Display Gardens are a Combination of Beauty and Research

May 26, 2020

MORRIS, Minn. — The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum is the crown jewel for horticulture research gardens in Minnesota. But the University of Minnesota has horticulture research happening around the state. One of these easily-accessible research gardens is at the West Central Research and Outreach Center (WCROC) just outside of the city of Morris.

While the Horticulture Display Garden at Morris is a center for research, it also provides education to the public, and is a colorful place to walk around and get ideas for a home garden. The center’s All American Selections trial and display gardens are a unique feature.

All America Selections (AAS) was founded in 1932 to run impartial trials of new flowers and vegetables which were not yet on the market. Horticulture Scientist Steve Poppe coordinates the horticulture research at WCROC and is an AAS judge.

“To become an AAS winner and have their stamp of approval, the plant has to have superior performance through the North American continent,” Poppe said. “The plant breeding companies introduce these as a promising selection. It has no name right now. We look at these plants over one growing season.”

Poppe is a flower judge. He said they put the selection in a plot with one to three comparison varieties — named varieties which have proven performance and are on the market.

“We look at them every week or ten days, taking a lot of flower data: flowering ability, disease resistance, plant habit, and so forth. Then we hand in the results in early November, they’re compiled, and winners are selected.”

There are more winners some years than others. In addition to the AAS Trial Garden, the Horticulture Garden also has an AAS Display Garden of both flower and vegetable winners from previous years.

While Poppe is a judge for AAS trials, those aren’t the only flowers getting trials at the Morris research gardens.

“We trial about 400-plus different varieties, working with 15 or so plant breeding companies that want to trial their flowers with the U of M,” he said.

The Horticulture Display Garden is a research site which is intended to benefit the public as well as plant breeders.

“When I first started, we had flowers — but they were planted in rows,” Poppe said. “In the 1990s we started to make changes to make it more aesthetically pleasing; and to display plants so the public could learn and be educated from our displays, how they might use those flowers, shrubs, perennials or whatever else they have in their own home or garden. That’s why we try to label everything, and there are brochures out there”

The Display Garden is actually a collection of gardens. At the WCROC website you will find descriptions of the Heritage Garden, Meditation Garden, Shade Garden, Tropical Garden, Water Garden — even a Children’s Garden.

Not only is the Horticulture Display Garden intended for the public, Poppe said the public has played a significant role in making it the attractive garden that it is. There are structures and benches scattered throughout, and Poppe said all of them have been donated by supporters of the garden. Contributors have also added to the gardens themselves. The Shade Garden is an example.

“We call it the Ken Anderson Shade Garden,” Poppe said. “Family and friends of Ken Anderson, who passed away many years ago, helped create that garden in his memory. There are a lot of hostas in there that were part of his breeding program, plus a lot of the other hostas out there in the trade that are well-established and hardy for our area.”

“We work with families to create gardens to honor them or in someone’s memory. We work with the family on the design and put in their favorite flowers, shrubs, trees, whatever else, and they give us a financial contribution.”

The Display Garden, with all of its themed gardens, “takes an army” to care for it, Poppe said. He has three other full-time or part-time people who help him with the education, marketing and development. During the growing season, there are eight full-time students — a couple of which might have internships related to research projects. Between 30 and 40 volunteers fill out the work force.

The latest renovation is the main entrance of the Garden.

As Poppe described it, “The old retaining wall structure was removed, and new hardscapes, benches, and concrete planters were installed. Since this area is located near blacktop pavement, it is typically hot and dry, and therefore an ideal location to showcase plants and perennials that do well under hot and dry growing conditions.”

There is an ongoing project on the west side of the Garden. In 2008 they completed the Pomme de Terre overlook of the Pomme de Terre River valley.

“We are completely renovating 17 acres,” Poppe said. “It’s a three-year project to be completed in 2021. There’s a trail that goes to the Pomme de Terre city park, and to the University of Minnesota-Morris campus that has a great connection with trails. We’re going to establish that with pollinator-friendly forbes and grasses. Then we’ll have information kiosks, wayside shelters to again give homeowners an idea of what they can do in their back yard or farm, how they can enhance for pollinator-friendly plants.”

That again brings out the purpose of the Horticulture Display Garden at WCROC — to do research which ultimately benefits the public. To that end they have monthly programs in their “Come Grow with Us” series. But one can learn simply by visiting the Garden, which is free and open dawn to dusk daily. Not interested in learning? The Garden is a place to refresh one’s spirit simply by strolling around.

If you can’t get to Morris, the University of Minnesota College of Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resource Sciences has 10 research facilities around the state. See more about the Horticulture Display Garden at the WCROC.

As much as they look forward to your visit, the Horticulture Display Garden is not currently open. Here is their statement: “The current state of the country has been unlike anything we've seen or experienced before. University leadership is providing us with guidance and support as we navigate through the COVID-19 crisis. To protect the health and safety of our employees and the public, the West Central Research and Outreach Center is functioning under reduced operations. This means our office building and grounds are closed to the public, including the Horticulture Display Garden. We are diligently working to determine the next steps for the coming weeks and months. Thank you for your patience and understanding during this time.”