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Meet Peter Moe

The U of M Landscape Arboretum head discusses why he's found his perfect job.

Image courtesy of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum

Sitting on more than 1,200 acres of land, the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum is home to some of the most vibrant and exquisite gardens one can find in the Midwest. Since 1958, they have meticulously added exotic and hardy plants to their ever-budding collection known to be able to handle Minnesota’s steamy summers and harsh winters. The creation of the Honeycrisp apple also sits atop their impressive resume. One of the masterminds behind the scenes since 1975 has been Interim Director Peter Moe. Moe has most recently been the director of operations and research before taking on the role of interim director last December. Now, he’s poised to lead the arboretum into a bright and colorful future. (Note: Moe was named permanent Director following this interview)

What sparked your passion for horticulture?

I’ve always loved plants, especially trees. I started working at Lyndale Garden Center in Richfield where I grew up back when I was in high school, and I was always fascinated by everything there. Every week there were new things coming in, and I always enjoyed seeing how much people enjoyed buying them. And my parents and grandparents were also gardeners.

Do you have a favorite tree?

(Laughs) It’s hard! It’s like asking who’s my favorite kid! I’ve always liked more unusual trees. The Kentucky Coffeetree is one of my favorites. I’ve got one in my yard. It’s a native tree with no real pest problems. The branches are real rugged, and it’s got a lot of character. It’s just a real tough, cool tree.

How has the transition to interim director of the arboretum been? How long will you be in this role, and would you be interested in being the full-time director?

It’s been exciting because I’m dealing with things I wasn’t dealing with before. I’ve been here a long time, and it’s nice to be more directly involved in fundraising instead of it being just off to the side. What really makes it the best job is that I’ve got so many great people I can count on. A lot of people have been here a long time, but we also have new people that come here with ideas and hit the ground running. Over the last couple years we’ve probably had more new people starting than we did in the last five or 10 years, so they’ve kind of reinvigorated the arboretum. Right now they’re in the process of finalizing the job description, and I think I’ve got the qualifications they’re looking for. I would like to have the opportunity to apply. It’s been an honor to be named the interim director.

What are your responsibilities as Interim Director?

It’s very busy. As interim director I’m responsible for all the different parts of the arboretum, including the research areas and education development. I meet with the directors of those areas, as well. I’m very fortunate to have top-notch people who are leading each of the areas. I still have more of the horticultural areas that I work with more directly because that’s been my previous responsibility before I became the interim director. I’ve been involved in a lot of construction management with the Bee and Pollinator Discovery Center, too. Almost every day there’s something with that. Things like whether or not the design needs to change, or going over the budget and schedule. And I’m always in constant contact with the contractor and the University of Minnesota people that are working with the project on a daily basis. I’m also spending more time with fundraising. Two weeks ago I spent an entire week in Florida. A lot of our donors are snowbirds who go to Florida in the winter time, so I was able to go down there and talk about apple breeding to a big group of University of Minnesota alumni that either live in Naples year-round, or go down there for the winter months. And we also have a number of donors that we like to thank. I remind them that we really appreciate the support they provide to the arboretum and talk to them about some new projects that are coming up that they can maybe think about helping to support.

What kind of research is going on?

Our base has always been at developing additional plants that will grow well in Minnesota, primarily woody plants. So, for the first 50 years it was all fruit breeding. The Honeycrisp apple was developed here, as was the Haralson apple and many others, and basing that success off developing hardy fruit varieties because we’re here in one of the coldest states in the country. Plants, especially woody plants that are perennials, have to be able to tolerate not only average winters like this, but the really cold winters when it gets to minus 25 or minus 30.

Peter Moe HeadshotArboretum Director Peter Moe. Photo by Amanda Gahler

How has the arboretum changed since you started in 1975?

