Many Hands Make Grand Rapids Green: How the Area Celebrates Arbor Day

Rapid Growth Media: John Hogan
Thursday, April 29, 2010

He was tired of seeing overgrown junipers on a
traffic island in his northeast Grand Rapids neighborhood attract trash
like a magnet, so Daniel Monsma rolled up his sleeves and did what he
knows best: turn the earth and plant.

And some unexpected things
happened after Monsma converted the tattered patch of public space into a
tidy little paradise where Comstock Boulevard meets with Union Avenue
and Aberdeen Street. Last fall someone spread new bark mulch
anonymously, and a carpet of tulips came up this spring where none had
been before.

“I don’t have any idea who planted all those bulbs last fall, but
they look fantastic,” says Monsma, 45, co-owner of Monsma Landscape
& Maintenance Inc.
 in Ada. “Maybe the same person or people who
put down the bark.”

Though the who is still unknown, the why isn’t. Monsma and the
mystery benefactor, other area landscapers and the Friends of Grand
Rapids Parks
, guerilla gardeners who cultivate without public money
or accolades, all want the same thing — to keep the city beautiful.

And by the sounds of things, their number in metro Grand Rapids is

“We did a good deed that unexpectedly inspired others to add more
beauty to the neighborhood,” Monsma says with pride.

Resisting the Drought
There’s no doubt that times
are tough, and public funding is tight for the extra things that make a
city sparkle — many are cringing at what may happen to city parks and
public spaces if the Grand Rapids income tax increase doesn’t pass next
week. But increase or no, it’s harder to keep a gardener down than a
crocus after the first warm spring rain.

Local landscape companies are gearing up for volunteer projects this
weekend for Arbor Day, a national observance several decades older than
Earth Day that is celebrated with tree plantings and sprucing up parks
on the last Friday in April.

And Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, a nonprofit formed last year to
help manage and preserve the city’s 2,000 acres of public parks, has set
Saturday May 15 as the date for volunteers to groom the parks. Friends
of Grand Rapids Parks drew more than 300 volunteers at 16 city parks a
year ago at its inaugural “I Love GR Parks” event.

“We do this out of a sense of civic responsibility and to promote
Arbor Day,” says Eric Nelson, outside sales representative for Lincoln
Nurseries, Inc.
 in Grand Rapids and a member of the Association of Grand Rapids
Landscape Professionals
. “People need to remember we are the
original green industry. If you’re concerned about reducing carbon
dioxide in the environment, plant a tree.”

Members of the association are working with the city of Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation department to
recognize Arbor Day, says Mark Witte, a landscape designer and
horticulturist with Witte
Lawn Maintenance, Inc.
 in Wyoming. Four large transplant trucks
provided by association members are scheduled to roll into Lincoln Park
on the city’s Northwest Side Friday to plant several red maple cultivars
weighing several hundred pounds. The city says about 40 trees are
scheduled to be planted at Riverside Park.

Association members have other community projects lined up for
Friday, including tree planting at Northern Trails elementary school on
Leonard Street NE, east of East Beltline Avenue.

Inspiring a Sense of Beauty
One concrete example
of the association’s efforts can be found at Mulick Park on Rosewood Avenue SE. Association
members from Procare
Landscape Management, Inc.
 in Byron Center worked with nearly a
dozen residents to trim trees and overgrown shrubs, plant new trees and

“This is my favorite time of year, especially with flowers in bloom
and trees budding out,” says Tom O’Connor, 25, who admired the foliage
at Mulick Park recently during one of his mid-day walks with “Sparty,”
his golden retriever. A transplant from Detroit, O’Connor came here two
years ago for a construction job and has since made Grand Rapids his

In 2009, the local association planted more than 60 trees as part of
the Plant
Michigan Green
campaign, started by its parent organization, the Michigan Nursery and
Landscape Association
. And members last year helped replace ash
trees at Riverside Park that succumbed to the emerald ash borer.

“It was nice working with the parks because the budgets for the city
are very tight and they have had significant damage from Emerald Ash
Borer over the years,” says Rob Bakhuyzen,landscape designer and sales
manager Bakhuyzen Landscape Management in Byron Center.
“Every little bit we or others do to help out is important, and it has a
positive long-term impact.

“When we planted a tree at a park near Fulton Street cemetery, we had
people from the neighborhood stop to watch and thank us. We hope what
we do will motivate people to do something on their own.”

The Forecast: It’s Catching On
A number of
smaller-scale efforts citywide projects take place with more regard to
the weather report than the calendar.

Out walking her chocolate lab “Koko” recently on a sunny day, Cathy
Helms slows to admire the blooming trees and tulips on the southwest
corner of Ball Avenue and Bradford Street NE.

“It is absolutely beautiful,” says Helms, 63, who lives in the older,
working class neighborhood in the shadow of Kent County Jail. “I didn’t
even know it was here until I expanded my walking route last year.”

The “it” Helms is referring to is the Grand Ideas Gardens outside the
Kent/MSU Cooperative Extension office. Built by
volunteers, the six-year-old garden boasts labeled plants, shrubs and
trees, benches and brick-paved walks.

“I do notice people sitting on the benches there, enjoying the garden
and hopefully it inspires people in the neighborhood,” Helms says of
the Grand Ideas Garden. “It perks the neighborhood up and maybe gives
people some incentive � ‘what can I do in my own yard?”‘

“When we began the garden, the neighbors all came over and thanked
us,” says Kent/MSU Extension horticulture educator Rebecca Finneran, a
driving force behind the Grand Ideas Garden. “They were glad to see the
improvements and perceived their home value would go up.”

Community gardens have a similar effect; they increase environmental
awareness and get people out of their homes to interact with neighbors.
It’s happened in Eastown, the Cherry Hill district, West Grand
Neighborhood, Heartside and East Hills.

“We want to get a foundation of residents doing more,” says Tom
Almonte, Grand Rapids assistant city manager. “It could mean that a
group of neighbors volunteer to keep a city park in good condition. We
desperately need our community to come together to ensure that some of
these services remain viable.”

For Monsma, it was simply a matter of taking pride in his
neighborhood. After noticing the neglected traffic island about a
quarter mile from his home, Monsma submitted a landscape design to the
city Department of Streets and Sanitation, which approved the project
after determining the plants would not be a vision obstruction for

He cleared the 45-foot by 30-foot property and planted drought
resistant and salt tolerant plants such as ornamental grasses, butterfly
bushes, giant onion, globemaster and mountain garlic. Since the initial
planting, Monsma has continued to weed and spread fresh mulch on the

The efforts, he says, are having a ripple effect in the neighborhood.

“From the beginning, there has been no more trash (on the island),”
Monsma says. “And I just knew I could do something better there.”

Former Home & Garden Editor for The Grand Rapids Press, John
Hogan is a journalist with more than two decades of professional
experience covering everything from homicides to hostas.

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