Arboretum Detroit

A community tree nursery for neighbors to learn about, plant, share, and grow trees together.












Part Sun

Lot Type
Hustling Lawn
Special Lot Condition
Project Name
Arboretum Detroit Tree Nursery

Arboretum Detroit

A community tree nursery for neighbors to learn about, plant, share, and grow trees together.


Arboreetum Detroit



Project Timeline

May 2019 we began legal work to get the conditional use permit needed for our project, but we didn’t start ground work until September and finished getting trees in the ground in mid-October. In spring of 2020 we completed the water catchment station.

Project Leader(s):

Andrew "Birch" Kemp



Who Else Was Involved:

Family, friends, neighbors, all volunteers, but one of our volunteers had a backhoe and a tractor which was irreplaceable, and donated over 40 hours of his time and equipment.

Lot Design:

Hedge Fund

Lot Type

Hustling Lawn

Lot Size

Double Lot

Lot Address

3300 Elmwood

Describe the overall process for transforming your lot.

In short: taking out the bad and putting in the good.

The first step was becoming a nonprofit, which helped in getting the land, and then becoming a community partner to the DLBA was huge. Once you’ve completed those tasks, getting land was surprisingly easy. But then we had to get a conditional use permit from the City of Detroit because our project was considered an Urban Farm under the City’s zoning ordinance. That was expensive ($1,200) and time consuming (about 60 days until we got the permit), and required a land use hearing and neighbor feedback.

After we got the permit, we started site prep - pulling out rocks, concrete, garbage, buckthorn, dead trees. Then we amended the soil with Michigan peat moss, top soil, and compost. We tilled that in, then sited our rows. Measuring the rows was an involved process, we had to think through how wide we wanted the rows and paths.

Did you customize your lot design? If so, how?

Yes, we customized the tree selection and the layout of the design. Ultimately it came down to what we could get a deal on, when considering the budget. We put a survey out to 200 people in the neighborhood, and asked what the neighbor’s favorite trees were and what they wanted to see in their neighborhood. We wanted to get community buy-in and tailor it to their interests. It came down to that and what was available in mass.

We had to think through how wide we wanted the rows and paths. We wanted some rows you could did by hand, but we also wanted some rows where we could maneuver a bobcat in between the rows. We also wanted to be on an angle so we had a true north-south orientation of the rows, and we liked the contrast to the city’s rectilinear streets. We wanted to be distinguishable from Hantz Woodlands, which also informed our decision to be on an angle to the streets.

We also wanted a community space in the front and back of the lots, and we wanted to have permanent trees that offer shade to the young saplings and “saplettes”. The permanent trees also help to feel and look more like a park.

Is your current project part of a larger plan, goal, or initiative within your community?


Purpose of the Project:

To have a nursery in the neighborhood for everybody. To grow trees that people find in the neighborhood, to have trees that people can plant in their yard without having to buy them. To have a community project, it brought a lot of people together around a common purpose, and that was cool. To teach the kids about trees and have that educational component and have those kids have a relationship with those trees.

Lessons Learned
Land Acquisition

One parcel was donated to the arboretum by a board member and the other two were purchased from the DLBA. Being a community partner with the DLBA allowed us to buy nine lots in 2019.

Skill Building

We got better at amending the soil properly because we had the funds to procure proper resources. We are used to building compost for years before we have enough soil to use. And we did use some of the compost we have cultivated from leaf litter, woodchips, and brew waste. However, this time we had the luxury of importing topsoil, peat moss, finished compost, sand, and mycorrhizae. This site needed lots of love, so it was nice to be able to do it right. We also really sat down and figured out water catchment for the first time. Since we are off the grid in the nursery it was a must to build a structure and catch rainwater. We also got better at graphics. We figured out how to use Adobe Illustrator to depict our plans.

Community Engagement

We created a tree survey that was distributed on paper throughout the neighborhood. We passed 200 of these door to door. They could be returned to our mailbox or submitted digitally. This allowed neighbors to give input on what trees they would like to see more of in the neighborhood and actually choose for their own yard. This was a great way to introduce the project. We essentially offered them trees and when they come to dig them up they will be using the nursery. We used the neighborhood listserv to request volunteers on regular workdays and to come build the nursery. We got lots of help.


We applied to the Chapman Forestry Foundation and received funding from them for additional trees.


What was challenging about this process, and how did you adapt?

The legal requirements regarding our proposed land use were a curveball. DFC was helpful with that process. We asked a lot of questions and re-budgeted our money. The whole process was adapting and improvising as you go. You can’t be too firm in your head or rigid with your ideas. Being open to other experiences and ideas is necessary.

What is the maintenance plan for this project after its first year?

Our plan is to maintain low maintenance ground cover. We are seeding both clover and a native wildflower mix that will not require regular mowing and create a meadow aesthetic. Our board members and neighborhood volunteers will handle watering and weeding duties. Our hope is that neighbors will take ownership of the nursery and lend a hand as they see needs. We will have a formal sign up for volunteer opportunities as we all get accustomed to what is required.