Episode 04: People and Weather of the Arboretum

While it is true that an arboretum is a showcase for woody plant material, it is the people that work and maintain that plant material that really bring life to an arboretum. In this podcast talk with the Bickelhaupts daughter about some of the things that inspired the Bickelhaupts to start the arboretum as well as the initial obstacles they faced during this process. We also get to know Margo Hansen, the former director of programs and David Horst the director of horticulture a bit better. They tell us about their backgrounds and how these life experiences have influenced what they do at the arboretum. Much of their work is outside with the plants and David Horst also tells us how the weather dictates much of the work that is done on a day to day basis and how weather extremes affect the plants themselves.


Ryan Welch: 
Welcome to another in our series of podcast about the Bickelhaupt Arboretum, located in Clinton, Iowa. While it is true that Arboretums are living museums of trees and woody vegetation, these collections didn't just magically appear. The ideas to create the arboretum, the physical labor that went into doing all the work and the enthusiasm and excitement to educate others about the benefits of these plants. Took the work of people. These tasks have involved not only the Bickelhaupts and their family members, but dedicated employees throughout the years and an army of volunteers. Initially, this started with the Bickelhaupts themselves, who began this public area to give back to their community and educate people about the options that were available to diversify and ecologically benefit their landscapes. During this podcast, we will get to know more about some of the people involved with the Arboretum and get a better sense of why they do what they do for the arboretum. 

The Bickelhaupts provide the foundation for this arboretum. From the initial setting up and planning as a nonprofit organization with an interest in education to the ways that they taught staff and volunteers to think ahead and be more efficient as they went about the work of planting and maintaining the area. 

Their daughter, Francie Hill, shared some of these initial insights during these early years of the arboretum. 

Francie Hill: And they were in their seventies at the time.  

Ryan Welch: At the time.  

Francie Hill: Which is pretty interesting that they would do that. But they also were some of the first people I knew were very conscious of health and they knew back then that weight and that exercises were very, very important. 

My mom drove the mower well into the start of her 80th year. I think. She was on the mower in a safe area that David would tell her she could. They swam every day. She lived to be 97 and so every day, and they were very frugal that way. 

They were back in those days and we're talking like the late sixties and everything. I like to think 1970 was when the arboretum sort of started.  

Ryan Welch: Yeah.  

Francie Hill:  So in the late sixties they approached an attorney and said, What do you know about nonprofits? 

What do you know about starting an arboretum? And at that time, I think once I researched, there was Salvation Army, American Red Cross and what else? American Cancer Society, maybe Heart Association. There were very few.  

Ryan Welch: There was very few. 

Francie Hill: Now there are a lot of them.  

Ryan Welch: Yeah.

Francie Hill: And so he went to Washington and stayed at the Mayflower Hotel and probably was there a week trying to explain to IRS what this was, and that there would be a commitment but it was very new to them.  

Ryan Welch: Yeah.  

Francie Hill: to the IRS and everything. And it wasn't being a tax dodge because they were they weren't going to be raising money because they wanted to pay for it themselves. So there was a lot of confusion on that. 

And then they came back and they did get their 501c3. So they were and then they really felt that they had to do education and that's when they really got into it. As far as and at my mom and dad's celebration of life. 

One of the speakers that I lined up was a Doctor Hasikus who is the chair of horticulture, the professor emeritus, chair of horticulture, University of Wisconsin-Madison, very well known. And he said he can remember going to conferences and my mom and dad were in the front row and they didn't have tape recorders or anything like that. 

And they were taking notes and then they go out and they transcribed their notes. So they were very interested in education. My mom was an education major in college, and so she was very interested in, you know, teaching people. 

And it was it was hard, Ryan, because people didn't really think of trees as much value. It was a tree. It was a tree. So to teach them about them, to teach them how to prune, to teach them if you cut one tree down. 

Clinton still doesn’t know that if you cut one tree down, you have to plant another. 

Ryan Welch: You have to put something to replace it. 

Francie Hill: How do we know what tree to plant? Well, perhaps you might go out to the arboretum and say, that's a really pretty tree. What's the name of it? There's a name of it, yeah. And then if you look at the labels, it tells how fast and years ago that was done by hand like Gutenberg did the Bible, 

Ryan Welch: Yeah.  

Francie Hill: And now they've got a computer there that, that works off of it and it's much easier but still important. So my dad is a car dealer.  

Ryan Welch: Yep.  

