30,000 and still planting

Group celebrates 25 years of beautifying Baton Rouge

Jed Morris, a physician and one of the founders of Baton Rouge Green, cornered Suzanne Turner, an LSU associate professor of landscape architecture, at a party in 1986.

Turner gave a name — Baton Rouge Green — to an idea Morris had been mulling.

As the largely volunteer tree planting and maintenance organization turns 25 this year, it celebrates the planting of more than 30,000 trees at the entrances to Baton Rouge, along highways, business and neighborhood streets, schools and parks.

Morris remembered drives with his parents from Houston, where the family lived, to Baton Rouge in the 1950s.

“I was impressed by all the trees lining the highway leading into Baton Rouge,” Morris said.

“When I moved here in 1974, it bothered me that trees were disappearing,” he said. “There’d been a lot of development. In the 1980s, there was a recession and the city didn’t have the money to do beautification.”

With the help of landscape architecture professors at LSU, a graduate student and sponsors that included United Companies and Baton Rouge General Medical Center, Baton Rouge Green began planting species of trees native to Baton Rouge.

“The idea was if there were proper guidance, perhaps with public support, we could plant native trees and begin an urban reforestation program,” Morris said.

Such programs as Urban Gardens and Neighborwoods provide design, plants and volunteers who help residents put the right trees in the right places, said Baton Rouge Green program director Robert Seemann. Seemann, a licensed arborist, has a degree in forestry and a master’s in landscape architecture.

“Urban Gardens is, essentially, an urban orchard, a community green space the size of a house lot,” Seemann said.

A peach orchard on Amarillo Street and an orchard of blueberries, blackberries, native persimmon, citrus and muscadine on Breckenridge Street will be planted in February, said Diane Losavio, executive director of Baton Rouge Green.

The orchards will be part of a single family housing development for first time homebuyers, a project of the Urban Restoration Enhancement Corp. The development is on the site of the old Hollywood School, Losavio said.

The orchards will be funded by a $28,000 grant from ExxonMobil and maintained by residents and members of King’s Children Ministry, a neighborhood church, Seemann said.

“We’re working with the mayor’s office to design and plant around neighborhood signs in the 70805 ZIP code area,” Seemann said.

Mayor-President Kip Holden and Baton Rouge Police Chief Dewayne White launched Operation BRAVE this year to reduce violent crime in 70805.

Baton Rouge Green will plant low-maintenance trees and shrubs in Northdale, Standard Heights, Istrouma and Dixie, Seemann said.

Baton Rouge Green operates on an annual budget of about $277,000, most of that going to maintenance of almost 5,000 trees in Living Roadways, 20 sites along I-10, I-110 and I-12, and salaries for Losavio and Seemann, Baton Rouge Green’s only paid workers.

Without money from the city, donations are most needed for tree maintenance, Losavio said.

Annual maintenance of trees in Living Roadways some years exceeds $100,000, she said.

“We fertilize, spray for weeds so the mowers don’t have to get so close to the trees to cause damage, prune and mulch. Mulching is the biggest maintenance cost.”

Baton Rouge Green operates on individual and corporate donations, grants and fundraisers that include a tree sale.

“What’s impressed me is the way people stuck with Baton Rouge Green and continue to sponsor the planting sites,” Turner said. “Some of the corporate sponsors have been loyal for a long time. That’s the hardest part, sustaining it.”

“The city still has an incredible canopy despite two terrible hurricanes, Katrina (2005) and Gustav (2008),” Turner said.

“The sad thing,” she said, “is that Baton Rouge Green had to be started in the first place. If Baton Rouge Green is the one taking responsibility, then the city needs to get behind it.”

An effort by the city, Baton Rouge Green and residents is required to maintain one of the most extensive urban forests in the country, Turner said.

“People move so often, now,” she said, “they plant trash trees and fast-growing trees.”

“Everyone needs to care about the canopy,” Turner said. “People don’t value shade enough. I think it’s a civic duty.”

Baton Rouge Green celebrates its 25th anniversary Jan. 18 at an Arbor Day luncheon at the Lod Cook Alumni Center, 3848 W. Lakeshore Drive, on the LSU campus.

Dr. Jackie Cole, a veterinarian and president of the Galveston Island Tree Conservancy, is the guest speaker. The title of her talk is “Starting Over: Efforts to Replant Galveston After Hurricane Ike.”

Cole founded the conservancy in 2009 after the hurricane felled half of Galveston’s trees.

Losavio identified these donors as Living Roadway contributors: Two Concerned Citizens (anonymous), ExxonMobil, The Dow Chemical Co., Entergy, Raising Cane’s, Southern Recycling EMR, Crompion International (formerly American Utility Metals), A Friend of Baton Rouge Green (anonymous), Team Toyota, Baton Rouge Coca-Cola, LA 1 South Truck Stop, Sun-Plus Inc., Bofinger’s Tree Service and Biggz Professional Tree Care.