20th Annual Tree Sale: A Celebratory Interview with Greg Levine
By Audrey Pruitt
Each year, Trees Atlanta hosts a large, community-driven sale of mostly native trees, plants, shrubs, and vines. This year is particularly exciting for the organization, as we reflect on the lasting relationships and landscapes that have been built over the past 20 years. To properly kick off the celebration of the Tree Sale’s 20th anniversary, I sat down for a conversation with Greg Levine, Co-Executive Director of Trees Atlanta and the Tree Sale founder. The Tree Sale will take place on October 5 from 8:00 AM – 2:00 PM at Freedom Farmers’ Market at the Carter Center.
Circa 2003, rocking dad jeans.
Tell me about the Tree Sale! Why did you start it?
The Tree Sale started 20 years ago at Piedmont Park, over in the old parking lot at the edge of the tennis courts. We had about 50 varieties for sale. It was an idea to raise more money for our NeighborWoods program because we didn’t have nearly as many staff members or established partners. The $15,000 we raised was really important in helping us plant more trees in Atlanta. I also thought it would be a cool way to reach more people, and get a lot of the native, more unusual plants that weren’t available into people’s yards, especially 20 years ago.
What’s driven you to continue doing the Tree Sale year after year?
You see a lot of people who really love and are excited about the plants, and you get to see many of the same faces year after year. You really get to know them. It’s a great opportunity for people to buy unique trees that the public still can’t find anywhere else. And of course, it still helps us raise money to support the organization. The proceeds go towards tree planting.
This year, Trees Atlanta is offering 290 species at the sale – that’s a lot! How do you select which plants and trees to offer? Where do you start?
We really look to find as many native species as we possibly can – vines and shrubs, as well as trees that you can’t find anywhere else. And even some nonnative plants that are really difficult to find. We want to focus on species that have quadruple the benefits for wildlife. It’s about the pollinators, insects, birds, and other animals. That’s always been incredibly important to us. We live in an urban environment that has had so much vegetation removed, so we want to create connectivity for wildlife. That means having plants that they can forage and get nectar from, and pollen, insects, and fruit.
It’s also about promoting beauty, and selecting native, unusual varieties and cultivars with special growth patterns, sizes, and flowers. We want to support the wholesale nurseries who want to grow unusual plants, but people don’t purchase them as much.
When you say “unusual,” are you referring to a species that is less common? Or is there something about it that people might find odd?
Less common. I want people to look beyond the typical azalea, blue hydrangea, red maple tree, daylily – things you would find at any store. We seek out more exciting things that are weird and unusual, and have many ecological benefits.
What advice would you give to homeowners and renters who are interested in purchasing plants and trees, but have no idea where to begin?
Start by attending our free educational programming. Atlanta Botanical Garden also offers a lot of education programming, and the Atlanta History Center, which has great native gardens. It’s a great place to learn and pick up a book.
Come volunteer and learn more about trees – how to plant them, and about the native plants we plant. I recommend doing restoration work with us too.
We have a lot of landscape architects and other experts at the plant sale that can help you with your plant selections and give you planting advice. So there’s a lot of opportunity to have your questions answered.
And people should focus on having 70% native species if they can. There’s a lot of data behind this. Native wildlife gets significantly reduced when the native plant material goes below 70%.
Are you doing anything special for the 20th anniversary of the sale?
We created a really nice list of Our 20 Favorite Trees. To pull it together, we looked at a diversity of tree types – a few shrubs, a lot of the plants you do not see. Red maples aren’t on that list, because you can get them at large nursery centers. We looked at different sizes, fall coloring, and the oddities.
I really like the plants and trees that have four good seasons, like sassafras. It has twisted branches, fall colors, yellow flowers, and a lot of wildlife around it. And devil’s walking stick, it has great fall colors, white flowers, blue fruit, an interesting winter look, and it’s incredibly useful to wildlife. A lot of times people go for only flowers when selecting trees, which really just lasts for two, maybe three weeks. I like considering the year-round benefits and beauty, not just that flowering time.
We are also hosting our first ever “Second Chance” sale the next day at our Kendeda Center headquarters. If you can’t make it on Saturday morning, there is an opportunity to come on Sunday to purchase trees.
Are any of the 20 Favorite Trees offered at the Sale this year?
Everything on the Favorite Trees list is available at the Sale!