Back in 1975, it was still growing. This building was built in 1973, so that was a growth spurt right there. It was a major project. The tree collections had already been established, so they were already here. Some of the research projects were really going strong then. Azalea breeding was getting to a point where there were a whole bunch of new Azaleas being introduced. Our membership was significantly smaller, and so was our attendance. In the winter we were really just starting to cross-country ski, but we really didn’t have much going on then. We’ve always been open year-round, but we weren’t doing snow-shoeing, orchid displays and all the things we’re doing now. Every part of the arboretum has grown, including our research programs. We’re still doing the hardy fruit breeding and developing new trees and shrubs, but we’ve expanded into plant conservation and wetland ecology. We’re working with our native orchids, which includes 48 species of orchids, and that’s all new. We’ve established the Spring Peeper Meadow of wetland restoration on the east side of the arboretum, and we’re also doing a lot of work on the models installed in the grounds with things like green growths, rain gardens, and planting drought-resistant turf grasses. A lot of these are geared around how people still can have beautiful yards but use less water or less fertilizer to protect water quality, which really fits into the arboretum’s mission. And as our attendance increases we have people visiting here and seeing examples of smaller rain gardens they can do in their own yard. We have the bigger ones that are commercial like you would do at a church or county government center, but also smaller ones you can do in your own yard. One of the key things is we just increased the scope of the plantings at the Arboretum, as well as the number of gardens. Because what it really comes down to is we want people to come here and enjoy the beauty, see the great plant combinations, and we want them to be inspired and say, “You know, I could do that in my own yard.” The arboretum is huge, but there are elements you can pick out in every garden, like the color of leaves on a shrub going perfectly with the ones on the tree next to it. Or maybe they just want to make a little change, so people get great ideas and know the plants they see here can be grown in Minnesota. In our research areas we’ll try to grow things that will die in the cold winter, but in the gardens we put things that people can count on and come here and get ideas. We also really pride ourselves in the design. We use both our own staff of really talented designers, but we also work with many landscape architects, most of them from Minnesota so you can see their projects throughout the arboretum.

Where do you hope to see the arboretum in 10 years?

We want to continue to grow (no pun intended). We have so much going on here. Once we build the new Bee and Pollinator Discovery Center, we want people to come out and see it because it’s going to be beautiful and full of terrific information on what we can do to make our own yards safer for pollinators. Kids will love the interactive exhibits where they can push buttons to learn things, and then go outside to see the plants demonstrated right there in front of them. We want people to take advantage of that. We want people to come year-round and attend our classes. We teach classes on fun things you wouldn’t find anywhere else, including cooking classes, a lot of which are based on using locally grown foods and different types of herbs and spices incorporating beer and wine that uses grapes developed here. And a lot of kids don’t know where their food comes from, so we want them to start thinking about plants. Our clothing, housing and energy all depend on plants. That’s at the basic level. For adults, we have unbelievable classes with some topics focused on things I didn’t even know existed. There’s always something going on here. In the summer we have exhibits. We want the arboretum to grow, not so that we can say we’re bigger, but so that more people can benefit from it. We offer things that improve people’s lives and create great experiences. Of all the things people can do in their free time, we want arboretum to be high on the list.

What considerations do you need to make when selecting new plants to bring to the arboretum?

When we’re going to bring a new plant in, we like to get plants that are grown from seeds collected in their native habitat so we can trace the plant back. For example, this summer we sent one of our curators and one of our scientists to Itasca State Park where some of our oldest pines are to collect seeds from those old, established trees that we know are adapted for Minnesota because they’ve evolved here, and they’ve been growing here for thousands and thousands of years. That’s the best; we know those are going to do well. But we’re also really interested in plants from other parts of the world. We can’t send staff all over the world, but we have cooperators in places like Belarus where we’re developing some new relationships in Eastern Europe. We also work with a lot of cooperators and supporters in the nursery industry because we don’t want to introduce just any plant. If we’re going to introduce a Maple tree, we want to introduce one that has the best blazing red or orange fall color. We want it to have a nice form, so it’s not going to have a lot of weird branches that are going to break in storms. We look for about 30 characteristics including beautiful fall color, great form, ideally pest resistant and resistant to climate stresses to name a few. Last year we had one of the best growing seasons ever, but this year could be a real hot and dry summer, and so plants have to be able to tolerate that. We do a lot of that work so it benefits people when they come here.

