October 15, 2009
A project to make Ontario highways more environmentally-friendly could have broad and far-reaching positive effects on the economy of the horticulture industry.

An open house, held at Vineland Research and Innovation Centre on Sept. 3, revealed details of a pilot project to study survivability of greenhouse-raised trees bred locally to withstand the tough conditions found beside Ontario highways.

Through a partnership between Vineland Research and Innovation Centre and Landscape Ontario, the provincial government has agreed to fund the pilot project.  

Ontario Minister of Transportation Jim Bradley was a surprise visitor at the open house. “I assure the continued co-operation of MTO with this project,” said the minister. “My ministry approved $1-million to fund this project, and I and the Ontario government consider it money well invested.”

Chair of Vineland Research and Innovation Centre, Donald Ziraldo, introduced the day’s speakers and thanked the many partners, including nurseries, Willowbrook and Sheridan, and horticultural suppliers.

 LO executive director Tony DiGiovanni has campaigned for the concept of increased tree plantings along highways. In his speech to the audience of over 60 people, he stated, that MTO landscape architect Nick Close approached him with the idea over one year ago. The idea was promoted, resulting in the creation of a North American Centre for Highway Greening at the Vineland centre. After Vineland and MTO were brought together, it wasn’t long until the project took off and flourished. “I am not aware of any other research project such as this one,” said DiGiovanni.

Dr. Hannah Mathers, senior research fellow at Vineland Research and Innovation Centre and associate professor at Ohio State University, is studying appropriate species to survive the high stress environments presented along highways. She noted that the greening of the highways project only succeeds if the trees can survive. “That is where this project comes in,” said the researcher.

Developing new Ontario industry

The other issue for Dr. Mathers is working to grow tree liners in Ontario. “It’s a $60 million business that centres mainly in Oregon,” she said. “With the use of retractable-roof greenhouse technology, Ontario can capture a portion of the multimillion dollar small-tree market. We traditionally have imported these trees. This will foster stronger local production and drastically reduce the carbon footprint produced by the shipping process.”

Vineland constructed a special greenhouse by Cravo Equipment on the grounds. There are currently more than eight species of trees within the retractable-roof greenhouse.  

Francesco Pacelli, nursery technical analyst with Landscape Ontario, who has been helping Dr. Mathers at Vineland, notes that two other sites outside Vineland are part of the MTO project. Willowbrook Nurseries and Sheridan Nurseries are growing trees for the project.

All the species used for this project are salt tolerant. Next spring, all the trees from the three locations will be planted at the intersection of Highway 401 and 427.  “We plan to track all those trees on the highway site. We will label them according to their origins, whether they are from Vineland, Willowbrook, or Sheridan, or from other nursery bare root trees, and keep tracking  them for at least a couple of years. We will also plant them randomly on the site, in order to determine a fair test on their ability to withstand the harsh conditions,” said Pacelli.

“We (Landscape Ontario) are very pleased to partner with Vineland Research and Innovation Centre on this study. Finding ways to increase tree survival along our highways will greatly improve air quality and decrease pollution levels by trapping carbon dioxide,” said DiGiovanni.

“This project stands as an excellent example of Vineland’s partnership approach to research and innovation,” stated Dr. Jim Brandle, CEO of Vineland.

The minister said the project fits well with the MTO’s move to become greener in its operations. “We are attempting to make Ontario highways more esthetically attractive, while at the same time benefiting the health of our citizens. This project meets those two criteria, with the added bonus of using Ontario-grown trees, which in turn improves our economy.”

We will all see evidence of the project in the spring of 2010 at the intersection of Canada’s busiest highway and the 427. Many hope it’s just the start to green Ontario’s highway system.

Caption: It was a proud moment for all those who worked to initiate the project to green Ontario highways. In photo, are some of the key players who were instrumental in bringing the project to reality. From left, Dr. Jim Brandle, ceo of Vineland, Bob Adams, president of LO, Jim Bradley, Minister of Transportation, Tony DiGiovanni, LO’s executive director, and Don Ziraldo, chairman of the Vineland board of directors.