Francie Hill: And one of the things he would talk to people about is in addition to diversity, he would talk about maintaining your car, keeping it up to date. 

Ryan Welch: Yeah.  

Francie Hill: So at the arboretum, they probably had five of those little booklets that Hallmark gives you to put birthday book, you know?  

Ryan Welch: Okay.  

Francie Hill: And they had every time they put oil in, they had to list the oil, right? And the date of it every time they put gas in all that kind of, and he swears by it now.  

Ryan Welch: Yeah.  

Francie Hill: But at the time it was hard to understand, for me to understand also, David, to understand why it really mattered. 

But everything that is wrong usually is because of the bad habits that we have. For instance, you two go out or you go out to go do something in the field and Alan's going to come out too. And Alan has to run back for something. 

And you go ahead. No, that's wasting time because then he's got to walk. So they always was a second seat on all equipment. So the one person could shotgun not to check ‘em but always say that and always David reminded me of this this morning. 

I'd forgotten that they had before they had fanny packs, their backpacks, and in the morning they would put all the equipment they needed in it. They would have to take everything out because my dad said, if somebody has to run back for something that's wasting time. So it's important that you keep everything every way you can, keep the maintenance, get your dollars down. So that was a good lesson for everybody to learn. I think the volunteers learned that as well. 

I think it's important to know that this was started by people who were able to at first resist some change and then understand it. And I think that's what we all need to work towards. It may not be the same. 

It's when I was there, when you weren’t there. But we also accept change and we move with it. And we know that that's going to happen. And it's okay. Yeah. And as long as you keep the vision alive, I think it's okay. 

Ryan Welch: And there's a lot of change that happens at the arboretum because and I've talked to this the day before, I don't realize that these are living things. 

Francie Hill: Yeah. 

Ryan Welch: For the past 11 years, Margo Hanson has been the Arboretum director of programs. Margo's local background and upbringing, along with her educational background and enthusiasm, have entertained and educated visitors and volunteers at the Arboretum during this time. She discusses how all of this came to be and how her involvement with the community on so many levels also 

has been beneficial to both the Arboretum and the community at large. Even though she has recently retired from her position at the arboretum, the impact she has made not only to the arboretum but to the surrounding community will be felt for many years to come. 

Margo Hanson: I grew up on a dairy farm in Scott County, so I'm really a farmer at heart. I love the outdoors. I went to Pleasant Valley High School and then after I graduated, I went to a junior college. That's what they were called back then in Webster City, Iowa. 

There I received a two year degree in horticulture. Being from the farm, I was kind of afraid to go to a big university right out of high school. So I went to the junior college, which was a perfect fit for me. 

After I graduated from Webster City with a degree, a two year degree in horticulture, I transferred to Iowa State University, and there I received my four year degree in horticulture. From there, my first real job was with the Burpee Seed Company in Clinton, Iowa. 

I wasn't really happy about having a desk job, but being in the Burpee Seed Company was just a very wonderful learning experience. While I was at Burpees, I was able to spend two summers at their research farms in California. 

I did all kinds of things working with the plant breeders, working in the seed lab, and also working with some professional photographers who did photography for the Burpee Seed Catalog. So that was really exciting for me, being a farm girl from Iowa who had really never left the state. 

And then here I am in California experiencing all those new things. And that of course, was back in the 1970s. So it was a long time ago. From the Burpee Seed Company. My next job was actually running a, my own garden center, which I had in Clinton for 16 years. 

And then after that I went to Wallace’s Garden Center in the Quad Cities and ran one of their locations for several years. Then coming back to Clinton to work with the Lawn and Garden Department for the Paul’s Discount Store. 

So pretty much up until then, my whole life was retail garden center. 

Ryan Welch: How did you get involved in the Arboretum itself? 

Margo Hanson: Well, I had been employed in a retail lawn and garden for several probably 3 decades. I always wanted the opportunity to do more teaching. And when the position came open at the arboretum for a Director of Programs, this was a perfect opportunity for me to get programs in the community, reach out to people and help people with their lawn and garden questions, and then also develop some programs for education, especially kids.  

The elementary schools bring a lot of education to the elementary schools in the area and the students in the area, just love that. And then, of course, wanted to spread the good news that the Arboretum was in Clinton and what we all had to offer. So it was a perfect opportunity. I applied, was fortunately hired and have been here 11 years. Well, I like the job number one. Because of the education, you just cannot educate people enough in the area of plant material, trees, shrubs, nature in itself. 

