Busy season for  Tupelo tree planter

Junior Swords balances a crape myrtle tree on the Tupelo Municipal Tree Farm that will be transplanted somewhere in the city.

Junior Swords – yes, that’s his given name – may have one of the coolest jobs in Tupelo. The 55-year-old Pontotoc native oversees the city’s tree farm, located on the southern end of Lawndale Drive. On the approximately 13-acre tract (only a fraction of that comprises the tree farm), Swords, an 18-year veteran with the city and his crew of Department of Public Works employees plant, nurture and harvest trees that they replant onto city properties. Swords is the department’s supervisor of rights-of-way and grounds since last July; he is charged with a wide-ranging number of duties but the tree work is likely his favorite: “But it’s a little bitty part of what we do,” he said of the tree farm work. This is the busy season for the tree farm; tree planting is best done in the late fall, winter and early spring when the trees are dormant. Swords said he likes to begin planting trees in November “if the ground is wet enough.” Wet soil is key to success when planting trees since they will require little or no watering, which would be almost impossible considering locations the city’s trees are planted. So far this season, Swords and his crew have planted about 150 trees in locations that are city property. They may be called on to replace dead trees – trees do have a lifespan – in Ballard Park or other parks as well as around city buildings and along city streets. The tree crew is often called on to remove dead and potentially dangerous trees. They sometimes trim trees that are encroaching on power lines and other city property. “We work together and coordinate (with other city departments),” Swords said of Tupelo’s tree needs. There are currently about 1,100 trees on the tree farm: “We’re trying to scale back a little,” said Swords. He said the farm ramped up its inventory after the tornado in April 2014 when many, many trees were damaged and destroyed. Although the tree crew replaced many city-owned trees after that maelstrom, no trees on private property were replaced by the city. “We were bad busy,” Swords said of the time following the tornado. During the current planting season of about five months’ duration, the tree farm is also receiving seedlings to replace the ones removed by a hydraulic tree spade for replanting around Tupelo. Most of his seedlings come from a tree nursery owned by Bob Marion, proprietor of Mid-South Nursery & Garden Center. The nursery is located on Miss. Hwy. 348 between Saltillo and Mantachie. The young trees arrive with a small dirt ball around the roots and are planted directly into the farm rows. Swords estimates the farm has a success rate of 80-90 percent. Among the varieties of trees on the farm are several types of oak, crape myrtle, sycamore, poplar, elm, redbud, cypress, magnolia, maple and a few others. Swords said his personal favorites are Nuttall Oak and Sugar Maple, the oak because of its rapid growth and maple for its fall foliage. One particular variety, the Golden Rain Tree originally from East Asia, has been a problematic species for the tree crew so it is being phased out. Although Swords has no formal education as an arborist, dendrologist or horticulturist, he said he has received lots of learning from working the tree farm since it was established about 12 years ago. During those years, Swords and other tree crew members have attended various tree-related seminars and conferences to learn more about their field. Swords said it’s “kind of unique” for a city the size of Tupelo to have its own tree farm. He said other cities in the region have expressed interest in starting their own tree farms but he is not aware of any doing it so far.

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