Q&A with MN Landscape Arboretum Director Peter Moe

Learn why the Arboretum should be on every gardener’s “must-visit” list, how to prepare your own garden for the fall season, and more
Fall flower bed
Photo by Mark MacLennan, courtesy of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum

September is here, and fall draws near. Soon enough, trees will adopt their fiery fall hues, lattes will become increasingly pumpkin-spiced, and yards will fill with premature Halloween decorations. Fall is a time of transition and transformation, and for the at-home gardener, now is the time to start preparing.

The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum was created with the mission in mind of developing plants that can withstand Minnesota’s often-harsh climate. Staying true to that mission, the Arboretum has developed over 100 new varieties of plants—including varieties of strawberries, cherries, plums, apricots, the famed Honeycrisp apple, and the brand-new First Kiss apple—all adapted to harsh midwinter conditions and shorter growing seasons. Even its hardy plants, though, require some attention and protection.

If the team of scientists at the Arboretum can keep their 1,000-plus acres of gardens thriving year round, their knowledge could help you with the plants in your own yard, too. We spoke with the Arboretum’s director, Peter Moe, to learn why the Arboretum should be on every gardener’s “must-visit” list, how to prepare your own garden for the season, and more.

What can at-home gardeners learn from a trip to the Arboretum?

Moe: We’re a landscape arboretum. There are many different arboretums and botanic gardens, but there are only two that are landscape arboretums. That name has been with us since the Arboretum started. Our founding director’s idea was that we’d continue these strong research programs to find the best trees, shrubs, perennial flowers, and other plants, and then show the public how they can be used in their own yards.

We’ve put [the plants] in these beautifully designed and well-maintained landscapes. So, you can come to the Arboretum and enjoy the beauty, but if you have a home yard—or maybe a new home where you’re hoping to do some landscaping—you can get hundreds of different ideas for plants, plant combinations, landscape materials, different types of brick, stone, and wood, and landscaping design styles.

Couple walking through fall trees
Photo by Mark MacLennan, courtesy of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum

How are you preparing the Arboretum for the transition into cooling weather?

In the fall, there are a lot of different things we do here. We put up both permanent and temporary deer fences; we wrap plastic or metal screens around the bases of young fruit trees; we shade trees so they’re not girdled by mice and other rodents; and we apply some repellants. We’re working to protect them from all the different animals that would like to damage them during the winter months, and develop plants that will tolerate winter conditions without winter protection.

We do some mulching, too, but we often want to see how hardy plants are, so we don’t provide a lot of additional protection. When we plant perennials in the fall—we always plant over 30,000 tulips—we apply mulch after the ground is just starting to freeze. That way, the ground doesn’t freeze too deep and the tulip bulbs and other plants have developed a good root system.

What advice do you have for local gardeners as they begin to prepare for fall, too?

The most important thing is to select plants that are adapted to where you live. Another thing a lot of gardeners are doing now is not cutting back their perennials in the fall. So, instead of cutting them down to the ground in the fall, leaving stems 18 inches tall or just leaving the entire plant provides winter protection for some of those valuable insects that are overwintering there.

Photo by Arina Habich, courtesy of Adobe Stock

Flowering containers of mums

Is there anything new coming to the Arboretum this fall?

Well, we’re known for growing hundreds of squash and pumpkin varieties. Those are in the field right now. We’ll be harvesting them in late September and creating beautiful displays of squash and pumpkins—just an amazing array of sizes and shapes and colors. Some are really great for eating and some are great for jack-o’-lanterns. It creates a very colorful display and shows the diversity of plants within one group that can be grown in Minnesota.

We also do scarecrows. They’re really fun for people to take photos with and they’re very creative. It creates a fun family activity—to come out to the Arboretum and see the beautiful fall color; see all the fall flowers; see the pumpkins and squash; and then the scarecrows. We also have the YouBetcha, our stick sculpture that was built by Patrick Dougherty and many of our volunteers back in May. It’s a real whimsical, fairytale-looking building made of willow sticks.

The Arboretum is also a great place to observe birds in the fall when they’re migrating because we have prairie, woods, wetlands, lakes, and gardens with lots of food and shelter. It ends up being a really interesting and fun way to spend a fall day.

Coming soon to the Arboretum: AppleJam on Sept. 12 from 5-10 p.m. and Farm at the Arb Field Festival on Sept. 14 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

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