Growing Detroit: Massive Greening Project Going Forward Fast

The stark silhouettes of branches pierce a slate gray sky, and the line of trees wait like dutiful old soldiers -- long-forgotten but with a story to tell.

Nearby sits an old couch, some tires and a smattering of objects not immediately recognizable beneath fallen trees and an overgrown sea of grass. It's all woven between these almost absurdly neat rows of trees.

It's here, along West Outer Drive south of Plymouth Road, that the Walter Meyers Nursery resides amid decades of disrepair and neglect. Established in 1920 to grow trees for the city, it fell into disuse by the 1950s, when commercial nurseries started offering cheaper tree stock.

It's fitting, then, that it's in this ghost nursery that Detroit's green renaissance will be percolating later this year. Greening of Detroit plans to renovate Meyers Nursery and use it to supply its various reforestation efforts around the city.

It's also a fitting way for the nonprofit to celebrate its 20th anniversary year, a year that will see big projects with an expanded staff and mission.

Also on deck is a massive Jefferson Avenue planting project – made possible by a recent grant from Health Plan of Michigan. Then expect plans to move forward on Greening's Detroit Market Garden, a small-scale farm proposed for a 2.5-acre chunk of Eastern Market.

This year, Greening doesn't just want to help beautify Detroit, it wants to change the way we think about it.

Investing $500,000 to redevelop dormant site

The city agreed to let Greening of Detroit use the 125-acre Walter Meyers Nursery site to grow its tree supply and as a venue for its outreach programs. In exchange, the nonprofit group will invest an estimated $500,000 to redevelop the site, which for the most part has lay dormant for decades.

"At some point we want to replant as many trees as the city needs," says Greening of Detroit President Rebecca Salminen Witt. "We knew we needed to increase our tree-planting capacity."

Greening expects to plant 20,000 young trees on the site in the next eight years. Paul Bairley, the nonprofit's director of urban forestry, hopes to start planting the nursery by spring 2010. It will be three to five years after that before any of the new trees are mature enough for city plantings.

Greening's goal won't be easy: In the last 50 years, the city has lost nearly 500,000 trees to Dutch Elm disease, the emerald ash borer and economic blight.

Once the tree operation is established, plans call for the nursery to be a new venue for Greening's myriad community outreach programs.

"We're talking about it being a nature center," syas Salminen Witt, "and a center for environmental education."

Jill Katakowski, nursery operations manager, says the land is ideal for such an endeavor.

"There's a really nice wetlands that can definitely be used for an environmental interpretive area," she says.

For the next few months, though, Greening will focus on compiling a committee to draft a master plan for the nursery and attempting to raise funds amid an economic quagmire. A tree inventory will determine how many of the thousands of existing trees on the site can be used for planting.

To Salminen Witt, the prospect of resuscitating a fallow piece of Detroit's history isn't just good business, it's a chance to be an integral part of Detroit's green renaissance.

"What we can do is take philanthropically raised money," she says, "and reinvest it back into the city, which it's going to help anyway."

Jefferson Reforestation project includes 500 trees

A recent grant from Health Plan of Michigan will allow volunteers to plant 500 trees along the barren stretch of Jefferson from Altar to I-375, says Greening's public relations manager Monica Tabares.

"We get calls all the time from folks saying, 'Jefferson needs some trees,' " says Tabares. "It's going to be an amazing project."

Planning has already begun on the project, which Tabares expects to be completed this year.

Don't think Greening of Detroit would let its 20th birthday go by without a celebration, says Tabares.

She wouldn't divulge many details, since the celebration is in its planning stages, but she did say it will be a three-day fundraising event Sept. 17-19. It will bring together all the folks that have helped realize Greening's mission throughout the years, from farmers and youth to volunteers and environmentalists.

"It will cover all of our programming," says Tabares.

Detroit Market Garden going forward

If Ashley Atkinson, Greening's director of project development and urban agriculture, isn't revealing a lot about the proposed Detroit Market Garden at Eastern Market, it's only because she doesn't want to jinx anything.

Turns out that plans are very much alive, says Atkinson, who declined to give specific timelines. Greening representatives still have to finalize the deal with the city of Detroit, something Atkinson would only say will happen "very soon."

"It's definitely moving," she says. "It's not stalled or canceled."

Plans call for the Detroit Market Garden to be a 2.5-acre, small-scale farm between the Dequindre cut and Orleans Street in Eastern Market. The farm will turn out a steady supply of over 60 different kinds of fruits and vegetables for sale in the market.

"We have much more demand for product than we do product," says Atkinson.

Passive solar greenhouses will extend the growing season to 11 months a year, a heated transplant greenhouse will enable plants to be grown from seed, and a vacant 30-by-80 garage will be renovated for use as an office and storage space.

Atkinson promises a big push to further Eastern Market plans this year, the culmination of four years worth of planning and negotiating.

Megan Pennefather is an area freelance writer.


60 year old Austrian Pines line a two track road at the Walter Meyers Nursery

Parcels of the nursery are in the process of development

Entrance to the Nursery

Rows of saplings

Tree lined median on Westbound Jefferson ends at Alter road, at the Detroit - Grosse Pointe border

Greening of Detroit helping to make Detroit a greener city one tree at a time

Unless noted, All photographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D.