And of course, with the different generations, we start all over. So we have to just keep that process continuing. I also love the job because every day is different. I do answer a lot of questions from the public and so they come in and you never know what the next questions are going to be. 

Also, we get a lot of phone calls and I do public speaking for different groups just to get out into the community and share the information that we have now that we're part of the college Clinton Community College system. 

It's even more important that we continue the educational factor, as well as keeping the arboretum alive, healthy working arboretum that David Horst has done such a wonderful job doing. 

Ryan Welch: This job involves a lot of community involvement and organizational involvement with various areas. So what types of community partnerships or organizational partnerships are you involved in as it relates to the job? 

Margo Hanson: So actually people that know me don't realize that when I was young I was very shy and I didn't do much public speaking. But over the course of the years, I had to develop that. And now I do love going out and talking to the community. 

But I also have very been very active over the years. In the Clinton area, I was one of the founding members of our Clinton Trees Forever group, and that group has planted literally thousands of trees in and around the community, as well as doing educational programs. 

In addition to that, I did over 30 years of the local farmers market. So that is a great connection. It got to the point where people would come up to the market to ask me questions, which was great. 

You know, anytime I can answer a plant question, I'm happy to do that. In addition to that, I do have a radio show and have had that for over 30 years where I do answer lawn and garden questions and then I talk about things pertaining to that particular season or things that are going on in the plant 

world at that time. Certain insect might be a problem. Or, you know, when do I plant my tomatoes? Is it too early? So questions like that. So that radio show has really helped to reach out to a lot of people in the community. 

Another thing that I have done is I have presented a lot of programs to area organizations: Rotary, Kiwanis, many church groups. If they were needing a speaker, I was always happy to accommodate them and spread the good word and not just to on the Arboretum about general planting and what the weather and their seasons had had thrown us that year. In addition to that, we do get into the monarch butterflies and also the pollinators. So it's not just plants. It's just kind of all of those things that are intertwined that that I love to do. 

I've also done over 20 years of a lawn and garden calendar that is printed locally and is made available through a number of different organizations. 

Ryan Welch: As people visit the arboretum and take in the beautiful plants and collections that can be seen on the grounds, it is more than likely that they are seeing the hard work and dedication of David Horst, who has been working for the Arboretum since 1986. 

David is currently the director of horticulture for the Arboretum, and his love for the outdoors and passion for plants is evident in every collection and planting that can be observed on the grounds. David discusses how he became involved with the Arboretum and a little bit about why he has been here for all these years. 

David Horst: My name's David Horst. I'm from Sabuela. I've been employed at the Bickelhaupt Arboretum for 36 years, starting here in 1986. 

Ryan Welch: So, Dave, what interested you in this type of work and how how were you trained, how you were educated? What led you to where we're here 36 years later? 

David Horst: Well, first off, I grew up on a farm, the family farm up by Sabuela. And I was always raising the garden, the vegetables and of course, helping my folks farm the farm ground. So I learned a lot in plants and raising plants with the farming. 

Went to high school, graduated from East Central, and then I attended Muscatine Community College for a year. I got to, I got a part time job here at the Arboretum, attended Clinton Community College after that. 

Ryan Welch: Okay. So did you mostly work on plant type courses while you were there or just general  

David Horst: General study? Well, in. 

Muscatine, I was in the conservation program, so there was some plant courses, but there was also fisheries and wildlife courses also.  

Ryan Welch: Okay.  

David Horst: And then I think some of the most important education I've had was since I worked here at the Arboretum, attending some of the courses early on, but mostly from the people I worked with some of the board of directors were professors of horticulture at their colleges, like the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Dr. Ed Haskell, Dr. Jeff  Eilers, who's the head out at Iowa State. They'd come over and visit the arboretum for a day and walk the grounds with me and teach me a lot about the plants and locations. 

And working with Chubb Harper, who's a well-known conifer expert back in the day, people like that, I think that's – A lot, all hands on. 

Ryan Welch: Training went into the background you have in the past and some of it's been on the job in the last 30 some years that you've actually been here and that's been very beneficial to everything you've been doing and able to make sure that you can, you know, you're learning about the specific stuff here at the arboretum, but also can be used in general for a lot of other types of trees and shrubs and things like that. 

