Sustainable Steps at the Arboretum

 

The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum has a long history of practicing sustainability and horticultural best practices, both in its daily routines and its education initiatives for adults and children. As a part of the College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences at the University of Minnesota, the Arboretum has focused on eco-friendly features across its 1,200-acre campus. Here are a few highlights: 

Food farm: The Arboretum’s Farm at the Arb connects people with the food they eat through interpretive exhibits highlighting Minnesota-grown crops, fruits and vegetables. Displays include vegetable gardens, as well as fields of soybeans, corn and sunflowers, and newer crops, like kernza. The Farm at the Arb’s apprenticeship program provides hands-on technical training to adults who want to go into careers in local food production for sale or community health. 

Sustainable building design: The Arboretum’s Tashjian Bee & Pollinator Center, built in 2016, won an AIA COTE Top Ten Award from the American Institute of Architects’ Committee on the Environment for sustainable design excellence — one of the industry’s best-known awards programs of its kind. Sustainable features include a metal roof, long-life Accoya wood cladding, radiant heating and cooling systems, a geothermal field and solar panels. In addition to being sustainably built, the center educates all ages about the key role that pollinators play in our ecosystem, using learning spaces, an apiary, a honey house and pollinator gardens with interpretive signage.

Prairie preservation: The Arboretum is committed to providing a safe-haven for Minnesota plants and animals that are increasingly encroached upon by urban development. Today, visitors can explore examples of prairies and wetlands, along with the flora and fauna that make Minnesota’s heartland ecosystems so diverse. Special Arboretum sites include the Bennett-Johnson Prairie, Grace B. Dayton Woodland Wildflower Garden and Spring Peeper Meadow Wetlands. 

Better biking access: Thanks to a new, 2-mile regional trail connection, completed in 2021, cyclists can now access the Arboretum by the Highway 5 Regional Trail. This new stretch of trail runs via Minnewashta Parkway, past the Arboretum gatehouse and to the Highway 41 underpass, connecting to more than 100 miles of trails to the east and west, including the local trail systems of Chanhassen and Victoria. Highlights include a 14-foot-wide, 1,000-foot boardwalk that travels over wildlife-rich wetlands at the Arboretum, which offers a gatehouse discount for admission $12 (instead of $15) for ages 16 and older. Bicyclists can use Three-Mile Drive to explore the grounds. 

Water conservation: Staff at the Arboretum relies almost entirely on surface water to keep its 1,200 acres hydrated with the exception of the Farm at the Arb food gardens, which requires water from the city of Chaska. Well water is used minimally and drip irrigation is used when possible. Hot water in the Arboretum buildings is softened using salts that are delivered in reusable buckets (as opposed to 40-pound bags, which aren’t recyclable), from a local family business, Minnesota Salt Co.  

Compostable cafeteria: All cups, lids, straws and to-go containers in the Arb cafe are made of corn-based resin and are fully biodegradable within 45 days. The Arboretum is also a participant in an organic compost program, whereby all waste is sorted and biodegradable products are collected and recycled for use in Arboretum gardens. All garden waste, meanwhile, is composted (or upcycled) and used on the grounds or sold to local businesses. The Arb is also a host site for the Carver County composting program, and organics from a number of Chanhassen neighborhoods as well as the Arboretum's cafe.

Geothermal heating/cooling: The Oswald Visitor Center at the Arb, completed in 2005 with 45,000 square feet of space, is one of the largest public buildings in Minnesota using geothermal technology. By tapping into the natural temperatures just below the Earth's surface, this heating and cooling source is a free, renewable and low-impact system and a sustainable alternative to burning fossil fuels and other pollutants. Across the Arb campus, energy use is also reduced in many buildings and exterior lamp posts, thanks to an ever-increasing array of LED bulbs.

Plant conservation: The Plant Conservation Program based at the Arboretum works to promote the conservation of rare and native plant species in Minnesota, including a seed bank for plants native to Minnesota such as terrestrial native orchids, carnivorous plants, cacti and more.

Invasive plant and pest work: A major goal at the Arboretum is to reduce damage from destructive pests and invasive plants while protecting the environment. Biological controls — including mitigating pest populations with their natural enemies — are used whenever possible as an alternative to toxic pesticides and herbicides. Success stories include the containment of major invasive plant species such as purple loosestrife. Biological control is also being used in an integrated management plan to control leafy spurge. Research is currently underway at the University of Minnesota to eradicate other invasive species such as buckthorn, garlic mustard and jumping worms.

Cold-hardy fruit discoveries: The Arboretum is a world leader in developing fruit trees and ornamental landscape plants that will thrive in cold northern climates, an achievement that keeps food supplies local and drastically reduces shipping costs. Over the years, more than 100 fruit introductions have included apples (about 30), grapes (including table and wine types), apricots, cherries, raspberries, blueberries and strawberries. More than 60 introductions of ornamental plants, such as azaleas redbuds, have also come out of the plant-breedin research at the Arboretum’s Horticultural Research Center. Learn more at mnhardy.umn.edu.

Eco-kids: Every year, more than 55,000 children participate in Arboretum education programs, including field trips, Field Trips in Box, Plantmobile programs and on-site summer classes. At the heart of those courses is sustainability and environmental awareness for all ages. Adult education programs, both virtual and in person, draw nearly 4,000 adults annually as well, offering sustainable gardening solutions as well as information about local ecology.