Long known as a garden and plant paradise for people who really know what to do with a trowel, the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum is getting ready to do some blossoming of its own.

Under the direction of a new leader, the arboretum in Chanhassen is working on an ambitious five-year plan to create several new permanent attractions, including a treetop canopy walk, Chinese garden, sculpture garden and outdoor performance center.

"We're looking at big-scale things that are transformational in the way the arboretum presents itself," said Ed Schneider, who became the arboretum's director in July 2010.

An oasis of green ringed by newer developments, the arboretum offers a tranquil respite amid its dozens of flower gardens and tree collections set on rolling hills. While its new plans still focus on the arboretum's horticultural mission, they're also edgier and offer a broader entertainment value. Already, its landscape is dotted with a temporary avant-garde "Steelroots" display of sculptures made of reclaimed steel pipe.

"In many ways, it's creating this perception that we're not a sleepy, quiet little place," Schneider said of the multimillion-dollar plan.

The arboretum, he said, competes with the Minnesota Zoo, Science Museum of Minnesota and many other cultural institutions, and wants to attract more visitors and members.

The new exhibits and gardens are part of a draft "development opportunity plan" that the arboretum has published on its website, and that its major donors and other stakeholders will discuss and promote in the next few months.

SweeTango, Honeycrisp

About 22 miles southwest of Minneapolis, the arboretum was founded in 1958 on 150 acres of rolling, wooded land with two small lakes.

It has been expanded to 1,137 acres, and boasts a relatively new visitor center, a world-class horticultural library, and a growing number of family and educational programs.

The acreage includes the nearby Horticultural Research Center, founded in 1908, where scientists have bred apples such as the Honeycrisp and SweeTango, as well as northern-hardy grapes and other fruits.

"We're a major public garden serving not only the citizens of Minnesota, but all of our global visitors," Schneider said. There are about 600 botanical gardens and arboretums in the United States, he said, and Minnesota ranks in the top 20. "The plan has us moving into that top 10 tier," he said.

Heavy-hitter donors

While the University of Minnesota owns the arboretum and its buildings, a 35-member Board of Trustees manages endowment earnings and raises money for new initiatives.

The lion's share of some projects has come from a long list of wealthy donors -- names such as Cargill, Dayton, Dahlberg, MacMillan and Pohlad frequent the list -- and Twin Cities-based companies, but Schneider said smaller individual contributions also play an important role. Gifts of more than $1 million are in the works for the Chinese garden and the sculpture garden, he said, and there's "strong donor interest" in the canopy walkway.

Dick Spiegel, former president of the board and who is still active, said no public money will be spent on the additions.

"It's all raised from individuals," he said. "Sometimes they give you $5, sometimes they give you $50,000. You just don't know."

Reaching out

With many of the arboretum's main gardens developed near the visitor center, plans call for utilizing land and buildings currently unused.

"What we're trying to do is take the pressure off the core area that was developed there," Spiegel said.

Projects under discussion would serve both those who prefer the quiet solitude of wooded and garden areas, he said, and parents looking for family events.

"We want this to be an adventure to all people," Spiegel said.

The major projects on the drawing board:

• A treetop canopy walk. An elevated walkway would allow visitors of all ages to see the upper levels of mature trees, learn about bird life, photosynthesis and other topics, and get a bird's eye view of the arboretum and nearby Lake Minnewashta.

• A woodland performance center and garden. More garden than amphitheater, it would accommodate about 500 people on sloping and terraced levels for music, theater, education and ceremonies. It would be built into the landscape near a pond and incorporate existing trees.

• A Chinese garden. It would include architecture, plants, stone, water, and art and literature. Traditional gates and perhaps a Chinese pavilion would usher visitors into a tranquil garden with a pond.

• A new sculpture garden with about two dozen sculptures, all donated by one family. The arboretum already features individual sculptures scattered across its property, but the new additions would be installed as a group, in relation to one another and the surrounding landscape and vistas.

• The red barn, an arboretum icon. It could become a center for classrooms or conference facilities, or a showplace for home gardens or green building technology.

Any new features could attract more visitors, but Schneider said the arboretum already has a pressing problem with traffic. Vehicles back up on Hwy. 5 during popular weekends, he said, and parking areas fill quickly. The plan would relieve that congestion by adding a members-only lane at the main gate, extra parking areas and perhaps an additional exit. Also under discussion is a pedestrian and bike path that would link the arboretum to regional trails.

Depending on where some of the new features are located, Schneider said, the arboretum's popular Three-Mile Drive could be expanded with additional loops in the western and eastern sections of land. Like the current one-way lane that meanders through the property, the loops could include pull-out parking areas for those who want to stop at various gardens and collections.

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388