Growing community

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Hot concrete or cool greenery? Scorching sun or spreading branches? Automobile exhaust or the sweet fragrance of irises?

Some metro Detroiters have decided that, given these choices, they’ll go green every time. Not ones to sit and watch the weeds grow, they’ve taken such landscaping matters into their own garden-gloved hands.

Some plant traditional flower-beds on street corners, with springtime bulbs and other perennials or bright annuals such as petunias or marigolds. Others, such as some residents of Leverette Street in Corktown, have sculpted a whimsical two-house-long alligator hedge.

Few, however, can compare to Joe and Barbara Mahan. Life-long Ferndale residents, they started landscaping Lewiston Street, where they live, in 1989 when Joe retired from his job as a Detroit high school principal.

At first it was just the very corner of Lewiston and Central, where they planted a few flowers. Then they planted a pair of maples, a memorial to Joe’s brother and sister-in-law, in the park across from their house. But the ground beneath the trees seemed to need something, so Joe began to add plants and flowers.

Soon, they planted a few more trees – a memorial for Joe’s sister and then another for the Ferndale chief of police – and more flowers. A redbud – the state tree of Oklahoma – commemorated the Oklahoma City bombing. Another tree was a birthday gift for Barbara. Now, the gardens stretch the length of the entire block.

"It just kind of evolved," says Joe, who explains that he buys the plants anywhere he sees them on sale. "We didn’t have any plan." And when you’re working on this scale, there’s no real need. "You don’t have a design. You’re like an artist."

The gardens feature perennials, such as spiky yuccas ("A wonderful plant for accenting, because it has a nice look all year," explains Joe), fragrant irises and lilies, as well as bright petunias, which provide summer-long color.

With the small exception of the Mahans’ own lush corner lot, their entire planting is on city property. Not that the Ferndale government seems to mind.

"We don’t ask," confesses Joe. "But you know they appreciate it, because they’ve given us beautification awards."

The block has become a refuge for office workers and Ferndale residents, who wander, sit and eat their lunch or walk their dogs through the gardens. When the Mahans are away on one of their frequent vacations or business trips, neighbors pull hoses across the street to water the plants.

"Some people do pick them," says Joe. "But if that bothers you, you shouldn’t do this."

Besides, the entire community benefits when individuals plant trees and flowers. Joe Sulak, an urban forester and the community planting coordinator for Greening of Detroit, explains that trees help cut heat and pollution in the city.

Sulak spends each Saturday with crews of community volunteers, planting trees on the grassy berms between Detroit’s sidewalks and streets. Greening of Detroit has done this for 10 years now, and the nonprofit organization has planted 24,000 trees so far.

The trees – London plane, red oak, horse chestnut, crab apple, honey locust and maple, to name just a few – are chosen for their ability to withstand the crummiest city conditions. Compacted soil, salt, drought, extra heat and air pollution are all hazards to trees, but these species do well despite them.

For anyone wanting to plant trees on their street, Sulak offers a few words of advice. First, check with the city, which has a tree plan specifying which types of trees ought to go on which streets. It’s a method of ensuring biodiversity (Dutch elm disease, which wiped out hundreds of thousands of the city’s elm trees, taught that difficult lesson), while allowing the city easy maintenance.

Also consider the tree’s eventual height and spread. Sure, a cute little maple sapling will look fine in front of your house, but what happens in 20 years when it shades your rose garden and bonks into your cable wires?

Sulak suggests that to decide which tree is best, survey the other established trees in the area. They’re probably still there because they do well under those conditions. Or, as in the case of the so-called ghetto palms, which are Ailanthus altissima when they’re at home in their native China, because they have no natural predators in this part of the world and grow wherever they can – posing a threat to other species.

Finally, says Sulak, there are regulations. "The city of Detroit dictates there be at least four feet of berm there between the sidewalk and street," he explains. In addition, the tree’s trunk should be at least 1-1/2 to 2 inches in diameter to begin with, and should not block the view for traffic or pedestrians.

Pedestrians around Wayne State University have probably noticed Detroiter Marcia Pilliciotti’s street-level gardens – they’re planted in the yards and flowerbeds around neighborhood police and fire stations.

Pilliciotti’s public gardening started in 1995, when she looked out the window of her workplace at Wayne State and saw the neglected gardens at the fire station at the corner of Second and Burroughs. She asked if she could plant some flowers, just to have something nice to look at.

"I was enthusiastically received," she recalls.

Not long afterward, she decided to go to Michigan State University to earn her master gardener certificate. Now, she works in the perennials department of Telly’s Greenhouse in Troy, and spends her spare time tending gardens at the fire house and the 13th Police Precinct on Woodward in Detroit.

The secret of the fabulously tall and lush cannas (a type of lily) outside the fire station, says Pilliciotti, is the Detroit Edison steam tunnel that runs just under the garden and keeps the soil cozy year-round. "It makes its own little environment," she says.

She’s also planted plenty of sedums, which grow well in warm, dry conditions, and plume poppies, which grow to be 7 feet tall.

The firefighters seem to appreciate Pilliciotti’s work, and thank her with treats and garden tools.

The gardens, says Pilliciotti, are her way of showing appreciation for Detroit’s firefighters and police officers, and following in the footsteps of her grandfather, an expert gardener who impressed on her the value of growing flowers.

"I can’t make a big dent on the drug problem or crime problem in the city," she explains. "But I can make it nicer to look at."

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