The Enrichmond Foundation’s TreeLab projects spark interest throughout Richmond in restoring greenspace while also educating the public on plant growth and health.
In a small greenhouse owned by the City Of Richmond, TreeLab Manager Aaron McFarland cultivates native trees and other plants available for purchase. Although TreeLab, a project of Enrichmond, has just two staff members including himself, McFarland has already made great strides with greenspace projects around Richmond. Between 2018 and 2020, the organization planted 420 trees and 1,540 other plants, a statistic that is proudly displayed on the Enrichmond Foundation’s website.
Horticulture was always present in McFarland’s life; he grew up around a nursery operated by his parents. At a young age, while learning how to treat plants properly, he also discovered the positive impact they have on the environment. This passion for plants led him to earn two degrees in horticulture from the Pennsylvania College of Technology.
“I thought of going to school to become a teacher,” McFarland said, “[but] I’ve found over the years in TreeLab that I get the opportunity to teach people almost every day, or at least interact with them on something about plants or the outside world. It is a very fulfilling job.”
The nonprofit works with other environmental organizations to offer plants locally. It also provides an abundance of opportunity for volunteers to come out and plant trees and other plants. “There are always volunteer planting events where we’ll rent tools from the Richmond Community Tool Bank and use those tools in the planting process,” McFarland said. “So it turns into something educational, like how to plant a tree and maintain care of that tree.”
The educational emphasis in TreeLab’s work sparked the interest of the Science Museum of Virginia, and since 2018, TreeLab have worked on a number of different projects with the museum. Jeremy Hoffman, a climate and earth scientist at the Science Museum of Virginia, shares McFarland’s passion for horticulture as it applies to the environment and climate change. “We have partnered with TreeLab multiple times,” said Hoffman, “because of their focus on urban and community forestry, and our research focus on how climate change disproportionately impacts particular parts of the city.”
Carbon dioxide is the main factor contributing to global warming. Because trees can store copious amounts of carbon dioxide, they aid in stopping climate change. However, climate change has a disproportionate effect on cities due to the lack of greenspace. As you travel into the heart of cities like Richmond, greenspace becomes scarcer. This is a problem that organizations like TreeLab hope to address.
“As our focus on planting trees as a climate action increased,” explained Hoffman, “we started talking about a plan that the city had, to connect the backside of the neighborhoods of Scott’s Addition directly to the Science Museum’s campus.”
Partnering on this project with TreeLab and other nonprofits, the Science Museum of Virginia is in the process of creating the ProtoPath, a pedestrian-and-bike-only path connecting the Science Museum campus to the bike path on Leigh Street, in order to create a safer lane of travel for non-vehicular traffic. “This was a really great opportunity for the museum to complete a small part of that city project that would connect our campus to our neighboring neighborhood,” said Hoffman.
The completed portion of the ProtoPath is already 0.2 miles long. “Being that TreeLab is probably one of the few organizations in town that grows and maintains its own nursery, with a focus on a variety of different regional trees and shrubs,” Hoffman explained, “we started dreaming up what we could plant along this path. Since then, we have done three or four different events with TreeLab along the ProtoPath.”
The Science Museum of Virginia also has another project in the works they are calling “The Green.” This project aligns with the same city plan that sparked the ProtoPath, and aims to expand greenspace throughout Scott’s Addition by creating a park in place of a two-acre parking lot near the museum campus. It will not only serve as a welcoming public park but will also provide a classroom in which to teach Richmonders about climate change and how they can help prevent it. The museum intends to plant many native trees and shrubs for this project, all of which will be provided through TreeLab and planted by community volunteers.
The pandemic has affected many lives over the last two years, but not all of the changes that resulted were negative. Although many of the TreeLab projects escalated in activity between 2018 and 2021, the organization was not heavily impacted. McFarland explained that although some changes had to be made in volunteer work, social distancing was easier since most projects were outside.
Hoffman found that the pandemic only made the need for the Science Museum’s ongoing collaborations with TreeLab clearer. “Because of the need for more green spaces that the pandemic made very abundantly clear in urban areas, our relationship with TreeLab and several of the other environmental organizations that we worked with got deepened by the pandemic,” he said.
The increased use of outdoor spaces as part of social distancing practices during the pandemic meant that more people started to realize the benefits of greenspaces and plant growth. “Trees are this magnificent machinery of nature at work right in front of us,” said Hoffman. “Trees not only work as a beach umbrella, keeping you cool in the summer, they are also a ‘Sham Wow’ for stormwater; they soak up rainwater like a sponge.”
Jennifer Guild, manager of Communications and Curiosity at the Science Museum of Virginia, also had high praise for TreeLab and its mission. “It’s given us the opportunity to create these outside spaces” as part of the Science Museum campus, she said. “Often, people think of us as the building, and what is contained within the building. We are very fortunate as an organization to have a large campus, because there are a lot of areas outside of the walls.”
As you read this, the ProtoPath is already in full effect, giving the Richmond community a safer route for biking and walking while also providing beautiful scenery for the residents of Scott’s Addition. Completion of “The Green,” Phase One, is anticipated by Spring of 2022. In the meantime, TreeLab will continue to serve the community and organizations like the Science Museum of Virginia, promoting greenspaces and its benefits, not only for the community of Richmond, but also in helping to stop climate change. “At a baseline,” said Hoffman, “everyone should care more about trees.”