David Horst:  Yes, feel that's very important and I've gained a lot of knowledge from it over the years and some of that was actually working on the grounds, even with Mr. Bickelhaupt, when I first came here, I didn't know anything about pruning lilacs, but he took me out. 

He was patient with me. He showed me how to properly prune ‘em and that actual hands on experience is very valuable. 

Ryan Welch: Invaluable. Some people would say, are you affiliated with in any way professional organizations or groups or anything like that? 

David Horst: Yes. American Conifer Society.  

Ryan Welch: Okay.  

David Horst: I've been a member. I'm actually a life member now.  

Ryan Welch: Oh. 

Ryan Welch: So what do you have to do to become a life member? 

David Horst: Pay a lot of money. 

Ryan Welch: Gotcha. (laughter) It's all the dues. Give us all the dues. 

David Horst: But no, that's a wonderful organization. And they have different regions throughout the country, like the central region here that we belong to. I was a part of, they have different they have a meeting every year and they'll have different tours. 

And so you get to see the local plants. All right. –Get to see what other people might be doing with their conifers and what you can either take back or not take back and how it relates to what we're doing here. 

David Horst: That's right.  

Ryan Welch: Yeah.  

David Horst: Yeah, through a family friend I was told about the job here at the peak of our summer was a part time summer job. I decided to apply for it after working here that year. I decided that working with plants is what I like. 

I like the area, I like the arboretum. I like my job taking care of the plants and planting ‘em,  watching them grow and I decided that's what I want to do for the rest of my life. And I'm still here 36 years later. 

Ryan Welch: You're 36, so it's nice to get paid for something you like doing. That is always helpful. 

David Horst: And I still say that today 

Ryan Welch: Still say that today. That is amazing. The aspect of this job. It's really nice to use the outdoors. You do work with your hands to wash things, grow that sort of thing. 

David Horst: Absolutely. And it's a changing season with the seasons. Even winter is an interesting time. So I don't just sit at a desk or an assembly line doing the same thing all day. It's always something different. Even on a given day, I start out doing something, change over maybe spread woodchips or some weeds or some pruning. 

It's different all the time, and that's where I like. 

Ryan Welch: Well, the people that work for the Arboretum are dedicated and love their jobs. Much of their work is outside, and with that comes the ever unpredictability of Midwestern weather. Through the years, the people and the plants at the arboretum have had to contend with everything that Mother Nature has thrown their way. 

David discusses some of the maintenance issues that they have had to be mindful of while taking care of the collections and gardens that are at the arboretum. Now, in terms of managing this area, what sort of major weather issues have actually affected the Arboretum in the past? 

David Horst: Just working at an arboretum and working outside to deal with weather on a daily basis. But there has been some very serious events that have happened, some of the major changing of the grounds incidents or life changing incidents that have personally affected the arboretum and the plants growing here are straight line winds. 

In 1996, they destroyed 172 year old burr oak and many other large trees that were growing. January of 2019. Severe cold temperatures of -29 below. 

Ryan Welch: That wasn't a one day event though, that was those temperatures were, I don't wanna say they were everyday,  negative 29 below but they were sustained for a little bit. 

David Horst: Several Days 

Ryan Welch: So what effect does that have on some of these plants? I realize, you know, these plants are outside and a lot of them say, well, the tree is dormant. How is that going to go? How is that kind of a cold temperature going to affect it?  

David Horst: That's correct. We had a lot of severe damage that year, not sure, I think we had 80 some plants that were damaged by the cold, by the cold that year. And that was part of the problem. 

If it were just a short period of time, it wouldn’t have been so difficult, but it was over several days with just a little under a week, perhaps we're below zero at different time periods. And this long term cold spell caused a lot of dieback directly on our shrubs and we had a lot of injury and dieback to the dwarf conifer collection too that year. 

Ryan Welch: Now is that because it was partially cold for so long. Then the cold went down in the ground deep enough to actually affect the roots where when those plants go dormant, they send all that stuff down into the roots for storage because it's usually, I would say, below the frost line, but it's at a point where that that, you know, moderately cold temperatures are going to affect it as much. But really, really cool stuff. You know, you get freeze down there, you get crystallization down there, and that really messes up the plumbing, if you will, of that root structure. Is that really what was kind of going on and leading to that dieback. 

David Horst: Yes, that was I would say that that the half of it and then the other half, because some of the plants did come back from the ground, but the top had died. So obviously it affected just the top of the plant as well, where the roots were untouched. 

