COVID-19 Update: The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum reopened in a limited capacity on Friday, May 1. As a key part of the University of Minnesota’s research and outreach missions, we have been working with University leadership on a phased approach to ensure visitor and employee safety as we welcome you back. Find updates and information here.
Editor’s note: You see the results of our horticulture staff’s work every time you visit the Arboretum, so we wanted to introduce you to the team who inspires our organization. Each month, we’ll highlight a different member of our horticultural team in our new “Growing with” series. This month we’re Growing with Duane Otto.
Most people pack up their household belongings when they move, but Arboretum Landscape Gardener Duane Otto packs his garden, too. “I’ve moved many times in my life, and I always bring my plants with me,” Otto says. “They’re my friends. I can do fun things with them. I can create beautiful areas with my plants, and that’s what I do.”
Otto has created much beauty through plants both in his work at the Arboretum and in his 2.5 acre home garden. At the Arboretum, Otto is a landscape gardener specializing in woody and herbaceous plants. He plans the tulip display and annual garden each year, in addition to overseeing a group of gardeners and volunteers who maintain the gardens around the Oswald Visitor Center and Snyder Buildings. Otto also creates seasonal displays and contributes to the Winter Flower Show.
After a day of work at the Arboretum, Otto often comes home, takes a nap, gets something to eat and then spends hours working in his own garden, which has a few sunny borders and extensive shade beds. “Naps are my saving grace because that way I can work until the end of the evening,” Otto says. “I can accomplish a lot.”
Otto has worked at the Arboretum for 32 years, and he still describes it as his dream job. During the Covid-19 pandemic, he’s been working from home, which he says is a nice change of pace because he’s been able to focus on garden designs even though he misses working in the Arboretum gardens. “When you’re doing garden designs, you need to have quiet and be able to think and let it flow when it flows,” Otto says. “It’s like writing a book: If it doesn’t flow the way you want it to flow, you can’t force it. You have to do a little research, look through catalogs for inspiration and think. Sometimes you write it all down and it flows, and sometimes you stagnate, then you’re always searching for new ideas and more things to make it more stunning.”
Otto’s garden design plans are archived at the Andersen Horticultural Library and available to the public in the library’s digital collections.
Arboretum visitors have benefitted from Otto’s exquisite designs for more than three decades. It’s not a responsibilty that Otto takes lightly. “I like to make things beautiful,” he says. “I tell our crew that we have to make things in our area beautiful. That’s the thing the public sees first when they come.”
Why are you passionate about your work here at the Arboretum?
Because I have the only job I ever dreamed of having. I’m doing what I love to do most, which is gardening and making the gardens that I take care of stunning for the visitors and myself. It’s very fun to make things beautiful for visitors, and also I have to satisfy myself–so it has to be really good.
What is your earliest memory of gardening?
Visiting my grandmother’s home and gardens and spending time being inspired in all aspects of gardening: vegetables, perennials, annuals, trees and shrubs. Helping my mother with gardening projects and having my own plant plot of tulips and flowers each year.
My grandmother had a passionate zest for plants. She loved all plants, and I have that same passion. We’re so extreme. Her house was full of plants on every windowsill and everywhere, and I do the same. It’s just really an amazing thing to have a grandmother and a mother who loved gardening.
Who taught you to garden?
My grandmother is the most influential person in my life. My mom’s mother. Her name was Molly. She was the person who taught me everything and inspired me to love plants. She’d share plants with me, she’d give me plants and she’d tell me what to do.
Do you have a home garden?
I live on a property of 2.5 acres with a 1930 two-story home with a barn and other out buildings. The property is mostly wooded and shaded with areas of sun. I have created very extensive shade garden areas and sunny borders. I garden the whole property and will continue to garden the property as long as I live here.
What is the most challenging plant you work on at the Arb, and why?
My biggest challenge is keeping Creeping Charlie out of the garden. I try to buy properties that don’t have it. If it shows up at my gardens at the Arboretum, I try to pull it very religiously. You can’t let it spread. You have to keep it under control.
Do you have any favorite gardening trick or tips you’ve picked up along the way?
I always tell people to take photographs of their gardens each year. Those photographs will help you strive to meet your goals for future improvement in design ideas. If you don’t have pictures of what you did in the past, you can’t remember all that.