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Ellen Morar lift a tree into place

Just Keep Growing

Tree-Planting Projects Take Root in Valley Region

Overhead and underfoot, trees work their magic.

They filter air and water that runs from city streets into streams. They hold soil against floods and let water seep slowly underground to refill deep drinking-water aquifers.  

They host pollinators, birds, whirring cicadas and roosting bats in their branches and fish in shady streams under their canopies.

All in all, trees are cool.    

And they help keep people cool, too. It can be 25 degrees cooler in the shade of a tree. Forested areas of cities are about 3 degrees cooler than unshaded parts.

For all these reasons, Tennessee Valley Authority’s Shannon O’Quinn, senior water resource specialist, and Jess Wykoff-Carpenter, watershed representative, are leading TVA-funded tree plantings for partner organizations at schools, parks and bus stops throughout the region.

“Planting trees … is one of the best things we can do for water quality,” Wykoff-Carpenter said. “And partnerships are so important for our work.”

Tree Teachings

To see the magic in a winter-bare tree, its roots bundled in burlap, requires imagination.

But imagination and determination are what volunteers at two recent TVA-funded tree plantings had in spades.

Volunteers braved frost-tipped mornings, muddy ground and streaming rain to plant trees at a Canopies for Campuses event at Chilhowee Intermediate School and a BLOOM event – Beautifying Local Outdoor spaces withOut Mowing – at Gibbs Ruritan Park, both in Knox County, Tennessee.

Each tree-planting day emphasized learning.

Tom Welborn, founder and now board member of Trees Knoxville, rested one hand on the tipped trunk of a tulip poplar as he waited for volunteers from Trees Knoxville and Chilhowee Intermediate School.

“You want to look for what’s called flare,” Welborn said. He stooped over the burlap-wrapped ball of roots – about the size of a large turkey – and pointed to the base of the wide trunk.

“You want to plant it at that depth or even higher, so it gets plenty of oxygen, water and air to the roots,” he said. He gauged the hole’s depth with a shovel blade.

Welborn, Sophie Carter, Trees Knoxville program manager, and Kerstin Sisco, Trees Knoxville vice chair, unfurled the burlap and rolled the heavy root ball into the soil. They refilled the hole, careful not to pack it too tight, and watered each new tree.

“Canopies for Campuses is one of our most popular tree planting and public service events,” Dale Madden, Trees Knoxville chair, said. “We do anywhere from six to eight school campuses across Knox County. TVA was kind enough to fully fund and sponsor that program for us.”

Tsai Chang, a volunteer planting trees at Chilhowee Intermediate School, had been searching for new ways to give back to the community.

“Urban forestry would be an interesting, cool thing to learn in 2024,” he said.

He wasn’t the only one who thought so.

“We’ve had AmeriCorps now get involved,” Shannon Campbell, Trees Knoxville volunteer, said. “Also, Keep Knoxville Beautiful has been involved. But we can always use more volunteers.”

The Chilhowee volunteers made quick work of a tulip poplar, Tennessee’s state tree, near a flagpole.

They planted oaks and magnolias along a walkway. Redbuds in a row atop a hill, where assistant principal Kaley Mendenhall said she could envision students enjoying their lunch in the shade.

“Having support from TVA and having everyone out here working together, it really means a lot to us,” Mendenhall said.

Chris Daniels, principal of Chilhowee, said he appreciated the ecological benefits and educational opportunities for students.

“Planting trees helps beautify our campus as well as take care of making natural habitats for our animals,” Daniels said. “It also provides our school with the chance to create fun and engaging lessons about the importance of trees and environmental stewardship.”

Stormy Weather

At the Gibbs Ruritan Park BLOOM planting in East Tennessee, sweetbay magnolia, persimmon, fringe trees and more added beauty and habitat. They’ll serve as sentinels against floods, too.

Gibbs Ruritan Park has a paved walking path, playground, ball fields and a tennis court.

In rainy winters, it has acres of puddly grass.

Flooded areas are hard to maintain. That’s why BLOOM – a cooperative among University of Tennessee Extension, Knox County Stormwater Management and Knox County Parks and Recreation – aims to reduce mowing by 25% by replacing grass with native plants.

“Now you see why they want to do it here,” said Ellen Morar, BLOOM member and Knox County master gardener, as she pushed a wheelbarrow of mulch through thick mud.    

“We’re lining the drainage way with trees,” Andrea Ludwig, University of Tennessee associate professor and extension specialist, said. She waved to the row of 30 or so trees waiting near pre-dug holes. “This drainage goes into our new rain garden, here. And this is all protecting Beaver Creek and the water quality in Beaver Creek, which flows into the Clinch River.”

Volunteers from TVA, AmeriCorps and the Native Plant Rescue Squad worked beside ponds puckered with rain.

