Arboretum News

Growing with Fernando Hernandez

Meet the Arboretum Horticulturist who cultivates all the “natural beauty” on our grounds.

COVID-19 Update: The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum is open by reservation only. 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 “Growing with” series.

Horticulturalist Fernando Hernandez is dedicated to caring for native plants at home and at work. Photo courtesy of Fernando Hernandez.

By Liz Potasek

As anyone who’s ever tried to maintain a prairie or woodland area knows, it’s not easy to make a landscape look “natural.” At the Arboretum, Horticulturalist Fernando Hernandez is tasked with making our natural areas look beautiful without being overly cultivated. Hernandez manages the Dayton Wildflower Garden, Bennett-Johnson Prairie, Prairie Garden, Johanna Frerichs Garden for Wildlife and the Bog/Bog Walk. “I am passionate about the work I do at the Arboretum because we have an incredibly beautiful and diverse landscape to work with from a natural resource management perspective,” Hernandez says. “It is incredibly inspiring to work in such a great place.”

Hernandez joined the Arboretum staff four years ago. He studied Conservation and Environmental Science, and has a background in the management and restoration of natural areas. “I have taken a keen interest in native plants, because I feel that they are often overlooked in the world of horticulture,” Hernandez says. “I am an advocate for the preservation of our native plant communities because they connect us to the land on which we live and support the abundance of wildlife that has evolved within them.”

Dayton Wildflower Garden. Photo by Alan Branhagen.

As a part of his work at the Arboretum, Hernandez focuses on invasive species management, weeding, planting and providing education to Arb Visitors. He also participates in prescribed burning, trail maintenance, ecological restoration activities, greenhouse work and native seed collection.

Although the areas that Hernandez manages are designed to look wild or natural, a lot of thought goes into plant selection. “For most of my areas, I select plants that I know will thrive in a given area, such as a woodland, prairie or wetland,” he says. “I take cues from what is already present at these sites and add to existing populations. I also supplement these plantings (where appropriate) with a variety of other species to increase biodiversity. Generally speaking, I shoot to showcase specific species in larger plantings to best display their specific forms and habits.”  

The same foresight that goes into planting also applies to weeding. “As far as weeding goes, we have an ever-evolving list of plants that are considered invasive here at the Arb, as well as in the state of Minnesota,” he says. “I target these populations and selectively weed out species that may be a little too aggressive or encroach on existing plantings.”

Aster blooming in the Prairie Garden. Photo by Liz Potasek.

What is your earliest memory of nature?

I grew up 15 minutes south of Milwaukee, WI and just a few blocks away from Lake Michigan.  We lived near a rather large county park called Grant Park that consists mainly of a sugar maple-beech woodland and an 18-hole golf course on one of the highest points on the entire lake. My earliest memories of being in nature include riding bikes with my friends along all of the footpaths and trails in these woods. We spent countless hours and days exploring these woods, and I can recall having this feeling of wonder and enchantment whenever we played out there. The spring flowers and huge trees there really ‘planted the seed’ for my interest in native plants and the natural world.

Who taught you to garden? 

My first real gardening experience came with my internship with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources while I was in college. My boss, Tom, was well versed in his prairie plants and incorporated plant identification into my internship. I can remember my first day pulling weeds in the prairie demonstration gardens and him saying to pull all of the Stiff Goldenrod and Common Milkweed, because they just didn’t fit in with his ‘scheme’ and that we had other plants of the same genus already in there. He had an eye for how he wanted these gardens to look, and it amazed me that someone could have such a perspective. I will never forget these initial lessons in native plant identification and how to look at and think about gardening.

Stiff Goldenrod in the Prairie Garden. Photo by Liz Potasek.

Do you have a home garden?

My home garden consists primarily of native prairie plants with a focus on pollinator favorites.  I also have a small native “woodland” garden that contains some common shade tolerant species.  My favorite plant in my yard has to be Butterflyweed, Asclepias tuberosa.

What is the most challenging plant you work on at the Arb, and why?

The most challenging plant that I work on is Common Buckthorn. Although we have done an outstanding job of keeping it at bay in most areas at the Arb, it does continue to appear year after year. Sometimes I come across relatively large individuals that I must have driven by a thousand times, just hiding in plain sight. I presume that I will be battling this plant for the rest of my career.

Throughout the growing season, we handle buckthorn by cutting it and treating the stump with herbicide. In November, I lead a small crew of people to go out to various troublesome areas and spray buckthorn with an oil-based herbicide. This type of herbicide application is called basal bark treatment; we spray the stem/trunk of the plant and the oil carries the herbicide through the bark to the part of the plant that will absorb it. This method is very effective and is the reason why we have large tracts of woods with relatively no buckthorn present.

Bog Walk.

Do you have any favorite gardening trick or tips you’ve picked up along the way?

I would have to say that my favorite gardening tip would have to do with establishing new perennial garden beds. It’s easy for people to go overboard with initial plantings and jam as many plants into a space as they can. However, being able to imagine what these plants will look like at maturity and how they might spread around, years down the road, is crucial for initial planning and planting. Being able to see how the garden will grow and fill in will better dictate what you decide to plant and to what extent.

Share a favorite memory when your work at the Arboretum impacted a member/visitor in a meaningful way.

There isn’t one particular instance that stands out, but in general, I will have a few visitors a year come up to me and ask why I’m doing what I’m doing. Being able to relay information, whether it’s a plant identification question or a management question, is very rewarding to me. I feel very accomplished after having these conversations, in knowing that I was able to assist someone in making their home/garden more beautiful. Educating people about horticulture and gardening is one of my favorite aspects of working here.

7 comments on “Growing with Fernando Hernandez

  1. The wildflower garden is one of my favorite spots at the arboretum.

  2. A nice glimpse into the life of a horticulturalist. His passion for the work is inspiring.

  3. Richard Madlon-Kay

    I admire the native plantings at the Arboretum and am glad to know whose debt I am in. The Arboretum’s prairie garden inspired me to devote my small urban plot entirely to native plants.

  4. Genevieve Ryan

    So happy to see this info about such great work at the Arb!

  5. Amy Kvålseth

    I’ve been lucky enough to work as a volunteer with Fernando and reap the benefits of his knowledge and passion for sharing!

  6. Pingback: Arb Links, vol. 30 | News from the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum

  7. Thank you, Mr Hernandez, for your work. I started an urban wildflower plot over a decade ago and made every mistake in the book, but I have managed to remedy the worst ones and balance out the aggressives with the mild-mannered to some degree.

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