The Coastal Star

Secret Garden: Nonprofit group plants trees to build, enhance, feed communities

By Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley

When you think of a tree, chances are you envision a trunk with some foliage at the top that might shade your yard, become a home to birds and other wildlife, or provide your family with such sweet treats as mangoes or starfruit.

But when Mark Cassini and Matt Shipley see that same tree, they view not only the environmental benefits it can provide — such as cleaner air, shade and habitat — but the sense of community that it helps create.

About two years ago, the two founded Community Greening, a nonprofit in Delray Beach that works to improve low- to moderate-income communities through tree planting.

Since then they, with the help of community volunteers, have planted nearly 2,500 native and fruit trees in parks, school grounds, vacant lots and yards from Deerfield Beach to West Palm Beach, with their emphasis on low- to moderate-income areas in Delray Beach.

“At our plantings, all sorts of people are working together to improve a neighborhood — whether the volunteers live locally or visit a neighborhood, perhaps for the first time, to help plant at a park or a school. But after working together, all the volunteers — no matter where they live — think of that area and those trees as theirs,” says Cassini.

Consider, for example, a recent planting event at the K-12 Village Academy magnet school in an area of Delray called the Set. About 100 volunteers planted more than 150 trees 8 feet tall in only two hours, including slash pines, silver buttonwoods and dahoon hollies.

When the work was done, a food truck from Caesar’s Famous Ribs & BBQ arrived. “After the planting, we ate and the day turned into even more of a community event when playing basketball, skateboarding and dancing started. For me, it was the definition of a community party,” Shipley says.

Growing a community can happen in a variety of ways when it comes to planting trees. Consider what has come to be called the Grove in Catherine Strong Park, which is walking distance from Village Academy.

“We had visited the park in May 2017, soon after it was planted with about 75 fledgling fruit trees. But we recently returned to see how this Community Greening project is faring.

“Instead of an inactive vacant lot where people were dumping garbage, it’s now a place that’s giving back to people and nature,” Cassini notes. Today it’s a thriving grove with 10-foot-high fruit trees, many of which are already bearing fruit.

In fact, residents are welcome to visit the garden and pick whatever is ripe — including avocados, starfruit, guavas and sugar apples, as well as a variety of mangoes. There are even a couple of Madam Francis mango trees favored by Haitian residents.

The area is nicely maintained by Community Greening staffer Dre Dildy, who lives in the neighborhood and was hired as a tree steward after attending many of the Community Greening events as a volunteer.

The city maintenance crew that cuts the grass and helps with irrigation also has gotten involved.

“We’ve made more work for the city staff but they’ve become friends by volunteering at our plantings, looking out for the trees and giving us updates,” Shipley says.

The residents also feel attached to the park and its foliage, especially those who have adopted a tree in honor of a sick or deceased family member.

One woman who works near the Grove planted a mango tree in honor of her grandmother. She regularly drives by to check on its progress and returned with her parents a year after the planting to take pictures with the tree.

“We won’t start seeing many of the ecological benefits of the trees we plant until they grow a little more, but our planting projects that bring people together instantly create community,” says Cassini.

More about Community Greening
The tree-planting event at the K-12 Village Academy (400 SW 12th Ave.) in Delray Beach was made possible by a grant from the Enterprise Rent-A-Car Foundation as well as 75 Enterprise employees who volunteered.

The Grove in Catherine Strong Park, also funded by grants, is at the southwest corner of Southwest Sixth Street and
Southwest 17th Avenue in Delray Beach.

To learn more, find an events calendar or donate, visit communitygreening.org. Or contact co-founder Matt Shipley at 789-2005, mshipley@communitygreening.org; or founder and CEO Mark Cassini at 305-632-6211, mcassini@communitygreening.org.

Gardening tip
“After Hurricane Irma, we drove around and noticed that most of the native trees we’d planted didn’t have much damage. Some of them had been laid over, but we just brought them back up and staked them. Now they are doing fine. But we did notice a lot of damage on nonnative trees in the neighborhood. Some had fallen right next to the trees we’d planted. Luckily those falling trees didn’t take down any of ours.”

— Matt Shipley

You can contact Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley at debhartz@att.net.

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