Arboretum News

Growing with Virge Klatt

Meet the research professional who cares for thousands of woody plants as a part of the Horticultural Research Center’s Woody Landscape Plant Breeding and Genetics Program.

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!

Virge Klatt. Photo courtesy of Virge Klatt.

By Liz Potasek

As we watch the seasons change, enjoying the beautiful fall foliage of ninebark, buckeye or maple trees and anticipating the bright blooms of azaleas, forsythia and wisteria each spring, it’s hard to imagine a time when the wide variety of those trees and shrubs that we enjoy today didn’t exist in Minnesota. Yet, many of the cold-hardy trees and shrubs that we’ve come to love were introduced by the University of Minnesota thanks to years of research at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum’s Horticultural Research Center (HRC).

Virge Klatt, the research professional for the Woody Landscape Plant Breeding and Genetics Program at the HRC, appreciates this fact more than most. Klatt began working at the Arboretum in 1995 through a student exchange program called Minnesota Agricultural Student Trainee (MAST) International. “What was initially supposed to be a six month student experience has turned into a 26 year career at the Arboretum/HRC,” Klatt says. “In 1998, I was hired as a Research Plot Technician, and six years later as a Research Plot Coordinator for the Woody Landscape Plant program.”

Klatt, who grew up in Estonia, earned a degree in forestry from the Estonia University of Life Sciences. Today she helps grow thousands of trees and shrubs, with the hope of developing named cultivars that are released to the nursery industry and eventually make their way into backyards and gardens.

What do your job duties involve?

Under the guidance of our project leader, professor Stan Hokanson, and scientist Steve McNamara, I, alongside my dedicated small crew and great volunteers, am responsible for the next chapter in woody ornamentals’ life after they leave the highly controlled greenhouse and container nursery environment and are ready for the field trials. 

Planning and preparing the nursery space, planting, watering and/or irrigating, mulching, weed control, pruning, and ultimately removing most of the plants that did not make the cut, make up the majority of my job duties. I also provide any other support the project needs, from seed extraction to lab assistance, cost estimates to data recording, and everything in between. I have an inquisitive mind and the variety of tasks is a great way to learn and grow.

Weigela is one of the shrubs that are a part of the Woody Landscape Plant Breeding and Genetics Program at the Horticultural Research Center.

Why are you passionate about your work at the Arboretum?

Being part of the research, creation and evaluation of new plant varieties is exciting, even though the process itself is quite slow due to the growth rate of the woody plants. It typically takes between 12 and 20 years to bring a new plant to the public. 

Over the years I have planted tens of thousands of trees and shrubs, very few of which become named cultivars that are released to the nursery industry, but, looking at a beautiful birch tree in its golden autumn glory or a blooming weigela field in the mist during a sultry summer sunrise makes me happy. 

Fields where Klatt works. Photo courtesy of Virge Klatt.

What is your earliest memory of gardening or nature?

I grew up in Estonia, a country in Northeastern Europe, where just about 50 percent of land is covered with forests and where the population density is one of the lowest in Europe. As a kid in a little village, I was surrounded by nature and spent most of the days playing outside: floating spruce cones down the stream, listening to the nightingales and cuckoo birds in springtime; picking wild strawberries and making birch whisks for the sauna night during summer; crafting stick animals out of acorns and buckeye nuts in the fall; and skiing in the frosty forest and building snow forts in winter time.

During my childhood, Estonia was one of the 15 Soviet republics and at that time many people grew their own fruits and vegetables. My parents and grandparents had big gardens and the kids had to help out as soon as we could tell the difference between a tiny carrot plant and the weeds, and could pick a black currant berry out of the bush. I pretty much grew up surrounded by nature and have been gardening, or at least been a helping hand in the garden, for as long as I can remember.

One job I hated with a passion as a youngster, and was never going to do as an adult, was weeding. And guess what? Weed control is still a big part of my job. To make peace with my least favorite gardening task these days, I try to see its positive side – often, especially when hand weeding, you can see the fruits of your labor immediately.

