Spruce Up Austin leafs their markPublished 7:01am Monday, April 21, 2014
Mike Ruzek grew up appreciating trees. He remembers the beautiful oaks that dotted the landscape throughout Luther College, his alma mater. And he can remember the time he lost out on funding a city initiative to beautify Austin with trees.
Ruzek made the pitch to the city of Austin in the fall of 1989, just as city staff had received funding for city improvement projects. The Austin City Council took several suggestions from residents, including from Ruzek, who had seen how Dutch elm disease had ravaged the area’s tree population.
“It was horrible,” he said.
That’s why Ruzek found himself in front of the council, asking them to fund a project to plant more trees in town. Yet Ruzek’s idea fell on deaf ears at the time — the money went to paint the Austin Community Bandshell, instead.
Ruzek wasn’t pleased with the results, but it wasn’t until then-head of the Austin Area Chamber of Commerce Larry Haugen suggested Ruzek do something about it.
And the first seeds of what would become Spruce Up Austin were born, 25 years ago this year.
“We got some people together, and the first meeting we held was in January of 1990,” Ruzek said.
Spruce Up Austin is one of Austin’s oldest community groups. With about 18 current members on its committee and dozens of volunteers each year, the group is dedicated to planting trees and beautifying Austin through partnerships with local businesses, property owners and city staff. Spruce Up members say the group has planted more than 2,600 trees over the past 25 years, which has improved community parks and private drives by almost $500,000 in estimated value.
Though Spruce Up’s beginning had a lot to do with Ruzek’s ambition to restock trees in town, he is quick to heap praise on others. Without the local chamber of commerce’s help, Spruce Up wouldn’t have had its initial success, according to Ruzek.
“The Chamber gave us a lot of credibility right from the get-go,” he said. “We had a place to meet, we had staff that they used for our benefit, and so we were kind of up and running.”
That helped Spruce Up members create projects like 100 trees for the 100 year anniversary of Hormel Foods Corp., which the group tackled in 1991.
“We raised $27,000 for that project,” he said. “So 100 trees for 100 years became 137 trees, because the money kept coming in. And they were big trees.”
That turned into oak, maple, spruce and other trees all along Hormel Century Parkway, where the Hormel plant is.
The group never asks for money from the city of Austin, but rather asks for private donations and writes grants to help fund tree plantings.
“It’s great,” said Gretchen Ramlo, Spruce Up Austin president. “I’ve never been part of a group that hasn’t had any politics or ego in it, and Spruce Up Austin is one of those groups. We all work to help make Austin better.”
Ramlo has been with the group for about 18 years. She can remember some of Spruce Up’s bigger projects, such as the 150 trees for 150 years that Spruce Up volunteers planted throughout the city.
That project, completed in 2006, brought more than 100 volunteers together on a misty day to hand-dig holes for mature trees. The group hadn’t realized how big a task 150 trees would be at the time, according to Ramlo and Ruzek. But the time was right to tackle a big project.
“We’ve always looked for opportunities to plant trees,” Ruzek said with a laugh.
Despite the crummy weather, the group brought together 99 volunteers out of about 110 scheduled to work that day. In addition, more than a dozen residents who walked by decided to volunteer at various locations throughout the city — including public land like Todd Park.
Each team of 10 to 12 volunteers were in charge of planting about 10 to 15 trees, which needed to go in the ground that day despite less than ideal conditions.
“And we did it,” Ruzek said with a smile.
Though Spruce Up Austin is celebrating 25 years, the group isn’t resting on its laurels.
Spruce Up volunteers are planning a tree walk along East Side Lake, which will feature 25 types of trees to commemorate the group’s 25 years.
“It’s our gift back to Austin,” Ramlo said. “It will be entirely funded through Spruce Up.”
Spruce Up members will continue to plant a diverse number of trees in the community, to ensure as many trees as possible survive.
“We’re going to focus on diversity,” Ruzek said. “The city has made a critical error over the years. After the Dutch Elm Disease, the city planted a lot of ash trees to replace the elms. Now there’s emerald ash borer. And we’ve planted too many ash trees.”
The group has seen trees come and go — Ruzek can walk down any street in Austin and identify which trees Spruce Up Austin has put in, and which trees were knocked down or had to be taken down for various reasons.
For example, the city of Austin had to remove many trees along North Main Street near the Cedar River as part of the city’s work on the North Main Flood Control Project. Though those trees won’t be replanted, the city’s parks and recreation department has plans to put in other trees elsewhere to replace the ones taken out.
That’s good news to Spruce Up members, and it’s a concerted effort by the city to work with Spruce Up.
“It’s the perfect group to have,” Mayor Tom Stiehm said. “They improve the city; they don’t cost anything; they raise their own funds.”
And Spruce Up Austin will continue to be around to plant even more trees, which is something Ruzek, Ramlo and other Spruce Up members are all too pleased to do. They don’t always ask for recognition, but they enjoy the hard work they put in to give Austin more trees.
“That’s what’s so great about Spruce Up,” Ramlo said. “We just do it.”