Arboretum News

Growing with Duane Otto

Meet the landscape designer who creates the Arboretum's tulip display and annual garden.

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.

Landscape Gardener Duane Otto stands in the tulip display he designed in 2019.
Photo by Susie Hopper.

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.

Otto worked with a team of volunteers to plant 39,000 tulip bulbs at the Arboretum last fall.
Photo by Mary Moulton.

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’s home garden. Photo by Duane Otto.

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 plans for the 2019 annual garden. Photo by Liz Potasek.

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.

Otto shares his passion for gardening with his grand daughter, Emma.
Photo courtesy of Duane Otto.

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. 

Otto’s home garden. Photo by Duane Otto.

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.

2019 annual garden designed by Otto. Photo by Chris McNamara.

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.

14 comments on “Growing with Duane Otto

  1. Richard Spiegel

    It’s been a pleasure to work with Duane for many years. His passion for beauty and his ability to achieve it year after year is remarkable.
    I’ve learned much from him and look forward to being back in the gardens with him as soon as possible.

  2. Pat Schott

    Wow! Duane, your home gardens are beautiful! Love your white garden area and all the hostas. Miss working in the gardens with you. Hope to return soon.

  3. I love hearing the story of our hort. Hero. So good to learn about the talent that makes the Arb. Such a special place

  4. Carol Frey

    Truly a lifeblood of the Arboretum. How many hundreds of thousands marvel at his beautiful, creative designs that change each year. The Arb is so fortunate to have him.

  5. David Edward Matteson

    Duane, you and team are amazing. The work you do makes a huge and positive difference for the entire community!
    Thank you for all you do…

  6. Susan Jones

    Glad to see that Duane is getting the recognition he deserves! I met him years ago at the Excelsior Farmer’s Market and have admired (and copied) his color palettes over the years. He is an Arboretum treasure.

  7. Darel Leipold

    Duane is a good long time friend of ours. We appreciate his skills and knowledge. We have been members of the Arboretum for about 40 years and have always looked forward to the beutefull gardens. We drove through on the three mile trail last week when the tulips were in full bloom.

  8. Bob and Jan Lokhorst

    We met Duane several years ago at the Arb and also at the Excelsior Farmers Market. We have driven past his beautiful property and every once in a while we get to talk to him at the Arb. Thank you Duane for the beautiful tulip display every year. We have a membership and we have been out to the Arb four times already for the 3 mile drive and have two more reservations. We love the beauty of the Arb and to see Duane’s flower masterplan. It changes each time we are out there. Keep up the great work everyone.

  9. LEESA WISDORF

    I’ve known Duane for 40 years. We met while working at a flower farm – no surprise there. His passion for plants and beauty are matched only for his capacity for hard work and long hours. The first time I visited one of his home gardens (this was at his parents farm) he was working under lights as twilight and evening came on. His ideas are on a grand scale and he works harder than anyone I know to turn those ideas in the lovely gardens we all enjoy.

  10. Lynda Waterman Krazinski and Carol Waterman Oliver

    Our dad, Jim Waterman, was proud to work on Duane’s volunteer crew. Dad couldn’t wait to see what Duane’s next garden design would be. Dad always shared a lot of beautiful arb flower garden photos with family and friends, and shared tips he learned from Duane. This article and photos about Duane Otto are much appreciated.

  11. Hi Duane – we just did the 3 mile drive this morning. Your work is lovely and I’m so happy that you have your dream job. Congrats and bravo from a GHS classmate!

  12. Renate Sperber

    I have wonderful memories of working on Duane’s volunteer garden crew. I learned a lot from you, Duane.
    The annual garden designs are especially beautiful each year, I hope that you will be at the Arb for many more years.

  13. My husband & I really enjoyed the 3-mile drive today and the tulips were spectacular! Thank you, Duane! We also have a garden and both my mother & my grandmother were great gardeners too! My brother has a gardening business in Hawaii selling plumeria which my mother also grew in San Diego.

  14. Jody Stoffels

    I just visited the Arboretum again yesterday. Love the tulip colors–a beautiful combination of reds and pinks. I have a big problem with creeping Charlie myself. Wish there was an effective way to get rid of it.

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