Step Into Fort Worth's Storied Tree Farm

Roaming the grounds of the Fort Worth tree farm that's making some cities green with envy.

by Linda Blackwell Simmons and Kendall Louis

It’s a much-needed sunny Friday afternoon in March at the Rolling Hills Tree Farm when Will Pemberton shows us around. The crew leader at the city’s municipal tree farm since 1994, he knows almost every inch of the 71-acre piece of property like the back of his hand. Like the scenic and thriving field of more than 40 live oak trees, planted in the ’80s, that creates a view behind him. And another field of chinkapin oaks that were planted in partnership with Texas A&M in the late ’90s. It now sits as a natural habitat for the gray foxes and barn owls that frequently visit. Then there are the numerous greenhouses Pemberton designed and constructed with the help of a few assistants. He can also show you exactly where an inmate carved the date “1960 - 1963” in the concrete of the main greenhouse on the property that was built before his time — 1938 to be exact.

Seeds are kept refrigerated for about 90 days before being planted.

That’s because, in its original state, the main greenhouse and this land served a different purpose. The farm is on a piece of property shared with the Federal Medical Center, a medical and mental health prison, that originally opened in 1938 under the Narcotic Farms Act to jail and rehabilitate drug addicts. It was one of two narcotic farms opened under the act — the first opened in Lexington, Kentucky. After a change in U.S. policy and treatment for drug addicts, the farm was abandoned in 1975.

Soon thereafter, the city began leasing the land from the federal government. By 1978 Fort Worth was designated a Tree City USA, a designation by the Arbor Day Foundation, and has held that title ever since. Cities achieve this status by meeting four core standards of sound urban forestry management: maintaining a tree board or department, having a community tree ordinance, spending at least $2 per capita on urban forestry and celebrating Arbor Day.

There are few municipal tree farms that are as vast and ambitious as Fort Worth’s. “Because of all the benefits they provide, planting trees is one of the wisest choices a city can make, and our tree farm makes it all possible,” says Melinda Adams, certified arborist and Fort Worth’s city forester for the past 18 years. “Fort Worth’s Urban Forestry Program is one that other municipalities emulate. Citizens of Fort Worth have a long-standing love affair with trees,” Adams says. This dates back to the late 1800s when the city declared it illegal to hitch a horse to a city tree.

Rolling Hills Tree Farm sits on the south side of town, near Tarrant County College South Campus. At any given time, the farm has 8,000 to 10,000 trees in cultivation, most of which are grown from seeds that are collected around town — a strategy that’s both economic and offers a greater likelihood that the trees will be ideally suited for Fort Worth-area neighborhoods. Pemberton says the Fort Worth Botanic Garden is a favorite gathering place for seeds. Going from seed to 5-gallon container typically takes a minimum of three years, and some take seven or eight years, before they are ready to leave the farm for their new home. The tree-planting program currently has only five paid employees — one supervisor; Pemberton, who serves as the crew leader; two greenhouse attendants; and a maintenance worker. “In the summer it takes us five days to mow the whole thing. By the time we finish, we have to do it all over again,” Pemberton says.

A crew waters and prunes trees before they are transported to a permanent location.

Citizens can get involved, too, thanks to the Citizen Forester Program that was established in 2006. After volunteers receive extensive training, they can work to prune young trees and coordinate tree planting. The program is so well-regarded that it has received national attention and served as a model for similar programs in Dallas and Austin. Volunteers contribute over 2,000 hours annually toward the tree farm’s maintenance. These volunteers range from a scout troop for a couple of hours, to a semester-long vocational program for special-needs high school students, to long-term commitments of city foresters. Pemberton’s particularly proud of the work they do with troubled teens through Tarrant County Juvenile Services.

Will Pemberton tends to trees in one of the newest fields at the tree farm.

But in 2008, all of this was in danger of going away. A reduction package was proposed to eliminate the tree farm, along with all forestry volunteer and outreach programs. Public outcry prompted city leaders to find ways to save the tree farm. As a result, the City Council approved funding from several other sources, including a five-year $100,000 donation from Chesapeake Corporation. Today, community tree-planting operates on an annual budget funded through the Park & Recreation Department. No tax dollars are utilized. Instead, financing comes from an endowment fund within the department.