Ludwig explained that the trees act as ambassadors, showing the public what they can do for their own land and the ecosystem beyond.

“Each little piece of our watershed, if we can protect it and grow these sponges in our landscape with native plants, that’s going to be that much more protection from stormwater flooding,” Ludwig said.

The native piece is key for long-term ecosystem health.

“(Native species) are going to do so much better with the weather conditions and the water conditions that we experience here locally,” Kaitlyn Klema, of Knox County Stormwater Management, said. “They’re going to absorb more water, which in turn filters pollutants out of storm water.”

As an added benefit, native trees require less water and fertilizer, which means less runoff into local streams. They also provide food and shelter to native animals.

Branching Out

As the rain grew from a drizzle to a downpour at Gibbs, volunteers wrestled waterlogged root balls into the ground. Boots became 2 inches taller with packed clay mud, and shovelfuls of dirt became heavy to heft.

Yet spirits stayed high.

Daniel Geren, a TVA fisheries biologist, smiled as he stepped into an ankle-deep mudhole.

“I heard about this opportunity for TVA and wanted to learn more about what we do in this space, and how we can partner with BLOOM and make this a better park,” Geren said.

“TVA’s support on this project has been instrumental,” Ludwig said. “Being able to plant these trees and making this project come to life, it’s just been amazing.”

With native grass meadows and rain gardens planned throughout Knox County parks, it'll mean less mowing, more habitat and a reduced carbon footprint, said Jason Halliburton, of Knox County Parks and Recreation.

“It’s a huge benefit for the communities throughout the county,” Anna Roeder, of Knox County Parks and Recreation, said.

The future looks leafy for Knox County and areas TVA funds across the Valley region.

“We have an ongoing cooperative agreement with Trees Knoxville,” Wykoff-Carpenter said. “We provided … (funding) for their Canopies for Campuses this year, and also their Shade While You Wait bus stop program.”

“We’ll be planting one to two trees at various bus stops across town so people waiting have some shade before the bus comes,” Trees Knoxville’s Carter said. “That’s definitely a needed thing.”

For Wykoff-Carpenter, working side by side with partners and volunteers is a satisfying outcome of a long funding process.

“It’s really cool to actually see the trees go in the ground after I’ve been thinking about them for so long,” she said. “Our partnerships will just keep growing.”

Photo Gallery

Anna Roeder and Jason Halliburton plant native trees

Anna Roeder and Jason Halliburton, of Knox County Parks and Recreation, plant native trees on park lands to improve water quality and habitat for birds, pollinators and other animals.

TVA watershed representative Jess Wykoff-Carpenter and Volunteers planting tree

TVA watershed representative Jess Wykoff-Carpenter, center, teams with volunteer foresters Aoife Whitaker and Tsai Chang during a planting at Chilhowee Intermediate School in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Elaine Fitzsimons looks on as her mom, Whitney Fitzsimons, plants trees

Elaine Fitzsimons looks on as her mom, Whitney Fitzsimons, plants trees during a rainy day at Gibbs Ruritan Park.

Ellen Morar hauls a wheelbarrow of mulch

Ellen Morar toughs the pouring rain as she hauls a wheelbarrow of mulch at Gibbs Ruritan Park in Knox County, Tennessee. 

Volunteer Justin Teague and TVA fisheries biologist Daniel Geren plant a native tree

Volunteer Justin Teague and TVA fisheries biologist Daniel Geren plant a native tree in a low spot at Gibbs Ruritan Park. 

Kaitlyn Klema, of Knox County Stormwater Management, prepares a persimmon tree for planting

Kaitlyn Klema, of Knox County Stormwater Management, prepares a persimmon tree for planting. She co-organized the planting event at Gibbs Ruritan Park. 

Volunteers planting an oak

Christopher Weaver works with Trees Knoxville’s Shannon Campbell and volunteer Sylvia McLaurin to plant an oak near Chilhowee Intermediate School’s entrance as part of the Canopies for Campuses program. 

Shannon Campbell, of Trees Knoxville, adds a ring of mulch

Shannon Campbell, of Trees Knoxville, adds a ring of mulch around a newly planted tree atop a hill at Chilhowee Intermediate School. 

Tom Welborn, co-founder of the nonprofit Trees Knoxville, teaches others how to plant trees and spread mulch

Tom Welborn, co-founder of the nonprofit Trees Knoxville, teaches others how to plant trees and spread mulch around the base, leaving bare soil around the trunk for proper drainage. 

Tom Welborn and volunteer Evan Mitchell point to a newly planted tree’s root flare

Tom Welborn and volunteer Evan Mitchell point to a newly planted tree’s root flare as they explain the proper way to plant a tree. 

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Learn about opportunities to help protect natural resources at the Volunteer with TVA page.  

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