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Leaf it to Us branching out in new directions

Photo: Tony Hooker
Leaf it to Us owners Brad and Nichelle Drew

By Tony Hooker
Growing up in Bluford, IL, Brad Drew wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, but he knew he wanted to work outside. Likewise, his wife Nichelle, who had other professional aspirations that were shelved for matters of the heart and family. I recently caught up with the Drews to discuss how they came to form Leaf It To Us and its steady growth, and to see what changes had come since I first interviewed them.

How long has Leaf It To Us been in business? 

<BD> Since 2014.

<ND> And this is the third year for the lawn and garden center. 

And now, you’re expanding your services and offering tree planting?

Yeah, we’re trying to branch out more. We’re doing tree planting, landscaping, and hopefully start growing our own plants.

How did you become an arborist?

I went to college after high school and got an associate’s degree in Horticulture. I always liked the outdoors and from there I just got into tree cutting and just kept branching off from there.

I saw what you did there! <all laugh> Where did you go to high school?

In Bluford, IL. Just outside Mt. Vernon.

You’re sitting there in Bluford in sixth grade thinking “Man, I want to climb 80 feet up in a tree and cut branches off someday?” <smiles>

No, we had a career day at the high school, and I thought “I’ve got to do something outdoors,” and Rend Lake College had just started a new horticulture class and I knew that would keep me outdoors. When we moved up here for Nichelle to go to school, the first job that came available was tree trimming, and I just kind of went from there. 

You worked for the city of Urbana?

Originally, I worked for the power company, with Nelson’s, and then from there I switched over and became an arborist for the city.

When did you move up here?

In 1999. Then, I worked for the power company for two or three years and then I switched to the city. I worked for them until, in 2013, I was half for them and half on my own, and then in 2014 I went full time on my own.

How about you, Nichelle? What’s your training in?

<ND> I’m actually a veterinarian. I just started helping him with the business side of stuff, especially while being home more with Caleb. I needed to be home more with him instead of working in my trade at the time, but I’ve taken a lot of business classes as well.

This probably wasn’t what your crystal ball fortune teller told you was going to be your future?

It was not the original plan! <laughs> My vet degree doesn’t go away, but I’ve learned a lot about plants and trees.

Is the business growing at the rate you thought it would?

The tree side of the business has exploded. I’d say the first two and a half years were kind of slow, but then after that it took off and now, in the summertime, we could be anywhere from three to five months booked out. Now, we’re hoping with word of mouth and advertising we can get the lawn and garden and landscaping to take off.

<ND> The nice thing about having our business in Villa Grove is that it’s really centrally located for Tuscola, Mattoon and Charleston, all the way to Champaign Urbana.

<BD> We have people that drive from Arcola and Paris. We’ve even had some from St. Joe. If you have the right plants, and we’re working on getting more specialty plants, people will drive to find that unusual or unique plant that the box stores aren’t going to have. 

What would be an example of that?

We’ve got Japanese Maples that are coming. We’ve got a few cedar trees that are different. We’re getting into more of the weeping trees and the Japanese Maples because of the different colors of the leaves. You have some now with red stems. We’re going to start making an idea garden here, so if there’s a plant you want, you can come and look at it and see what it looks like in the landscape. 

You’re able to do garden design and all that stuff with your horticulture degree?

When I was in high school and going to college, I actually worked for a landscaping company for five years. When we moved up here, before I could find a landscaping job, the first job I found was trees, so I’ve done trees for several years, but my first job was in landscaping, so I’m just sort of going back to that. If I can find the right workers on the tree side, then I can dedicate more of my time to the landscape and garden side.

How is the labor market right now?

Horrible, really. We’re looking for someone with experience to help run this (garden center) but we’ve not found anyone with experience. On the tree side, the labor force is almost non-existent for some reason. We still need at least one more person on the tree side, and probably, depending on how crazy we get this summer, I could use one or two this summer. 

<ND> We had a high schooler that worked for us for several years, but she’s graduating now, so we’re going to need at least one and probably two on the landscape side. 

How about the retail side?

<BD> We really need someone with experience to answer questions. I’m out all day doing tree work, and I’ll come in and have twenty sheets of paper with questions that the person working couldn’t answer. If I could find someone with that experience, the customer would be able to get their answers right away and not have to wait for me to call them back.

What’s the future of Leaf It To Us look like?

