Group Brings Sustainable Trees to Urban Core
September 03, 2010 by Doug DeLoach, Contributing Writer for Atlanta Business Chronicle
When the commercial real estate market dried up, many satellite industries also drooped – including Atlanta nurseries that were suddenly stranded with excess inventories of trees and other plants.
Unlike a warehouse, office building or industrial park, the trees, shrubs and plants used to beutify work spaces and the surrounding envions can’t be left vacant or temporarily sublet until the market cycles back around.
Differing methods are employed by metro area nurseries to manage the over-supply of trees, many of which are becoming too large to sell.
Some are cut down to make room for new seedlings.
But Seelct Trees Group – an Athens-based wholesaler of large sustainable shade trees to landscape architects, developers, contractors, government institutions and commercial enterprises – is taking a different approach.
In 2007, Select Trees formed the Select SustainablePlus Tree Trust (SSTT) to act as the company’s charitable arm. During the past few years, the SSTT has donated or sold at discount thousands of sustainable trees worth millions of dollars to nonprofit outfits, municipalities and community organizations.
In addition to its many Georgia-centric efforts, the SSTT has been involved with out-of-state projects in cities such as Tulsa, Okla., Nashville, Tenn., Charleston, S.C., and Dallas.
The concept behind the SSTT – to create a long-term positive impact in the urban environment with sustainable trees – was inspired by Forrest Ramser, the original business mentor of Select Trees Group.
The cause was certainly noble enough, but, soon after its inception, SSTT management discovered a knot in the wood.
“When we went back and looked at the donated or discounted trees, we found many of them had not survived,” said Matt Nielson, vice president of Select Trees.
In most cases, the recipient organizations had little or no experience with tree care and manintenance; most could barely afford to gas up a lawn mower much less call in a professional landscaping or arboreal services.
“We had failed to educated them,” Nielson said.
As a result, in 2008, the SSTT formalized its procedures to deliver the same level of customer service to all of its projects including the charitable and nonprofit types. Among other changes, the new procedure has resulted in fewer, but larger, trees being planted.
“We’re paying more attention to proper placement, as well as making sure we use the best type of trees for the application, to achieve maximum impact in terms of growth patterns,” Nielson said.
The “re-greening” project at The University of Georgia is a prime example of the SSTT approache in action.
So far, 210 sustainable shade trees – ranging in size from 4 inches to 6 inches in trunk diameter and 15 to 25 feet tall – have been planted on the school grounds.
In part, the UGA campus was a natural destination for the SSTT thanks to the trust’s long-standing relationship with Michael Dirr, who recently retired from his professorship in the horticultural department after more than 20 years.
Dirr is widely known as one of the world’s leading experts on woody landscape plants, trees and hydrangeas.
Another major SSTT involves another mentor, Marcia Bansley, executive director of Trees Atlanta. Under the Trees Atlanta program, the SSTT has pledged an estimated $1 million in donated trees to address Atlanta’s decreasing tree canopy, expanding green space, and conserving the city’s trees.
“Marcia was instrumental in educating us about the benefits of incorporating tough sustainable trees in an urban setting,” Nielson said.
SSTT projects in metro Atlanta include the North Woods expansion in Piedmont Park, where some 150 shade trees will help restore the health of the tree canopy and form part of a new woodlands entrance to the park off Piedmont Avenue and Westminster Drive.
“Planted trees in an urban environment are very challenged,” said Eric Bosman, associate principal at Urban Collage, which is working with the North Fulton Community Improvement District and Midtown Alliance, among others, on a variety of comprehensive planning exercises and cityscape projects already under way.
“The have a limited area in which to grow; they are challenged in terms of getting enough water from natural sources; and, of course, the inner city, with its congestion and air pollution, is a very difficult environment,” Bosman said.
“Our experience has taught us that the care Select Trees puts into starting their trees, growing their trees and caring for their porduct has greatly contributed to our success,” he said.
On the pedestrian-friendly, 600-acre campus of Emory University in Druid Hills, a selection of 1- extra-large SSTT sustainable trees, each measuring approximately 30 feet tall, were planted just in time to provide welcome respite from the dog days of August.
According to Ciannat M. Howett, director of Sustainability Initiatives at Emory, the SSTT project was significant for a number of reasons, including its consistency with the university’s “No Net Loss of Forest Canopy” policy.
“The policy is designed to replace trees that have been removed from campus and to work in concert with the Emory University Land Use Plan, which has set aside a little more than 50 percent of the campus as protected green space,” Howett said. The SSTT’s approach involved on-site discussions about planting sites with a team that included the Emory architect, landscape architect, director of exterior services and Howett.
“The increase in foliage brings benefits of shade, cooling, beauty and green space,” said Howett who anticipates future collaborative efforts with SSTT.
While current commercial real estate conditions might not offer the same fertile ground for nurseries that existed a few years ago, the Select Trees team is optimistic.
“When things are going good, people tend to drive forward and not focus on what they are doing,” Nielson said. “Now, they’re starting to realize the value of sustainable shade trees, not just because of comfort and environmental impact, but in economic terms, as well.”