Iowa Urban Forestry Award

Iowa Urban Forestry Award
Posted on 10/20/2020

“For The Love Of Trees”- from 2000 to 2020

by Carla Kuehl-Purdum

The Iowa Urban Tree Council honored Richard and Cynde Schreiber and Derek McKay as the 2020 recipients for outstanding community volunteering for their commitment to planting and caring for trees in public spaces.

Two arboretums adjacent to each other in Norwalk, Iowa are connected by a meandering path, the Norwalk Easter Public Library Landscaping Project and Brownie Park Gardens and Magnolia Arboretum. The individuals largely responsible for creating the arboretums are connected by a passion for horticulture. In 2000, the Schreibers were instrumental in the installation of the landscaping around the newly constructed Norwalk Easter Public Library (NEPL) and pond, which now boasts mature trees. Nearly twenty years later, in early 2019, Derek McKay proposed his ideas to establish Iowa’s first officially recognized magnolia arboretum. Spring 2020 was their first official blooming at Brownie Park.

Tree Award
(Pictured left to right: Derek McKay, Richard Schreiber, Cynde Schreiber)

Lifetime Master Gardeners, Richard and Cynde Schreiber, fifty years residents of Norwalk remember the areas as empty lots. They have been known in the horticultural world for decades. They brought their love of trees to Norwalk from Arizona with them. It is not just a calling, but a way of life for this influential couple. The Schreibers led volunteers to meet the challenge of the DNR community-based tree planting grant titled “A Million More By 2004” and the “Keep Iowa Beautiful” sponsored project surrounding the pond, gazebo, and campus of the library. Cynde says as years passed additional trees have been planted as memorials. Richard also handmade wooden markers to identify each tree.

Through the years, since the initial tree planting, the Schreibers have continued to quietly care for the trees, applying mulch, trimming, and attending to any necessary upkeep of the surrounding area. Richard humbly shares photos documenting the entire process and is sure to point out that many hands were involved in the project.

Today the public can stroll through the grounds and enjoy a wide variety of mature trees. All native species were selected. A Tree-Key the couple devised can be checked out from the library to obtain a landscaping map and further information about each of the sixty-three trees.

This couple, recognizing the desire for fellow local gardeners to connect, teamed up with other leaders of the community to form a garden club which meets monthly at Bedwell Garden Center, called the North Warren Garden Club, hosting thirty plus gardening enthusiasts. 

Tree Award
(Pictured left to right: Derek McKay, Robin Leaper, Richard Schreiber, Cynde Schreiber)

They have built a green house in their yard north of the library and gladly welcome visitors in their dedication to educate others. “How to Create a Home Greenhouse” is among their lecture topics.

Cynde also led the planting of the trees on the Norwalk Middle School campus. She fondly recalls helping the students learn how to plant trees.

On display at the NEPL each winter is a Jade plant in full bloom. An informative note that accompanies the display explains how you can get your Jade to bloom too.

In addition, the couple volunteer countless hours at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden. They currently maintain and oversee volunteers in the cactus and succulent ecosystem. Many of the species on display were first reared at their home greenhouse. The couple travel the globe to lecture and learn more and have been published or featured numerous times in publications like Garden Gate Magazine and Norwalk Living.

The gazebo by the library was built by Richard with family help and both helped with the installation of the first part of the path which passes by the gazebo called the “Pathway to Reading”. Visitors can look for animal and human footprints embedded in the cement. The second installation of the path was made possible by a 2014 Warren County Philanthropic Partnership (WCPP) grant applied for by the NEPL Director, Holly Sealine, which leads through Brownie Park to Cherry Parkway. She thought it would make easy walking access to the library. 

Fast forward to 2019 when another WCPP grant was awarded to Ackworth Garden Club for a Brownie Park Expansion Project led by Derek McKay. Raised on eighty acres of woodlands in Wisconsin, new to the Iowa horticultural scene, Derek one day was walking on the path when he had an idea for this public area between the library and Cherry Parkway. He proposed his vision for a magnolia arboretum to the Norwalk Parks and Recreation Department (NPRD), Director Nancy Kuehl, and the Norwalk City Council, donating the first tree himself. He was hoping for three trees to be donated in 2019, but enthusiasm for the project grew quickly and another twenty three Iowa Hardy species of magnolias have been donated by individuals and groups allowing the arboretum to be recognized by the Magnolia Society International (MSI). It is the farthest north of any other magnolia arboretum recognized by MSI. Each tree is labeled with a plaque depicting variety. One of the trees on display was donated by the NPRD in honor of Nancy Kuehl’s service to the community. Each tree planting has been led by Derek himself.

One of the horticulturalists at nearby Ted Lare Design Build and Garden Center, Derek has a unique gift to remember a large variety of plant names and their habitat requirements. He uses this ability of recall to assist customers with their landscaping choices in their own yards. During his “spare time” he helps communities with beautification projects by volunteering his time designing, planting, watering, and diligently looking after each young tree.

Conventionally thought of as southern trees, certain varieties of magnolias are finding success in Iowa climates. Derek has an inspiration to test new magnolias for cold hardiness and joins a growing culture of “Pushing Zone Boundaries”.

There is still room for expansion at the Brownie Park Magnolia Arboretum. Derek hopes to continue adding new species of magnolias to the arboretum. An educational brochure with a key designating each variety and location in the park is being designed.

Derek plants a signature Redbud tree in each garden he designs. His quote, “What will be the signature you leave behind?”. He is well underway to making a big impact and leaving behind the beauty of trees for people to enjoy for years to come. 

In addition, Derek gives presentations to area garden clubs and volunteers his time in other community tree planting projects around the Des Moines area. He was involved with the planting of over one hundred trees on the south side of Des Moines near the neighborhood where he lives. He has an extensive garden in his own yard with his emphasis on trees and native plants. Derek stated in the June 2020 article in Norwalk Living by Melissa Walker that he believes a community should plan for a variety of trees. An urban area should include between fifty to sixty different types to ensure diversity, longevity, and disease resistance. In a quote from the article he states, “I think trees really make the community better. They make people happier, and they promote conversations among neighbors, because you have nice shady areas and places to walk. It makes the neighborhood real to me.”

The honorees were nominated for the award by the NPRD with the nomination being submitted by fellow volunteers Carla Kuehl-Purdum (North Warren Garden Club, Ackworth Garden Club, and Warren County Master Gardeners) and Ramona Parkin (Ackworth Garden Club). A plaque is on display at the NPRD offices. If you are interested in joining Richard and Cynde Schreiber and Derek McKay in volunteering in the beautification of any of the Norwalk City parks, contact Director Robin Leaper.