Any special memories that stand out over the course of your work?

Ground breaking for the visitor center is one that stands out. That was probably the single biggest project we’ve done. We built the Oswald Visitor Center next door in 2005, and I think 2003 was the ground breaking. We had a group of about 15 trustees and donors that all came, and we were all dressed in our fancy clothes only for it to start pouring rain. We had all these gold shovels, and we were standing on the hill where the building is now, and it was just a downpour. But we did it anyway, because gardeners like rain. Another special memory involved our tulips. Each year we plant around 30,000 tulips, and about 10 years ago we had some tulips planted by the flagpole in front of the building. And there was this little girl in her Sunday dress standing next to them looking up at them because they were taller than her, and she was just enthralled. It was just the coolest thing in the world.

Along with collections growth, you've also been involved in land acquisition. What considerations go into those decisions, and what's the process of that?

In the mid 1990s, some of our board members were really alert to this, and so was our director at the time. Back then there wasn’t a lot of development, but you could see it coming this way. Eden Prairie was heavily developed, and Chanhassen was really wasn’t, but you could see it coming. We talked with some other people from other arboretums and urban areas in Boston and Chicago, and they would say, “You’re going to have apartment buildings right on your boundaries. The best thing you can do right now while the land isn’t that expensive and available, is buy it.” So we started a study looking at the watershed that drains into the arboretum, man-made boundaries, and land that would be good for future gardens and research, among others to come up with a boundaries plan. Since then we’ve finished buying land. Our last parcel was probably purchased in 2011, which was close to 300 acres. We had enough land to do the things we wanted to in 1996, but we’re going to be here for a long time, so having this additional land has enabled us to do things like build the Bee and Pollinator Discovery Center, native plant restoration, and build a new dog commons for dogs and dog owners to interact in nature. Plus, we’re protecting our natural watersheds.

You've also been an instructor in the Department of Horticultural Science, could you also touch on that? (which classes, favorite moments, for how long)

I taught at the University of Minnesota, and the class I taught the longest was Home Horticulture for nine years. It was a course in the Horticultural Science Department, but it was for non-majors because it was a survey for the field of horticulture. I started with basic plant science (annual, perennial, woody plant, herbaceous and other plant descriptions), before moving to photosynthesis and fertilizer. That was the early part of the course. Then we would spend every week covering different topics such as: lawn care, how to grow fruits and vegetables, floral design, flower arrangements, ways to deal with pests in your yard, how to contract wildlife to your yard and plant propagation. At the end each student learned how to do a home landscape plan. The students learned a lot, and I received good evaluations.

What about the Twin Cities makes it a great place to call home?

I really like the outdoors. I have two dogs that I walk every morning year-round, and the stars are amazing this time of year. I have the arboretum where I work, but I also have beautiful parks next to me. We just have so many outdoor areas for biking and bird watching.

What are some your favorite spring activities in the Twin Cities?

I like going to other gardens, especially Eloise Butler Flower Garden and the Lake Harriet Rose Garden.

My Twin Cities

Morning

I always walk my dogs. I have a miniature poodle and cavapoo, and it’s just a great way to start the day. I would also probably be doing some yard work. We’ve got a three-quarter acre lot with vegetable gardens and things like that.

Afternoon

In the afternoon I would take the boat out on Lake Minnewashta, or maybe canoe on one of the smaller lakes nearby. I also really enjoy swimming. I swim year round at LifeTime, and in the summer I enjoy swimming in some of the local lakes.

Evening

At night we have a screened-in porch, so it’s really nice to sit out there and barbecue, and enjoy relaxing and watching the birds.

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