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First Presbyterian Church in Franklin has been recognized as a Level 1 Arboretum status by the Tennessee Urban Forestry Council.

As he and a visitor walked the grounds of First Presbyterian Church in Franklin one sunny afternoon, Jim Mahurin stopped within eyesight of a hackberry tree that had just recently been planted. 

In fact, the seedling is the newest of many trees that fill the campus of the church located on Legends Club Lane off Franklin Road. And by design, it stands in contrast to an aging ash tree whose days are numbered by the invasion of emerald ash borers. It may seem spindly now, but Mahurin said the hackberry has a long life ahead with many benefits for the balance of nature. 

Arboretum sign

“It will live 150-200 years,” said Mahurin, former chair and current member of First Presbyterian Church’s facilities committee. “It grows out into a giant canopy, typically 50-60 feet in height and width. It’s got room there to grow up and over and to take the place of that ash when it comes down.

“The hackberry is a prolific bird feeder and a beautiful shade tree for the yard. And it’s a species we didn’t have, and we thought that this site would be ideal for it.”

Rain Garden

The 13-acre campus now has 180 trees representing 48 different species, numbers that have led to the church’s recognition as a Level 1 Arboretum status by the Tennessee Urban Forestry Council. The presentation to the TUFC was given last year by a local teenager who did it for his Eagle Scout project. Dylan Raines spent months preparing the application and identifying and labeling each species.

Likewise, a youngster named Meryl Godwin constructed a rain garden on the church grounds for her Girl Scout Gold Award project in 2019, an addition that can prevent 10,000 or more gallons of water runoff each year.

The tree planting began in earnest nearly 12 years ago, when a member had asked to have a tree planted in memory of his deceased wife. More requests for memorial trees soon followed, and Mahurin, then chair of the facilities committee, took it upon himself to oversee the planting of additional trees throughout the church grounds.

First Prez trees

Some of the trees on the campus of First Presbyterian Church

He completed a course in the Williamson County Master Gardener Association, and also went to Chattanooga to enroll in a program to obtain a certificate of native plants through the Tennessee Valley Chapter of Wild Ones. Still, Mahurin, who owns a consulting firm, said much of his method is through trial and error.

“A whole lot of it is guesswork,” he said. “I consider myself a fumbling, bumbling idiot about most of this stuff. I’ve done a lot of reading and research, but I’ve never been formally educated in botany or soil chemistry or anything like that.

“But I did grow up on a farm, so I understand dirt.”

One of the first things Mahurin understood about the “dirt” on the grounds of First Presbyterian Church is that its origins are from phosphorus that was mined there several decades ago, thus finding a match between suitable soils and tree species all the more challenging.

But the birds are happy. A good number of the trees and shrubs provide numerous species of insects the birds can eat or feed their nestlings, many in the hundreds.

Church members and visitors also benefit from the aesthetics and the spirituality that can come from, say, sitting beneath a large shade tree and prayerfully sensing the wonders of God.

And that’s the point, Mahurin said.

“The objective is to get members to use the grounds, and the trees are just part of it,” he said. “But there is a cachet to say we’re a Level 1 arboretum.”