Arboretum News

Growing with John Mazzarella

Meet the gardener who keeps the Arboretum AppleHouse stocked with fresh apples.

Visiting the Arboretum: All members and visitors need to make a reservation in advance of their visit to the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. We hope to see you soon!

By Liz Potasek

John Mazzarella was an art history student at the University of Minnesota, and he was looking for an on-campus job placement that didn’t involve food services or janitorial work when he stumbled upon a job listing for the Arboretum’s Horticultural Research Center. That was in 1995.

Now a gardener in his 27th season at the Horticultural Research Center, Mazzarella oversees the Horticultural Research Center production orchards, which grow apples for the Arboretum’s AppleHouse (7485 Rolling Acres Rd., Victoria). “This job fits with my skill set of jack of all trades, master of none, although near master with farm equipment,” Mazzarella says, noting that his job involves everything from integrated pest management to machinery maintenance and field work to computer work.

The production orchards are about 15 acres spread between two locations at the Horticultural Research Center. Mazzarella grows a lot of Honeycrisp and SweeTango®, as well as the recently introduced First Kiss®, and some numbered research apples that haven’t been officially named. “We’re interested in growing more unusual varieties,” Mazzarella says.

What do your job duties involve?  

Maintenance of production orchards from pruning in the late winter to harvest in the late autumn, when I lead a small crew of people.

Why are you passionate about your work here at the Arboretum? 

I get to work outside where I observe the changing seasons. My office window is a tractor cab.

Photo by Chris McNamara.

What is your earliest memory of gardening or nature?  

Going to the family farm in western Wisconsin every summer to help with calves, milking and haying.

What inspired your career path?   

I started as a student employee because I was tired of campus jobs, such as food service and custodial. As a recently retired Landscape Gardener used to say, “I got sucked in.”

What is the most challenging part of your work? 

The challenges are keeping apple pests under control using safe and effective methods that require precision implementation, as well as growing a sufficient inventory of apples for the Applehouse. We experienced a 15-20 percent increase in demand pre-COVID — with an even bigger jump in the 2020 season.

As an expert in your field, do you have any tricks, tips or advice that would help our readers? 

For choosing ripe apples, especially grocery store Honeycrisp, get ones where the background color has turned from green to yellow and the red is bright red. Some apples grown outside of Minnesota are usually picked early because they have too many trees to pick at peak ripeness. Each variety turns its own shade of red, though.  

For growing apples at home, do research on the University of Minnesota extension site to choose varieties and learn what is involved in growing nice apples. It’s harder than one would think.

How does your work impact Arb members or visitors in a meaningful way?  

The Applehouse provides a source of locally grown apples, and it’s a reliable income source for the Arboretum and Horticulture Research Center.

Arboretum AppleHouse

Shop for your apples at the home of the Honeycrisp. The Arboretum AppleHouse features a variety of seasonal apples (call 612-301-3487 for a daily listing), as well as fresh cider, frozen apple pies, pumpkins and squash, gourmet goodies and seasonal decor. North Star Donuts will sell fresh apple cider mini donuts outside the AppleHouse on Wednesdays through Sundays through Oct. 31.

Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily through Nov. 5; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Nov. 6-Dec. 20

Location: 7485 Rolling Acres Rd., Victoria. The AppleHouse is approximately 1.5 miles west of the Arboretum at the intersection of Highway 5 and Rolling Acres Rd. The AppleHouse is open to the public — no need to make reservations. Masks are required.

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