Guided by Bible passages that cite the evidence of God in nature, parishioners of Grace Episcopal Church will dedicate an arboretum Sunday on their 4-acre property in Brainerd. It's the latest in a network of Chattanooga-area properties dedicated to an appreciation of trees.
"The Earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof," said Lisa Lemza, referencing Psalm 34, as she walked the church grounds Tuesday afternoon. "Nature is the fundamental way we approach God."
GreenGrace Arboretum has been certified as a Level 2 arboretum, out of a possible four, by the Tennessee Urban Forestry Council, one of multiple organizations that provide such designations. Several properties in the Chattanooga area have been certified by the council, including Reflection Riding Arboretum and Nature Center, the area's only arboretum at the highest designation, Level 4. Others include McCoy Farms and Gardens in Walden, Level 2, and the historic Fort Wood district in downtown Chattanooga, Level 1.
Southern Adventist University received a Level 1 accreditation in March 2020 from ArbNet, which is more globally focused.
The Collegedale campus chose the ArbNet designation first "because it is an online community of arboreta, and our arboretum has a strong online component, making it a good fit," said spokeswoman Janell Hullquist in an email. "However, there is nothing to prevent us from getting certified with the Tennessee Urban Forestry Council as well, and that is actually in the plans for the future, as those involved have the time."
Hullquist said the biology department spearheaded the effort to identify and tag the 1,200 trees and woody plants on the 1,000-acre college campus. ArbNet's Level 1 accreditation requires that a site have at least 25 species of woody plants. It is typically awarded to golf courses, colleges, cemeteries, zoos, private estates and towns with an organized tree collection. Successive levels of accreditation through ArbNet are designed for botanical gardens or similar commercial enterprises. The closest in Georgia and Alabama are in Atlanta and Huntsville.
The Tennessee council has certified 85 arboretums across the state, with progressive criteria for each level of certification. The most noticeable requirement is the number of trees, ranging from 30 to 59 species for Level 1 up to 120 or more for Level 4.
Level 2 requires that a site have 60 to 89 distinct species, be open to the public and have a map of the trees available to visitors. GreenGrace's legend identifies 73 species of trees and 16 species of shrubs. Each is labeled with its common and scientific name and has a QR code to reference more information via cellphone.
The arboretum is the latest in a series of nature-minded projects at the 300-member church, which was established in 1885 and moved to Brainerd in 1941.
The grounds have been designated as a backyard habitat by the National Wildlife Federation. Its butterfly and pollinator gardeners are certified by the North American Butterfly Association, Monarch Watch and the Chattanooga Area Pollinator Partnership.
If you go
— What: Dedication of GreenGrace Arboretum
— When: 2 p.m. Sunday, rain or shine, with reception to follow
— Where: Grace Episcopal Church, 20 Belvoir Ave.
— Contact: 423-698-2433, saygrace.net
The water and willow oaks, the oldest and tallest specimens on the property, appear on Chattanooga's Notable Trees Register. Hamilton County Master Gardeners volunteer on the grounds. Nearby residents are involved in the raised-bed community garden and the weekly farmers market in season.
More than that, said fellow church member Kristina Shaneyfelt, who partnered with Lemza on the project, is how this island of green in a sea of gray engages the neighborhood at large, whether transient visitors cut across the property while jogging or pause for lunch in the shade of a hackberry.
"This part of Brainerd is an aging, densely populated suburb, asphalted edge to edge," she said in an email. "Grace's grove of trees really stands out among the aging strip malls along Brainerd Road."
That's true even in midwinter, when the tree canopy is mostly a thicket of bare limbs and the only color comes from the sweeping front lawn, a few evergreen shrubs and the leathery green foliage of Southern magnolias.
Shaneyfelt and Lemza are both master gardeners. Lemza is a founding member of the newly formed Tri-State Chapter of the Tennessee Bluebird Society and served for nine years on the Chattanooga Tree Commission. Shaneyfelt is president of the Tennessee Valley Chapter of Wild Ones, which promotes biodiverse landscaping practices.
Other area arboretums
The Tennessee Urban Forestry Council lists 85 certified arboretums in Tennessee, including the following in the Chattanooga area. They are designated from levels 1-4, depending on the number of trees and other criteria.
4 - Reflection Riding Arboretum and Nature Center
2 - Cleveland State Community College
2 - Linda T. Collins Arboretum at UTC
2 - McCoy Farms and Gardens in Walden
1 - Cleveland/Bradley County Greenway
1 - Fort Wood district
1 - Monteagle Sunday School Assembly
ArbNet, a global network of arboretums, has one area site in its list of accredited properties.
1 - Southern Adventist University in Collegedale
Despite their deep roots in environmental causes, the arboretum was not without its challenges. They first talked about the idea in 2014. At the time, they identified just under 30 species growing on the grounds, so they knew Level 1's threshold was within reach.
A reorganization by the Tennessee Urban Forestry Council put "a hitch in the certification process," Shaneyfelt said, but they used the downtime to add another 35 or so trees.
Unfortunately, their efforts coincided with a historically dry 2016.
"The drought derailed us," she said. "We made a major buy of large trees — which we no longer do — and lost most of them. It was discouraging, costing us both time and money."
They renewed their effort in 2018-19, and the campus was certified in December 2021.
Next comes a GreenGrace Creation Coalition to inspire tree-planting efforts by homeowners, businesses, schools and other faith communities.
"People — even those who don't love or even much notice other plants — love trees," said Shaneyfelt. "They have emotional connections — relationships — with particular trees and groves from their childhood or from the trees they pass every day on the way to work."
More than an aesthetic addition to an urban setting, trees can help regulate microclimates. According to Ecowatch.com, trees filter air pollution, provide shade, absorb carbon dioxide, help prevent flash flooding and offset the heat island effects (largely from asphalt) that make cities hotter than surrounding rural areas.
Studies repeatedly show the presence of trees even reduces violence, Lemza said.
"It's so simple," she said. "Trees are the answer to so many infrastructure issues."
Still on the wish list for GreenGrace is extending the courtyard sidewalk to Brainerd Road to make the arboretum more accessible. Some of the non-native "legacy" species planted decades ago might also be phased out eventually, to be replaced with natives, Lemza said, and they've applied for grants from the city of Chattanooga for stormwater abatement efforts that would benefit the campus.
"And we will likely keep adding more trees," Shaneyfelt said.
Sunday's dedication will include a blessing by Bishop Brian Lee Cole of the East Tennessee Diocese and the Rev. April Berends, the pastor at Grace. The service will start at 2 p.m., rain or shine, and will include a reception afterward.
Contact Lisa Denton at email@example.com or 423-757-6281.