<BD> Exploding! <all laugh? 

<ND> The biggest thing is that we want to start growing all our plants here. We take great care and make sure that all the plants we get are from a colder region, or at least the same <climate> as us so they can handle it. 

<BD> Ever since COVID, getting products and shipments are almost impossible. We just placed and order and we’re already hearing that they’ve already sold out or didn’t grow the plants we want. 

<ND> We’re starting with the idea garden, but the plan is to expand it to the field in front of us.

<BD> Everything in front of the building will be an idea garden.

<ND> The great thing is that the kids will be able to come out and take pictures. 

<BD> Hopefully the archway will work out. We’re going to get Wisteria to grow up over it so it will create a tunnel to walk through. 

<ND> The nice thing is that we’ve been able to grow this as a family business. Just having something that we’ve built from scratch with them. I know I’m jumping all over the place, but I did want to mention that on the landscape side of things, we do installation, but we’re also able to do the landscape design for a small fee. We are in the market for experienced tree workers and someone with a green thumb and some experience. Sometimes I’ll be working the truck and I’ll get a call and they’ll be saying that they have someone with questions at the counter.

Do you ever say, “great, but I’m a hundred feet in the air, working on an oak tree?” <all laugh>

I’ll say, “this is what they need,” and try to help out.

What’s the highest you’ve ever been in a tree?

Probably a hundred and twenty feet. The average trees in Illinois are going to fall in the 70–90-foot range. 

<ND> How tall was the tree that held our sign?

<BD> It was probably about 100 feet.

<ND> That was a historic tree from downtown Urbana that had been struck by lightning and had to come down, but we wanted to reuse it and incorporated it into our sign. 

Are there any other mountains for Leaf It To Us to climb?

I think that’s it for now. <smiles>

Any thoughts about mowing services to go along with your landscaping?

We’ve thought about adding fertilizer and lawn spraying, but we’ll see how everything works out with this.

Have your kids expressed interest in staying in the business?

<BD> Unfortunately no. I keep telling the girls that in the last ten years in forestry, the number of women climbing trees has grown a lot. On Facebook, I follow a couple of tree groups, and there are women on there that look like they weigh 130 or 140 max, and they’re carrying the same sized saws as we do. Twenty some years ago when I went to a conference, there were no women, and now I just went to one and I’d say out of 500 people in attendance, 100 were women. 

<ND> It’s wonderful to see that growth. 

Do you use local vendors?

Some trees we get from Wandell’s, outside Urbana. They wholesale trees. The next closest would be Wolke’s, near Neoga. The flowers we just brought in are from St. Elmo.

<ND> We try to stay in Illinois, completely. We’ve tried talking to a couple of people for yard décor and things like that, letting them know that we’d be willing to partner with them. 

<BD> We’re trying to switch out all our products for those that are made in America. 

<ND>We’re going for all “Made in the USA,” as much as we can. If there are local vendors that would want to reach out to us and want to put some of their stuff here, we’d be more than happy to try and work something out. 

It makes sense too, that you would want to buy something that is accustomed to our climate, right?

Your tropical plants, you have to go to Florida, but you know they’re going to be inside house plants, but some of your trees, you have to be careful with. Some of the box stores don’t pay close attention to it, but if you bring trees out of Tennessee or Georgia, they’re not conditioned to grow here, so they could struggle and die in a year or two. If you get trees from Illinois or Ohio or Michigan, they’re conditioned to grow in harsher climates. 

What are some trees that can’t make it in Illinois?

Some of your Crape Myrtles or Holly trees won’t last through the winter.

How about some trees that you wouldn’t think would thrive, but just grow like bandits around here?

For the most part, the trees that plant around here are natives. I have seen Aspen trees that grow and thrive. Nurseries don’t or shouldn’t push trees that aren’t going to grow here. <smiles> There’s a lady in St. Joe that has a Holly tree that’s twenty feet tall, so it’s probably been here for 20 years. Mr. Long, Denny Long, in Camargo, has an Aspen tree growing in his yard, out in the open, which is surprising. That tree should be out west in Colorado, what’s it doing here? <smiles> 

Is there anything that I missed?

<ND> We’re opening on April 15. 

That’s for garden, trees, everything in the center?

<BD> Yes, we’ll be open our regular hours. 

<ND> People should follow us on Facebook, because we’ll have our new products and deliveries on there.

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