Forest Park’s Fourth Act: Backstage With Forest Park Forever Horticulturist Mark Halpin

 Intern Joe Durham, Horticulture Foreman David Rowan, Gardener Kate Ronan and Horticulturist Mark Halpin take a quick break from planting 

Intern Joe Durham, Horticulture Foreman David Rowan, Gardener Kate Ronan and Horticulturist Mark Halpin take a quick break from planting 

On a cold morning a few days before the seasonal debut of Forest Park’s Steinberg Skating Rink, Forest Park Forever horticulturist Mark Halpin was busy setting the winter stage with a landscape of green, red and yellow. The lot lost its color when disease hit its roses a couple of years ago.

In this 1,371-acre park and with finite resources, Halpin has to choose his battles, and he fought for this project. In lieu of roses, Halpin chose to fill the beds with evergreen Taylor juniper trees and accents of red twig and yellow twig dogwood shrubs. The Taylor junipers, smaller than their full-size counterparts, now stand about four feet tall, and they will grow to nearly 15 feet. With vibrant winter stems and summer flowers, the dogwoods ensure year-round visual appeal. 

Halpin joined the Forest Park Forever crew as an intern in 2010. After progressing from intern to gardener, then from gardener to horticulturist, he now maintains the northeast zone of Forest Park. In his prior life, he did private landscaping, but he was frustrated that his work went largely unnoticed. Now he appreciates his larger audience of Forest Park visitors. If you think of Forest Park’s landscaping throughout the year as a beautiful four-act play, Halpin is a stage manager. And on this day he was setting the stage for winter. Forcing his shovel into the cold bed of dirt, Halpin dug a hole twice as big as the juniper’s root ball to help stimulate root growth and soil drainage. “A lot of people thank us, he said. “I’ll be down on my knees, covered in sweat, and someone will stop and say ‘Thank you.’” Halpin smiled. “That’s one of the best parts about this job.”

No detail of this park scene goes overlooked by the Forest Park Forever horticulturists. In addition to aiming for diversity of species and appearance, Halpin considers the needs of his audience before he plants anything.  “We wouldn’t put sweetgum trees near a playground, because they drop little spiky balls,” he said. “We might plant them to create shade in a picnic area, and then on a jogging trail we would plant something eye-catching.”

Though horticulturists do much of the planting and pruning themselves, Forest Park Forever gardeners help execute the horticulturist’s maintenance plans. Without dedicated gardeners and a large base of volunteers, the Forest Park beauty the community has come to expect would not exist. Halpin depends on the substantial contributions of six regular volunteers — a group that has been with him for four years. “We could not do what we do without the help of our volunteers,” he said, remembering a setback this summer when his volunteers were unavailable. “They love giving something back to Forest Park.”

Horticulturists adhere to the Forest Park Tree Planting Master Plan, which calls for more than 5,000 new trees in the Park. Approximately 15,000 inventoried trees grow in Forest Park, and an estimated 30,000 trees populate the Park’s wild areas. “You want a rise and fall in an urban park like this,” said Halpin. “When we see an old tree, we plant a young one nearby.” Forest Park Forever plants an average of 328 trees every year, and the City of St. Louis contributes many additional trees as well as removes invasive species.

We wouldn’t put sweetgum trees near a playground, because they drop little spiky balls. We might plant them to create shade in a picnic area, and then on a jogging trail we would plant something eye-catching.

And just as there’s a growing emphasis on eating local, horticulturists are growing local. The Steinberg lot’s juniper trees were delivered from Jerry’s Landscape Nursery in Breese, Ill. — just 45 miles from Forest Park. 

“We’re trying to reflect the Missouri forest rather than a Chinese forest,” said Halpin. To replace the ubiquitous Austrian pines and other native oaks that are now succumbing to disease, the crew is introducing the native Missouri shortleaf pine and hybrid Pitlolly pine, which have proven to be more resistant. Exotic plants, on the other hand, can take over native environments; honeysuckle, Missouri’s worst invasive plant right now, originates in Japan and threatens to keep entire Missouri forests from regenerating.

That’s where Forest Park Forever’s horticultural stage crew and volunteers take over. They will suppress or remove invasive species like honeysuckle and replace them with new plants. Since 1997, 103% more trees register as being in “good condition,” and an additional 365% are in “excellent condition.” But this crew thinks not just about the environment. They also consider the people who use this park daily — specifically about their safety, convenience and ideal setting for recreation.

Before the morning is over, Halpin and three Forest Park Forever colleagues have planted 30 red twig dogwoods, 22 yellow twig dogwoods and five Taylor junipers to be enjoyed by visitors to this part of the Park. “These are areas I’m working in every day,” he said. “I have a personal investment in what I do. It’s nice to care about what I do and have other people care about it and appreciate it.” 

Like the theater’s stage manager, Halpin tends to work busily in the background. But the crowd’s applause belongs just as much to him — and his teammates and volunteers — as to his onstage cast of cottonwoods, hickories and oaks.