In a few weeks, 39,000 tulips will bloom at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum as they do every year at this time, lining the grounds in waves of vivid color. But this year, nobody will be there to see them.
Meanwhile, arboretum gardeners are preparing thousands of annual flowers to put in the ground in late May — knowing they may well be creating lavish gardens in a 1,200-acre ghost town.
The arboretum, which normally attracts almost 500,000 visitors a year, is closed under Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order to limit the spread of the coronavirus. As part of the University of Minnesota’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, the arboretum shut its gates on March 13 along with other major U venues and will stay closed at least through May 4.
What will happen after that is uncertain. No one knows whether the arboretum will be allowed to reopen this spring, its second-busiest time of year (after leaf-peeping in the fall). No one can predict when the arboretum, which straddles Victoria and Chanhassen, might again host its music and art shows, nature walks, educational programs and plant sales, open its gift shop or rent space for weddings and other celebrations.
And no one knows how a nonprofit that collects 92% of its $14 million operating budget from gate fees, programs and events will fare without those revenue streams.
For now, arboretum staffers are focused on how to protect nearly 100 gardens, displays and plant collections — more than 5,000 plant species and varieties in all — with a skeleton crew of 10 gardeners.
That’s less than a third of the garden staff that usually works this time of year. By June, about 60 gardeners are normally tending the grounds, with help from 1,200 volunteers currently barred from the premises.
“It is very complicated, figuring out what’s essential,” said Alan Branhagen, the arboretum’s operations director. “Some of our collections are very unique, very valuable.”
Staffers are concentrating on the most essential tasks: repotting seedlings, uncovering perennial gardens, cutting out dead foliage.
Meanwhile, the lawns might not get as meticulously mowed as usual, Branhagen said.
“Things look rough — the gardens aren’t getting the attention to detail they’d normally get,” said Ricky Garza, grower and greenhouse manager. “It’s painful, because that’s what we live for, to make this place beautiful for all the visitors.”
Visitors, for their part, share the pain. While photos and videos of the gardens can be found on the arboretum’s website and social media pages, they can’t replace a stroll around the grounds for many people.
“I basically stand on the street corner and tell people how special the arboretum is,” said Irv Levang, a semiretired 67-year-old who lives nearby.
Since moving to Chaska from North Dakota about five years ago, Levang has walked the grounds almost every day, at least 5 miles most days — walks he considers therapeutic for his physical and emotional health.
“Sometimes I go twice a day if I find myself twiddling my thumbs in the afternoon or I find something that I’m thinking too hard about — I just escape,” Levang said. “To me, it’s been one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen or experienced.”
As recently as late February, the arboretum was enjoying a record fiscal year, said Director Peter Moe. Revenues were up by almost every measure, and he was forecasting a $700,000 surplus at the end of June.
That’s about how much the place has lost since then, without its usual gate fees and scheduled events.
“Our earned revenue is basically zero since March 13,” Moe said.
The only arboretum visitors that seem pleased with the situation, Branhagen said, are the ones wearing feathers.
“The birds are happy because no one’s here,” he said. “I had bluebirds out my window checking out a hole in one of the trees as a potential nest site. Nature continues on without us.”