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Green Grows a Business : Rent-a-Living-Tree Entrepreneur Thinks of Branching Out

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Loyd R. Johnson thought it was a shame that perfectly good Christmas trees ended up as compost after the holidays.

“I kind of wondered for years if there was an alternative to buying dead trees,” the Alpine man said, referring to the cut trees commonly sold. “If people were willing to spend $20 to $25 for a dead tree, would they be willing to spend the same to have it living?”

Thus was born Johnson’s rent-a-live-Christmas-tree service, which in this, his first year, rented out 1,200 trees throughout the San Diego area.

Johnson made no profit this year because he had to buy each of the potted trees he rented out. But next year, already owning many of the trees he needs, his expenses will be far lower and he expects to start making a good profit.

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Johnson delivered the trees personally and will pick them up after the holidays and continue caring for them at his 5-acre spread in Alpine for rental next year.

By next year, the trees should be about a foot taller, making them attractive to people who have homes with high ceilings as well as for office buildings, he said.

“I lost a lot of business in La Jolla because the trees weren’t big enough for the high ceilings in the houses,” he said.

Once the trees get too big to move, Johnson will donate them to organizations such as the Boy and Girl Scouts.

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“They can have them and plant them where ever they like, or they can go and rebuild a forest,” Johnson said.

Johnson said that, if his idea catches on, cut Christmas trees may be obsolete in three to five years.

Some of his customers already have said they want the same tree next year; Johnson plans to tag those trees so the people can have their wish.

One of those customers is Renee Augustine of La Mesa, who said that, although the tree she got is not as tall as she usually gets, she is pleased by the idea that she can get the same tree next year, and it will be a foot taller.

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Augustine, originally from Ohio, also liked having a Christmas tree that helps the environment by adding more greenery rather than chopping it down. Another advantage is that, since the tree is alive, it drops fewer needles than cut trees.

“Every day I go by the tree at work, and I say, ‘That tree looks so dry, and it is so brittle, and mine is nice and fresh,’ ” Augustine said.

Although Johnson, 49, had thought about opening a rent-a-tree business for years, his firm was born of personal tragedy.

His wife, Jennifer Shawn Johnson, 28, died in October, 1988, in a car accident. The couple’s two children--Mikayla, 7, and Philip, 6,--also were in the car but managed to walk away.

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“All of a sudden I found myself being Mr. Mom,” Johnson said. “I spent all of 1989 learning to be Mr. Mom.”

In the process, he found it was too difficult to go back to his original business as a tile setter.

“I would have a major contract, and I would have to leave it if one of my children was sick,” he said.

At that point Johnson decided he needed to have a job where the hours were flexible and that permitted him to spend time with his children. That was when he decided to go forward with his tree business, called Living Trees of Alpine.

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He would have rented out 2,000 trees this first year, Johnson said, had it not been for a fire that consumed his mobile home in November.

Along with all of the family belongings, Johnson lost all of his order forms and other records. He invested three weeks in tracking down customers who already had paid for their trees.

Response has been very positive, Johnson said, adding that, if all goes as planned, he will rent about 5,000 trees next year. He also plans to expand the selection of trees he offers.

This year Johnson only carries Aleppo pines, Monterey pines and Italian stone pines. They are not traditional Christmas trees and do not grow in the traditional cone shape. The trees however, are pruned into shape and are fuller than most traditional Christmas trees.

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Johnson said he has plans to grow the traditional Noble and Douglas firs next year. Although those trees do not grow well in the Southern California climate, Johnson said he has done extensive research and believes he might be able to raise them with proper care.

The business could even go national.

One of Johnson’s clients, an investment banker, liked the rent-a-tree concept enough to ask Johnson if he would be interested in incorporating and franchising nationwide. Other clients have expressed an interest in becoming investors.

Tree renters are asked to sign a rental agreement that says they will not put any kind of chemicals on the tree, and, if they hang aluminum icicles on the tree, they must remove them before the tree is picked up.

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Rental prices range from $20 for a 2-to 3-foot tree to $32 for a 5- to 6-foot tree.

“All they have to do is water (them) and they can treat them like any other tree,” Johnson said. “All they have to do is dress it up.”

“I call my trees little girls and tell my customers when I deliver them, ‘She loves to dress up for Christmas,’ and they love it, especially the ladies,” Johnson said.

Some of Johnson’s early customers have referred friends and relatives to him.

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Osmana Rosero of San Carlos said she referred three friends to Johnson after she found out about his trees through a flyer she got at a local video store.

“Not only is it reasonably priced, but it is convenient too,” Rosero said. “He delivers it, and he picks it up.”

Rosero said she was not bothered by the fact that the tree is not the usual type or by the new branches it has sprouted while in her home.

“It is growing not as a traditional Christmas tree,” she said. “It has little branches growing their own way, but they are beautiful.”

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“It smells beautiful, and it’s nice and full.”

Rosero said she liked the concept of having the tree eventually go back to take a place among other trees and help the environment as well as the idea that others will learn and benefit from the trees later.

Amalia Wasserman, who lives near San Diego State University, rented a tree from Johnson because she was impressed by the concept of having the tree go on to serve another purpose after it stops being used as a holiday decoration.

“He has a profit motive and an altruistic motive,” Wasserman said. “He really has seen the plan all the way through.”

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Wasserman is happy enough with her tree that she decided to give it a name.

“I call it Tobias,” she said. “First, I saw it in a pot, and I thought of a tub and called it Tubby, but then I thought it wasn’t a nickname tree.. .Then I came up with Tobias because it is more dignified, and it is an old soul in a young tree.”


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