Officials in Savannah are working to grow both jobs and the lush urban forest in Georgia's oldest city by turning vacant lots into tree nurseries.
Funding from a $230,000 grant to promote green jobs is helping the city transform three empty city-owned lots to space for growing trees, the Savannah Morning News reported. The pilot project already has 12 trainees growing 150 bald cypress and black gum saplings at the first site.
The plan is to eventually plant and nurture more than 500 trees that can be re-planted across the city in one to three years. Meanwhile, the trainees tending to the saplings are studying to become certified landscape professionals. There are only a few hundred landscapers who hold that certification across Georgia.
Since December, the Savannah trainees have been earning $13 an hour not just to work in the nurseries, but also to get ready for the certificate exam. Their preparation includes learning soil chemistry as well as Latin names for plants.
"Having a tree canopy like we do, we have a shortage of people who know the ins and outs of arbor care and horticulture," said Nick Deffley, Savannah's sustainability director.
Trainees Vanessa Lawrence and Michael Martin worked together on a recent morning filling 15-gallon pots with soil and tamping it down around bald cypress saplings.
"I'm really interested in landscaping now," Lawrence said. "I pray to God I get a job doing it."
Savannah's tree nursery program was at first to be based in flood lots controlled by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But recent hurricanes and wildfires left FEMA staff without time to approve the plans. Savannah shifted the program to city-owned lots instead.
Deffley said that plan is to eventually re-plant some of the nursery trees in the FEMA lots to mitigate flooding. Other trees will be planted along streets or in residents' yards. Citrus trees will be available to backyard gardeners, but for public spaces City Hall will limit plantings to native species such as live oaks, magnolias, tupelos and river birches.
Two species — bald cypress and Eastern red cedar — were selected for their hardiness, Deffley said.
"We're thinking about in the future, if we have storm impacts or saltwater inundation or flooding, they would still last," he said.