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Erik Burgess, Published March 15 2013

Former prof grows, sells tropical trees

Harwood, N.D. - Trudging through ankle-deep snow with a snug black jacket and red scarf hanging loosely around his neck, Neal Holland doesn’t look well-prepared for a tropical vacation.

But when he opens the door to a shed-like building just behind his home here, the humidity hits him and his glasses fog over with a warm mist.

Here, in one of six greenhouses at Sheyenne Gardens, it’s always summer.

Holland walks a narrow path through the balmy propagation greenhouse and reaches for a 15-year-old Australian Tree Fern.

His is only a few feet tall, but in its proper home in the land Down Under, they can tower to 12 feet. It’s one of dozens of tropical plants Holland sells at his garden shop, which he has owned for 25 years.

“They don’t like our North Dakota winters,” he says, but that doesn’t stop him from planting all the Australian Tree Ferns he can. Variety, he said, is the key to a strong customer base.

“That’s one way to encourage people to come here, is to make available things that they can’t get anywhere else,” he said.

You name it, and Holland likely has it – more than 700 kinds of perennials, 75 types of ornamental grasses, several cactuses, vegetables, spices and 75 varieties of trees, including those that sprout lemons, kumquats, oranges and even bananas.

“They’re little ones, of course,” he said of his banana trees, and he advises customers to keep them indoors until the summer.

“Bananas will suffer chill injury at 55 degrees, and that’s why you never put your bananas in the refrigerator.”

Holland, a retired professor of horticulture at North Dakota State University, even creates his own variety of plants by mixing the seeds of two existing kinds.

His Hazen apple, first created in 1990, is a cross between a Red Delicious and a Haralson. He named it after Arlon G. Hazen, onetime dean of the NDSU College of Agriculture.

It takes eight generations for the specially created plants to be able to breed themselves without assistance, he said.

He’s also made several types of tomatoes – the Sheyenne, Lark and Cannonball – and more recently, a “Fairytale” series of lilacs, including the Tinkerbelle and Fairy Dust.

While he dabbles with exotic plants, Holland said they make up a small percentage of what he normally sells. Most customers come for trees, shrubs and perennials. Tomatoes are a big draw.

In the summer, about 10 full-time employees help him tend to all he has to offer. In the back, there are model gardens, where customers can view their potential purchases growing in the wild.

If you visit Sheyenne Gardens today, you’ll likely find many of the outdoor plants under a blanket of snow. Holland’s home is just behind the property, so he can easily keep a watchful eye until the spring thaw.

“It’s almost like housing chickens,” he said. “You have to do it every day of the week.”

Sheyenne Gardens is at 17010 29th St. SE and is open for business during the winter months. Holland suggests customers call ahead at (701) 282-0050. Extended hours start in the spring.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518