Craig Fox in one of the greenhouses on the property.

Many of the city’s most recognized trees exist because of the tree farm. The rows of live oaks that line Berry Street between the homes on Bellaire Drive and TCU’s baseball stadium started at this very place. Pemberton planted every single one of them, and the TCU grounds staff maintains them. TCU reached out to the city tree farm to partner on the project when they were expanding Lupton Stadium in an effort to create a sound buffer between homes on Bellaire Drive and the stadium. Rolling Hills is also the birthplace of many of the trees at the center of Camp Bowie Boulevard between Hulen and Montgomery streets.

And, it’s all free. That’s thanks to the Neighborhood Tree Planting Program (NTPP) and the Tree Grant Program (TGP). Through the NTPP, the city provides trees free of a charge. Neighborhoods designate a coordinator who collects the names of interested residents — ideally between 25 and 75. The city forester marks optimal planting locations for each resident (between the curb and the sidewalk) and works with the coordinator to arrange delivery. Then each participating homeowner is responsible for planting and caring for the trees. Trees are delivered in 5-gallon containers, and the forestry group provides care instructions. While the NTPP gives away a greater number of trees, the TGP is more popular due to the larger size of trees offered. Large homeowners’ associations such as the Villages of Woodland Springs often utilize the TGP. This neighborhood may receive 80-100 large trees in a single season.

Since 1985, when the city began tracking, over 42,000 trees have been planted through these two services. Not only do they work to beautify city and neighborhood streets, trees contribute millions of dollars in benefits relating to storm water runoff, air and water quality, urban heat island effect and property values.

Craig Fox, natural scientist supervisor for the Park & Recreation Department, says the forestry group also selects two neighborhoods each year and sends mailers to about 500 residents at any one time to promote the program and garner interest in creating a more canopied environment. According to Fox, Stop Six was the most recent community to receive trees as a result of the mailer, following the city’s revitalization efforts in that area.

“We’re entrusted to provide trees for some pretty great spaces across Fort Worth. While we may not offer as much variety as commercial nurseries, we take pride in offering trees that will thrive in Tarrant County with minimal maintenance,” says Fox.

The city gives out about 1,600 trees per year. According to Fox, it’s hard to find a Fort Worth neighborhood that hasn’t participated in the tree program. “Several of our older neighborhoods such as Fairmount, Mistletoe and Ryan Place have participated for decades,” he says. These days, trees most often leave the tree farm for developing neighborhoods in the northern Fort Worth city limits like Alexandra Meadows, Harriet Creek Ranch and Marine Creek.

But, Fox gets tree requests from everywhere. He tells a story about a call he received from a man in Cincinnati, Ohio, who had read about Fort Worth’s program and wanted his neighborhood to participate. “It took about 15 minutes of explaining that Fort Worth could not deliver trees to Ohio. He was crushed.”

by Linda Blackwell Simmons and Kendall Louis

Trees and Health
Studies have shown trees affect our mood and health. A study at Michigan University conducted about a decade ago found that trees affect our cognitive abilities. Researchers asked volunteers to take a 50-minute walk through either an arboretum or a city street before giving them a cognitive assessment. The students who walked through nature performed better than their counterparts on tests of memory and cognition, and researchers observed they appeared to be in a better mood after concluding the walk.

Fort Worth declared it illegal to hitch a horse to or deface
a city tree
1926 The city hired its first forester, Raymond C. Morrison, thereby creating a staff of five
First street-tree-planting resolution was passed
1939 Donald Obert became the new forester, and, that same year, thousands of trees were planted
1940 The forestry department was reorganized to include park activities, and citizens were made aware of the program
1977 A tree-maintenance program and establishment of a tree nursery were proposed
& each year
Fort Worth received the honor of Tree City USA, an award given by the Arbor Day Foundation
2008 The Heritage Tree Campaign (citizens nominate trees that have a particular uniqueness or special history) was initiated in honor of the 30th anniversary of the first Tree City USA award
2009 On Arbor Day, heritage status was awarded to 43 trees in a ceremony held under the spreading branches of the historic John Peter Smith oak tree located near the Modern Art Museum
Today The tree program continues with an average of 1,600 trees planted annually in Fort Worth neighborhoods, all grown at the tree farm