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Don Kinzler, Published August 16 2013

Growing Together: A lot can be learned from trip to an arboretum

Come along with me on a trip down memory lane. In my case the lane has always been lined with greenery, gardening and my attempts to grow all manner of good things in a northern climate.

The year was 1978. I was a brand new North Dakota State University horticulture graduate with my first “big boy” job. The university hired me as a technician with the woody plants research program. The big buzz in our horticulture department was the development of an 80-acre research farm and arboretum near some town named Absaraka, N.D., located about 45 minutes west of Fargo.

The arboretum was in the process of being established by researcher Dale Herman, for whom the acreage is now named.

An arboretum is a collection of trees and shrubs used for study and display. It’s like a zoo, except the occupants don’t spit or screech as you pass by.

The goal was to assemble a collection of every tree and shrub species that would survive in the Northern Plains, plus select and develop new varieties to broaden the list of adapted landscape material.

The new arboretum looked like twigs stuck in a plowed field. Material was planted in a very organized fashion in alphabetical order by scientific name in a pleasing park-like plan, but it took imagination to visualize how it might look someday.

Fast-forward to someday. More than 35 years have passed since I first worked at the horticulture farm and arboretum. The years evaporated as I went on to marriage, family and a greenhouse business. I hadn’t seen the arboretum for almost 20 years.

Until last week. Todd West, head of the university’s woody plants improvement project, informed me that a public tour opportunity is planned.

If you’re a weekly reader of “Growing Together” you know I always want a sneak preview of such happenings. West gave me a wonderful pre-tour Sunday afternoon.

The Midwest has a wealth of arboretum locations, such as the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, South Dakota’s McCrory Gardens, Green Bay Botanical Gardens, the St. Louis Arboretum, and my closest choice, the NDSU Arboretum near Absaraka, which is the largest collection of woody plants between Minneapolis and Seattle.

Why would anyone other than me tour an arboretum? Sounds like something tailor-made for a teenager’s eye-roll. Let me convince you of the value.

Horticulture’s beauty is not limited to our own yard. We can enjoy beauty and be a true gardener at heart even living in an apartment without an inch of planting space. The whole world is our horticultural oyster, and arboretum tours remind us that we all have a share.

During such tours it is tempting for me to busily write down plant names because I want them in my own yard. But sometimes the types being researched aren’t available yet. Often I need to sit back and just enjoy the beauty of the tour.

Planting too closely is a common home landscape error because the plants look so cute when small. Arboretums give us a better concept of the time it takes for plant material to reach these sizes.

When touring, observe the textures and colors of plants and how they combine for pleasing effect. Look at decorative bark that will perk up your winter landscape.

A major reason for participating in arboretum tours is to show solidarity and support for their existence. These research programs are responsible for developing and displaying material that is adapted to our northern climate. Without these inputs, nursery stock entering our area can be selected by corporate buyers from Arkansas, who might not always have our horticultural success as their primary business motive.

Everyone in proximity to Fargo has the opportunity to attend this year’s public tour of the NDSU Horticulture Research Farm and Dale E. Herman Arboretum.

Included will be common and exotic tree and shrub species, a beautiful dwarf conifer collection, research on Juneberries and grapes, pine and spruce diseases, poplar diseases, and the latest on the emerald ash borer.

Let’s enjoy an evening at a hidden paradise. If you see me wandering about with a smile, I’m probably continuing my trip down memory lane.


What: Public tour of the NDSU Horticulture Research Farm and Dale E. Herman Arboretum

When: 5 to 8 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Absaraka, N.D. Take Interstate 94 and turn north at Wheatland, Exit 324. Follow pavement to the north through Wheatland. Turn north (right) on County Road 5. At the Absaraka corner, the road changes to gravel. Go north about 3/4 mile. A sign will be posted. Turn east (right) on a narrow field road. Proceed 1/2 mile to the arboretum and farm. Allow at least 45 minutes from Fargo.

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, worked as an NDSU Extension horticulturist and owned Kinzler’s Greenhouse in Fargo. Readers can reach him at forumgrowingtogether@hotmail.com