The whole purpose of these competitions is to encourage safety above all else. It’s fantastic. You become part of a greater community.”

In 1997, Padilla left NYBG to pursue his dream of founding a tree company based on high quality tree and shrub care.

“Too often I have seen the fast food version of tree care – when a large company has overwhelming overhead and responsibility dispersed over too many employees – jobs are rushed and employees are rarely educated,” he said.

Padilla Tree focuses on performing tree care “to exacting and obsessive standards,” for the health and long-term welfare of a tree or shrub. He has always used organic methods.

“Going organic has nothing to do with being tree hugging or Greenpeace. It works because it is pure science.”

His clients are mostly property managers, homeowners and landlords owning buildings or brownstones along the upper east and west sides of Manhattan, in the Bronx and some in Westchester County.

Sixty percent of the work he does with his four employees is removing trees because they are dead, or pruning them because they are destroying the siding on a house, hitting a window, covering a security camera or blocking a fire escape, for which the fire department imposes hefty fines.

“It’s always functional. It’s an artificial environment in the city. You’re trying to grow these things that grew to live in forests and you’re trying to get them to grow next to Louis Vuitton on Houston Street,” he said. “It’s unnatural, but people want to cram as much plant as possible into this environment. You garden in miniature in the city.”

Padilla, who has spent time up on the Big Apple’s rooftops, said the ecosystem existing high above the hustle and bustle of the city streets is incredible.

“People create elaborate green spaces on rooftops. It is really beautiful, although harsh and windy, and in containers, up there.”

What Padilla really loves is aesthetic pruning, like he engages in for his celebrity clients in New York and southern Connecticut.

“At first it can be nerve-wracking because working on their properties is so loaded, but once they’ve expressed satisfaction and delight in what you do, then it crosses over into pure pleasure,” he said. “They have grounds staff and landscapers but often I get to do the pruning.”

He also finds educating his clients as “one of the coolest things” about his chosen profession.

 “I just give them the science and the facts and tell them this is how it is,” he said. “I’ll explain why soil issues are so important. I’m like a preacher trying to convert people. The soil, the soil! I tell everyone it’s all about the soil.”

“You don’t usually need pesticides or fertilizers. A plant is being invaded by pests because it is unhappy. It’s unhappy because it’s a water loving plant existing in dry sun or it’s a sun lover growing in shade. There are landscapers who come onto a property and blow all the mulch and leaves out in the fall. It’s terrible. I talk about compost and how the soil is a living matrix of organisms like the ocean is,” he said.

“I took the NOFA course because I knew that when I knew more of the facts, I would be able to speak to people with more conviction, and people are more willing to be guided when they hear a voice with conviction. I’m a bad liar. I can’t make up stuff. If I don’t know something, I’ll tell you I don’t know. After the (NOFA) course I was really inspired to carry the torch for organics. I’m a plant person. I love the actual hands on part of what I do.  The business stuff is just horrible. I hate managing people, accounting, and nonsense like having to sell jobs and make jobs and all that. The business has burnt me to a crisp.”

Padilla makes it a point to climb trees at least one day a week, getting himself out of the office and into nature.

His wife and two daughters, 19 and 23, share his affinity for the natural world. His family bought their first home in Yonkers last November and Padilla spends “every spare minute” in his backyard garden. The first thing he did to claim the overgrown property was to get rid of all the lawn, tree saplings, pachysandra and English ivy. Then he went to Stone Barns for eight yards of compost.  Today his yard is a plant-filled haven of perennials, annuals, blueberries, vegetables, herbs and flowers.

“It is a mish mash of everything. Nature loves diversity, and I love being there,” he said.

For more information, contact Padilla at (718) 562-1498 or visit www.padillatree.com