With over half of their country covered by forests, Latvians love a walk in the woods. But even in this nation of berry pickers and birch-sap drinkers, the acres of clear-felling scarring the sides of highways show that not everyone appreciates trees as much as they should.
This is certainly not the case at an innovative nursery just outside Riga. Over a decade and a half, “Labie koki” (Good Trees) has become an internationally-renowned landscaping operation, as well as spawning environment-friendly spinoffs.
“Our work definitely helps people to live greener,” says Edgars Neilands, the founder of the enterprise. “And it reduces stress levels and makes us happier and more productive.”
As a youth, Edgars helped his landscape gardening mum tend the grounds of embassies in Riga. In 2008, after finishing university and getting a hands-on horticulture education in Norway and the Netherlands, he bought a couple of overgrown hectares of land near Piņķi, a commuter town west of the capital.
The property also contained a battered old church, which Edgars and friends restored. Today it is used by a Lutheran congregation for services, weddings and funerals, apparently in harmony with the business going on around them.
That commerce is all about trees, either raised on site, or handsome specimens imported from nurseries abroad, all waiting for delivery to clients with deep pockets. Because of the shade, climate control, water retention and aesthetic appeal they offer, mature trees are far more valuable in cities than saplings. This means they are priced in the tens of thousands of euros, although a large chunk of that is spent on transportation and other expenses.
“The city is a tough environment for trees to grow in, and they need a lot of watering and soil care,” says Edgars, “but a leafy cover over the pavements and streets is essential, and only big trees will give you that. And there are very few of them.”
As trees can only be planted in spring or autumn, “Labie koki” is currently in one of its busiest periods. They’ve just finished supplying Latvian customers with fir trees, whose roots need to settle in before frosts, and are now getting stuck into leaf trees. Meanwhile, a team from the firm is in Germany helping to re-landscape Munich’s zoo.
Several years ago, “Labie koki” helped a billionaire former prime minister of Georgia to establish a dendrological park in Batumi from scratch, shipping in 100 magnolias, eucalyptuses and other big trees. They are currently planning a green zone around Riga Central Station in conjunction with the Rail Baltica project. Sometimes, instead of bringing trees in, they move valuable exemplars out of harm’s way. In 2020, they shifted an 18-meter tall, 80-ton beech away from a new hockey stadium in Riga, which Edgars reckons is the biggest tree ever replanted in Latvia.
Last year, the company installed an instant forest for a festival in central Riga. But Edgars says trees in pots are doomed to short lives, and it is far better to plant them in the ground. To educate people about helping them thrive in an urban setting, the firm has established a “tree school,” where groups from across Latvia flock to learn about root care and other leafy lore
They’ve recently set up an online store, and are making toy cabins for kids from salvaged timber. There are also plans for an ecological kindergarten on the property, where youngsters will spend most of the time outdoors, and Edgars wants to find an investor for the project.
The firm currently employs around 70 people, adding about five extra staff every year.
“If a tree grows too fast in our climate, it will freeze in the winter, because its cells won’t be tough enough,” says Edgars. “So while some IT firms double or triple in size in a year, we take things more slowly.”
The spirit of innovation extends to bricks and mortar. At first glance, the main building appears to be a superbly restored old mansion. In fact, it was built by Edgars and friends a few years ago, almost entirely from repurposed materials. The ceiling is made from waste wood salvaged from renovations at the National Art Museum. Edgars kept his workers busy during the slack winter season cleaning and varnishing the century-old timber, and the results are eye pleasing and heart warming (the house is also heated using scrap wood.)
“It has the energy of Purvītis and Rozentāls in it,” smiles Edgars. “And it gives me strength, preserving cultural heritage in an economically rational way.”
As if this isn’t enough to keep a man busy, Edgars and his wife Elīna have five children. To cope with schooling logistics and Elīna’s job as a doctor, the family currently lives in Piņķi. But during the pandemic they resided at “Labie koki,”, and they would love to move back again someday.
Contrary to environmentalists’ concerns about overpopulation, Edgars thinks the more Latvians the merrier.
“It isn’t easy for us raising five kids, but this is a more meaningful way of being a patriot than having a big flag or getting a tattoo on my back,” he says. “We need children who speak Latvian, and then our folk songs and our Freedom Monument will still be here in 50 years and 500 years.”