Editor’s Note: The Enrichmond Foundation is Richmond’s parks foundation, serving the people, parks, and public spaces of the City of Richmond since 1990. This article was written by Enrichmond staff.
The Enrichmond Foundation is branching out in a big way. TreeLab is our one-year-old urban nursery, growing trees and plants to beautify and improve the River City. Although we focus on growing native species for optimal environmental impact, TreeLab manager Aaron McFarland maintains that, with invasive exceptions, “any plant is better than no plant.”
Enrichmond is known primarily for its protection and promotion of RVA’s outdoor resources. Our activities include supporting 100+ outdoor-focused and recreation groups (our “Partners” and “Friends”), co-holding the James River Park system’s conservation easement and, most recently, restoring historic Evergreen Cemetery. In late 2016, our longtime collaboration with Richmond’s Parks Department yielded an opportunity for Enrichmond to take over management of a dilapidated greenhouse in Richmond’s Northside. This greenhouse has become the home-base for “TreeLab” — a name inspired by trees as self-contained natural laboratories and of our desire to explore the vast potential of trees, shrubs, and other beneficial plants.
The 2,500-sq. ft. greenhouse with approximately 0.3 acres of production space is tucked up behind John Marshall High School, east of Bryan Park and south of Pine Camp. The city built the greenhouse in the 1970’s and grew beautification plants there until the mid-1980’s, when it abandoned the greenhouse as a growing facility. By 2016, the greenhouse was a long-forgotten storage container with trees growing through its cracked plastic. Thanks to support from the Dominion Energy Charitable Foundation, we initiated renovations in late 2016 with a vision of creating a local source of high-quality, environmentally beneficial plants and to work with volunteer groups, businesses, nonprofits, and the city to make those plants available. In January 2017, Aaron McFarland moved from Vermont to Richmond to bring TreeLab to life.
At the heart of TreeLab is a desire to see more and better trees go into Richmond’s urban soil. Trees’ abilities to mitigate water, soil and airborne pollution, reduce stormwater runoff, absorb excess carbon, and lower surface and air temperatures are drawing the attention of urban enclaves throughout the U.S., including Richmond. This year, RVA H20 released the RVA Clean Water Plan, prepared for the Department of Public Utilities, and trees play a significant role in green infrastructure meant to get results (and meet EPA requirements). The many physical and psychological benefits of trees – including reduced stress and even lower levels of domestic violence in tree-laden areas – have increasingly found their way into the news. We focus on growing native plants because they are adapted to regional conditions, evolved to handle local insects and diseases, and are the most beneficial to their environment.
TreeLab seeks to increase Richmond’s tree canopy and help the city realize the many benefits of healthy, sustainable trees. We operate through a retail model that feeds our nonprofit mission. Our nursery offers high-quality, native and specialty trees, as well as shrubs and perennials. As a small nursery, we are nimble — able to provide custom orders that are scaled to different kinds of projects. Whether its 30 plants for a side yard rain garden or 300 pine seedlings along a stream bed, TreeLab’s plants serve the wide variety of environments found throughout the city. Additionally, TreeLab is in the beginning stages of propagating Richmond trees and plants from cuttings – creating plants that are pure products of their native environment.
Our project partners so far include project: HOMES, Friends of Allen Ave. Commons, Maggie Walker Community Land Trust, and Richmond Tree Stewards. We seek to source to organizations interested in environmental best practices and projects that build green infrastructure. Growing and selling plants from our nursery helps to fulfill part of our mission to increase the amount, biodiversity, and quality of plants throughout the city. As we enter the new year, proceeds from our retail operation will cycle into a program to increase Richmond’s tree canopy through street tree plantings, especially in areas of the city that lack tree coverage.
In 2018, we will continue to seek local partnerships and physically expand to increase our growing capacity. Resources such as the RVA Clean Water Plan, the Science Museum’s recent heat map study, and Richmond’s street tree mapping program are helping us identify areas with the most need for trees – primarily in the historically industrial and underemployed areas of Richmond’s East End, Manchester, and other Southside neighborhoods. Expansion, however, does not mean leaving behind “better” for “bigger.” In order for trees to have the highest impact, they must be sustainable. As we look toward subsidizing street trees, we will work with local landscaping companies to provide continued maintenance and monitoring.
Much as it takes time for a tree to establish itself in its environment, TreeLab is sinking its roots into how its trees and plants can make a lasting impact on Richmond’s urban landscape. By producing high-quality plants, seeking environmentally-minded partners, planning for continued maintenance, and focusing on how to get more trees into the ground where they are needed most, TreeLab will keep working to contribute to a healthier, greener Richmond.
Interested in learning more about TreeLab? Email Aaron at email@example.com or call us (804) 234-3905 ext. 107. We’re happy to show you around TreeLab – just let us know if you’d like to come by! To keep in touch virtually, visit us at www.enrichmond.org/treelab and follow us on Instagram at enrichmond_treelab.