Although weeding was a detested task as a child, Klatt has made peace with it as an adult and even finds satisfaction in the results of hand weeding. Photo courtesy of Virge Klatt.

What inspired your career path?

While gardening and being outdoors has always been like second nature to me, my career path was somewhat serendipitous. I have never really thought about what inspires me on a daily basis.

At the beginning of my career at the HRC, my first supervisor, Jeffrey Johnson, gave me a lot of encouragement and taught me, fresh out of school, all the tricks of the trade and how to operate the farm equipment. He instilled in me that I can do anything I put my mind to and that felt quite empowering.

These days nature itself and the awesomeness of trees is an inspiration to me — and the ground itself where my nurseries lie. I love observing how the seasons change, especially the deciduous trees and shrubs with them, and how winter marks the end to another growing season for them and somehow also completes another trip around the sun for me, as well. It was not too long ago that I realized that the undeniable bond one creates with the land that grows the plants throughout the seasons for all those years is so strong, it makes it hard to leave it behind. It is also inspirational – trying to be a good steward to both while trying to keep a balance.

Redbud in bloom. Photo by Virge Klatt.

Do you have a home garden?

I live out in the country on the woods edge, and since I don’t have a fenced-in yard, I have to share my garden with all the forest animals. However, my favorites – redbuds, lilies of the valley, peonies, raspberries and dill – have been mainstays in my garden for many years and stayed relatively unscathed by the critters.

What is the most challenging and most rewarding part of your work?

At the Horticultural Research Center, we grow dozens of different species of trees and shrubs on 17 acres of land. Changing climate and weather patterns are affecting plant growth, including weed and pest populations, as well as maintenance practices required to provide an optimal growth environment for accurate evaluation results. 

While weed control is the most visible and most detrimental challenge when the plants are young, especially because it is tricky to use herbicides in the shrub nursery, the biggest challenge is understanding and providing the specific growing conditions (such as soil pH levels, sun/shade, wet/dry, etc.) the various species require in order to succeed. It’s like having 30 kids, each with their own personalities and needs, and you want them all to thrive. 

It feels rewarding to see a nursery full of weed-free, healthy plants, especially when getting to that point has been challenging. Sometimes there is no easy fix and it can take several growing seasons and some trial and error to find solutions to the issues. 

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

Although it has been said many times, planting a tree at the right depth is a key to a long term success. To do this, make sure the root flare is at the soil level, not below, and check for existing circling roots, especially if the tree was grown in a container. Be generous with water for at least the first two years, and make sure the mulch isn’t any thicker than 0.5” by the base of the tree. 

Also, it has been estimated that only one in about 10,000 acorns gets a chance to grow into a tree in the wild. With that in mind, don’t be too hard on yourself. Keep on trying if you don’t succeed at first.

Azaleas. Photo by Jason Boudreau-Landis.

How does your work impact the general public in a meaningful way?
The trees, shrubs, roses and vines introduced by our project over the years and those we are currently developing are beautiful, tried and true, and well suited for Minnesota climate. Azaleas like Electric Lights ‘Double Pink’ and ‘Red,’ ‘Heart’s Desire’ redbud, ‘True North’ coffeetree, and others will hopefully bring joy to many Minnesotans and our northern neighbors for years to come.

2 comments on “Growing with Virge Klatt

  1. Andrea Lee Brosch

    Thank you for the really good article about yourself and your work/contributions to our beautiful arboretum. And I loved your photos. Your dedication to those “little ones” in your nursery is appreciated when we get to see them on our adventures walking the arboretum. I have a dogwood shrub outside my dining room window and during the covid lockdowns I’ve made it my mission to do watercolor paintings of it in it’s many stages of life throughout this year. All it’s berries and leaves are gone now and I’m looking forward to painting it with snow on it. That will give me a complete year! I had no idea how important even this one shrub is to the birds and squirrels who live around me.

  2. Virge Klatt

    Thank you for your kind words! Your painting project is such a great idea, I wish you the best of luck with the last scene. I’m sure all together it will look beautiful.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: