Forest ReLeaf of Missouri

By Donna Coble and Nick Kuhn, photos by Noppadol Paothong | September 18, 2013
From Missouri Conservationist: Oct 2013

Over Forest ReLeaf of Missouri’s 20-year history, this small nonprofit organization has helped reforest Missouri by giving away more than 100,000 trees — free of charge. Young trees are nurtured on site and then distributed to other nonprofits, municipalities, parks, schools, churches, neighborhood associations, and youth groups with the provision that they must be planted on public or nonprofit grounds. An additional 36,000 trees have been distributed at a greatly reduced cost. In the process they have educated thousands of people on the benefits trees provide and created tree stewards statewide.

Despite flooding, drought, and economic downturns, Forest ReLeaf has continued to grow and thrive. After 20 years they still have only three full-time and one recently added part-time employee, yet they’ve expanded their operations, their outreach, and their mission. The staff is comprised of: Donna Coble, executive director; Mike Walsh, forestry programs manager; Colleen Duhart, administrative and communications coordinator; and Wendy Schlesinger, development specialist.

Forest ReLeaf was awarded the Missouri Arbor Award of Excellence in 2011. This award, cosponsored by the Department of Conservation and the Missouri Community Forestry Council, recognizes those who act as good stewards for trees in their communities.

Project CommuniTree

Forest ReLeaf’s CommuniTree Gardens Nursery, located in St. Louis County in Creve Coeur Park, is home to 20,000 trees in various stages of growth. This is the region’s first and only community-assisted tree nursery. Forest ReLeaf leases the nursery property from St. Louis County Parks partly in exchange for planting trees in its parks throughout the region. Each spring, under the direction of Mike Walsh, a dedicated army of volunteers helps to put seedlings into 3-gallon containers. Most of the seedlings are donated by the Missouri Department of Conservation’s George O. White State Nursery in Licking. The past two seasons, Forest ReLeaf volunteers have potted-up more than 17,000 seedlings annually.

After potting, the trees are cared for until they reach a substantial size and can withstand potential abuse from mowers, trimmers, and trampling. Some are transplanted to 15-gallon containers for projects that warrant larger trees through their Priority ReLeaf program. This program reaches out to financially underserved neighborhoods and communities, such as Joplin, that are recovering from severe storms.

Typically, about 40 species are available — all native Missouri species — from redbud to serviceberry to bur oak. Trees are distributed each fall and spring on a first-come, first-serve basis to approved recipients. Further information can be found on their website at


Volunteers range from families and retirees, to corporate and church volunteer groups, to Master Gardeners and Master Naturalists. Volunteers also join Forest ReLeaf after completing the seven-week “TreeKeepers” course taught by Walsh and other local forestry professionals. It is one of several outreach and education programs they offer. The program is free to the public and, in exchange, participants agree to volunteer 24 hours at the nursery or in their communities.

History of the Organization

The group began to form on the 20th anniversary of Earth Day in 1990, when several local agencies came together as St. Louis Area Global ReLeaf and organized to plant 10,000 trees in a single day. The group soon realized a more formal structure was required to maintain that momentum. In 1993, Forest ReLeaf of Missouri was incorporated with a mission to bring volunteers together to plant trees in Missouri’s communities. Originally the group was known as Forest ReLeaf of Greater St. Louis but broadened their scope to include the whole state. This October they will celebrate their 20th anniversary with an evening celebration and a commemorative tree planting. All are welcome. The event will be held at the Forest Park Visitor Center, Oct. 17, from 6 to 10 p.m. Ticket prices start at $25.

The Early Days

Jim Horn has volunteered with the group for nearly 20 years. He remembers the nursery’s humble beginning as “a rubble-strewn plot of about 10 acres, the demolition site of a school building under the approach area of incoming planes.” However, by the end of the second year of operation, and thanks to the foresight and labor of the first forester (Mark Grueber, now an urban forester with the Conservation Department) and about five regular volunteers, that rubble-strewn plot became a nursery of several thousand trees neatly lined up on a bed of wood chips donated by local tree-trimming companies. “I remember the forester in those early days building a road through the 10-acre nursery with a wheelbarrow and a pile of gravel,” says Horn.

Today the nursery stands on a large, level, white gravel area in Creve Coeur Park and includes a large shed, a newly hand-built hoop house, and an irrigation system. Even though the nursery has grown exponentially, the work is still done under the supervision of a single forester — and many more volunteers.

According to Horn, he has continued to volunteer with Forest ReLeaf, “Not simply because of its valid purpose, but also because of its excellent efficiency. The leadership, though changed, has the same determination and work ethic as in those first days starting out. These hardworking qualities, along with amenable personalities, have been instrumental in maintaining a large, industrious cadre of volunteers. We come back year after year because we are appreciated, useful, and know the good we are doing for the community.”

Community Benefits — Urban

Little Creek Nature Area is a 96-acre plot of land in a school district in urban North St. Louis. Eric Hadley, science and Little Creek Nature Area coordinator, Ferguson-Florissant School District, says kids in this inner-city district “typically don’t get outside much. They are more accustomed to asphalt. To be in a place that is truly natural and full of trees or prairie, and having animals or birds around them, is literally scary to them.”

Over the past several years, Forest ReLeaf has donated more than 2,000 trees to Little Creek Nature Area. Hadley says, “When we get the trees from Forest Releaf it’s a big deal for the kids. Once they plant one tree, they’re very excited to continue to keep planting other trees because they see what a difference it can make — especially because they just spent a large amount of time getting rid of the honeysuckle. The act of planting a tree really becomes a powerful tool to awaken their spirit in terms of what’s around them and what should be here and how we can keep it healthy.”

Hadley says that, without Forest ReLeaf, they wouldn’t have much of a forest. “We simply can’t afford to buy trees,” he says. “The students return with their own children and then that next generation begins to understand and appreciate trees and the natural environment. That’s a powerful tool. If we didn’t have the trees, that kind of education and pride wouldn’t be part of our program.”

Community Benefits — Storm Recovery

When the May 22, 2011, EF-5 tornado hit Joplin and took with it 161 lives and an estimated 20,000-plus trees, Forest ReLeaf felt they had to step in and offer support. They started shipping trees to Joplin (a first for the organization), and, in 2012, expanded their nursery by 5,000 trees to accommodate future distribution to the area. Forest ReLeaf works closely with Ric Mayer, Joplin’s forestry recovery coordinator, to determine seasonal needs.

Sometimes staff has the opportunity to be part of the reforestation process. This year, on Oct. 4, as they did last October, employees from Forest ReLeaf and Ameriprise Financial will accompany the trees to Joplin and help with the planting efforts. To date, Forest ReLeaf has given Joplin more than 3,000 trees, and has plans to send another 1,700 or more in the next year. Businesses interested in supporting this cause may be eligible to receive Missouri Neighborhood Assistance Program tax credits for their donations to Forest ReLeaf.

Forest ReLeaf’s work in Joplin has included more than tree delivery. As the nonprofit partner a new educational space and healing garden in Cunningham Park, the organization is helping to create an “open space, sacred place” for survivors and visitors. Drury University’s Hammons School of Architecture students designed this new Butterfly Garden & Overlook, funded by a grant from the TKF Foundation. Research partners include Drury University, Cornell University, and the U.S. Forest Service Northeastern Station.

Education and Outreach

Giving away trees only works if people are educated on how to plant and care for them. Walsh works with the recipients to make sure they plant the “right tree in the right place,” accounting for utilities, soil, and other conditions. All recipients are given instructions on proper planting and care techniques.

Walsh, an International Society of Arboriculturists (ISA) Certified Arborist and winner of the 2012 ISA Midwestern Chapter Award of Merit, gives frequent lectures on a variety of tree topics. In addition to the annual TreeKeepers course, he also teaches classes on forest ecology and soils, tree identification, and tree biology through Missouri Community Forestry Council, St. Louis Community College, and through the Missouri Botanical Garden.

In partnership with the Department of Conservation, Forest ReLeaf also administers the Missouri Forestkeepers Network ( This network, open to individuals, landowners, and educators, provides information and education to its members regarding ways to enhance and sustain our trees and forests. Currently, there are more than 2,600 members, representing nearly every county in the state, who report on activities such as removing invasive species, installing food plots, conducting youth outreach programs, and completing mast surveys. Membership is free and includes a number of benefits, including the quarterly Forestkeeper Monitor newsletter, workshops, conferences, and thank-you incentives.

Roots in the Community

Because of the nature of their tree distribution, Forest ReLeaf routinely works with partners across the state. To get trees to Joplin, they work closely with Department foresters and city officials. Together with City Academy in North St. Louis they are piloting a new education stewardship program for elementary school children. Their collaboration with Brightside St. Louis was instrumental in helping to create the award-winning Brightside St. Louis Demonstration Garden, which was designed to cultivate environmental stewardship.

Along with several corporate partners, their board of trustees consists of individuals who are influential in area tree concerns. Among them are: Greg Hayes, commissioner of forestry, City of St. Louis; Bill Reininger, park operations manager, Forest Park Forever; Tom Ott, director, St. Louis County Parks and Recreation; Rick Schenk, superintendent of vegetation management, Ameren Missouri; Sheila Voss, vice president education, Missouri Botanical Garden; and serving ex officio, Cathy deJong, forestry regional supervisor, Missouri Department of Conservation. Perhaps bringing things full circle, Mary Sherfy, Forest ReLeaf’s first executive director, joined the board in 2011.

Future Plans

The organization is working on a 20-year sustainability plan that may include further expansion of the nursery, a biodiversity greenhouse, and construction of a new education center and outdoor classroom. Continuing to build upon existing collaborative agreements, such as the one with the Department of Conservation, as well as cultivating new funding partners, will be a key factor for Forest ReLeaf’s long-term success.

Forest ReLeaf of Missouri – By the Numbers

Forest ReLeaf’s homegrown trees are helping to enhance the urban tree canopy in 65 Missouri counties. More than 800 community groups have participated in the free tree distribution programs, receiving more than 100,000 trees and shrubs for 1,387 separate planting projects. Volunteers are critical to the organization’s success. In the past year, 325 nursery volunteers contributed 5,253 hours caring for the thousands of trees growing at CommuniTree Gardens Nursery.

Contact Information

Forest ReLeaf of Missouri

(Office Address)

4207 Lindell Blvd., Ste 301,

St. Louis, MO 63018




Facebook: Forest ReLeaf of Missouri

Twitter: @forestreleaf

Forestkeepers Network




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This Issue's Staff

Editor In Chief - Ara Clark
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair Terrill
Art Director - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Stephanie Thurber
Artist - Mark Raithel
Circulation - Laura Scheuler