The Australian Arbor Age. Words by Andy Hempsall / Images by Rob Bodenstaff
As a self-confessed student in observation Rob Bodenstaff has spent the last 30 years pursuing the better management and utilisation of trees in WA’s diverse urban landscapes.
Some may think he’s a bit ‘New Age,’ but after our short interview we think Rob Bodenstaff may just be on to something in the way he not only manages, but also approaches the every aspect of tree care and utilisation. I hope after reading this it will have some influence on you too.
After graduating in Horticulture in the late 1970s, when lopping was the traditional and only way trees were being managed, he recognised that treating trees in a similar way to pruning a rose bush was fighting with the trees natural habit and was inducing unwanted outcomes.
It was this realisation that set Rob on his own course of discovery in ways to manage trees more effectively. This led him to start Arbor Centre in 1985 which in turn was incorporated in 1989. Since then Arbor Centre has grown and currently employs 23 full time staff, taking on projects from as far afield as Eastern Australia, Singapore, China and Brunei.
Arbor Centre currently has five independent divisions covering Tree Surgery, Tree Transplanting, Tree Farming, Arboricultural Solutions, and Consultancy. “It’s this breadth of arboriculture, exercised under one umbrella, the unique characteristic in the industry that sets Arbor Centre apart. This also enables our aspiring employees to gain a broad and holistic appreciation of what arboriculture has to offer, as well as the opportunity to experience, first-hand, the level of detail and science that underpins the success of trees in our urban landscapes”.
Over the last 30 years Rob has also been involved in some quite epic tree relocations such as the successfully relocating an iconic 750 year old Baobab tree in the Kimberly to the ‘Rivers’ outlook at Kings park in Perth or transplanting a 30mx30m Banyan in Singapore in 2000 or more recently Transplanting Rain Trees in 2015 as part of Singapore’s 50th anniversary of independence. All of these works provided their own unique challenges and, without being in tune with how the tree would react and the level of aftercare it would need, none of them would have been successful.
This approach is one of the areas that set Arbor Centre apart, “There is no doubt that the transplanting of big trees is a spectacle that draws attention. Having them survive, recover and present to expectations has been a challenge for many who give it a go. The common approach has been to encapsulate as big a piece of the root system as possible and develop the mechanical technology to move the often a hundred of tonnes of root ball and tree from A to B.
“We have taken a more sophisticated approach by developing ways to manage the root system of these large mature trees such that root ball sizes can be dramatically reduced (mature tree and root ball weights commonly ranging from 10 to 50t), and thereby enabling trees to be more easily transported an managed in getting them from A to B. These innovations have proven so successful that for the past 20 years we have had a division to do just that every working day of the year; and are able to provide free tree replacement guarantees for as long as the client wants (standard duration being 12 months).
Even after working in the industry for 30 years Rob still has the passion for his work, in fact he quite freely admits the more you learn about trees, the more you realise how little you actually know. It is this which has driven him to continue to learn and one of the areas he still enjoys is inspiring others to appreciate what trees have to offer and improving the way we deal with trees in urban environments. “It still feels like we are at the beginning and there is so much more to achieve, we are building a body of aspiring and loyal people that share in Arbor Centre’s sense of purpose and values. Education is also very important to us. The impact this is having on landscape architects, planners, engineers etc, in engineering trees into the landscape and improving the sub-terrain designs for trees in the landscape, and the successful retention of remnant trees within our urban precincts.”
Rob’s approach certainly seems to be paying dividends and it seems to be having a greater influence too, “There seems to be a shift in the industry, especially in WA where the industry had been quite fragmented, tree owners are expecting a higher level of knowledge and expertise being available to them; professions are also needing this to occur; Local Authorities are being badgered to lift in providing liveable cities. For us, this shift has rightly resulted in more focus being given to root zone management, species and urban environment interpretation; and recognising that these are no less important than canopy management.”
Finally we spoke about what advice Rob would give to an aspiring Arboriculturist, “Go for it, arboriculture will be an integral part of delivering liveable cities in Australia and without using your own initiative to make changes, it will remain as just another job. We need to demand our institutions deliver high levels of science in their training packages and we need to be picky in which ones we attend – it’s your investment – spend it wisely from the outset. If I could give one piece of advice to young aspiring tree managers, it is to ‘dig a hole’ and get to know and understand what the root system is doing for trees that you manage, and test the text book and product information with your own observations and those of local experts… Does the information at hand really apply in your soils for the species and the circumstances that you are getting to know?”