So it was both ways, I think. I think both ways happened. So that year we had a lot of injuries from the sunlight reflecting off the snow. It was cold for a long period. We had a little dryness going into the winter time. 

So the conifers that need the moisture throughout the year to keep their needles healthy with the long snowfall that we had on the ground, it was, I believe, we had snow from December 1st to like almost the end of March. 

And we had a lot of reflection from the sun of that which dried out needles on the evergreens. And then the result is in the spring and April, May, they turn brown. 

Ryan Welch: People don't realize that, that, you know, these yeah, these ,these evergreens, those needles are actually their leaves. And even though they're nice and thin and they don't look as showy to some people as you might think, they're constantly reflecting the sunlight and doing their thing. 

And so when that happens for prolonged periods of time, it can't continue. 

David Horst: That's right. And many cases, they will survive the needle desiccation. But they look for several months until you get up to a couple years if it's severe. So that was another factor that played in that winter. That was a tough winter for plants and people working out in it. 

Ryan Welch: Yeah, and people working out in it. 

David Horst:  It was that same year. No, it was the yes, it was November of 2018. So it was the year leading up the fall leading up to the winter 2019 when we had the -29. It was in November of 2018. 

We had a rain, heavy rain, followed by 12 inches of wet, heavy snow. And that did a lot of damage to a lot of plants. We had hundreds of limbs that came out of the trees and broken out of the shrubs where a lot of pruning the following spring and summer. 

Although it did not kill the plants, it disfigured them.  

Ryan Welch: Yeah.  

David Horst: Took many years to recover. 

Ryan Welch: To recover from. Yeah. Because a lot of people don't realize that you put that kind of weight on a plant. They can only hold so much as well and things shear off and break and it really will affect the structural integrity of some of these plants. 

David Horst:  And one of the worst affected was the founder, White Pines, that were planted for the screen that we talked about along the north side of the building here, White Pines, the heavy load sits on the upper limbs. Pine, of course, is a soft wood, so if it gets too heavy. 

That limb up at the top, the tree breaks and it takes every limb that it lands on on its way down to the ground. And there were very lost five or six limbs in a row, were them at the top row. 

Ryan Welch: And they just went kept going almost like it, almost like an avalanche in some ways. But with woody species just coming down the tree and making a mess on the bottom, but also mess things up at the top and then structural, because that will open up new areas that aren't accustomed to that kind of light even, or other things that may and maybe they'll, they'll come back. Maybe it won't. If it does, it won't be coming back in the same way as, as it had. 

David Horst: We had many trees that were mishapped the rest of their lives.  

Ryan Welch: Yeah.  

David Horst: The heavy snow.  

Ryan Welch: Okay.  

David Horst: And it was just the perfect combination of the perfect storm when we had the rain first. So the needles were wet and we had that very wet, wet, heavy snow that did the damage. 

Of course, everybody remembers the derecho on August 10th of 2020, with Clinton Iowa receiving winds in excess of an estimated 115 to 120 miles per hour, which destroyed 28 of our largest and oldest trees and damaged another 70 or so trees. 

There have been many other events over the years involving strong winds, torrential downpours with the creek flooding out of its banks, bringing cold temperatures. We always hate to have these events and to lose the trees that we've cared for for so many years. 

Well, it does open up an avenue where we can go in and do some research on new plants and bring them to the Arboretum plant ‘em, tt kind of upgrades the collection in a way. 

Ryan Welch: Yeah. And it also shows people as you plant things or as you have things in your yard or in your area, here's our nature is going to affect them. 

David Horst: That's right. 

Ryan Welch: You know, in nature, you're not going have a perfect day every day. It’s no gonna be Sunny every day, kids. And then if you're going to plant this year, realize that these things could happen if we get those kind of weather. And here in Iowa, you expect anything. 

David Horst: That's right. 

Ryan Welch: You know. 

David Horst: And it teaches us lessons. If we didn't properly plant a tree when I was young and it developed a double layer, for example, with a poor angle where there's was a weak spot. As the tree gets older, more weight is on those legs, and then you get a strong wind like the one that breaks out and splits the trunk and the tree has to be removed.  

Ryan Welch: Yeah.  

David Horst:  It could have been prevented if we would have properly groomed it from the start.  

Ryan Welch: Form the start. 

David Horst: Yeah. And that's another thing we like to do is show the proper pruning. 

Ryan Welch: So, so this is, this is why we do this. That's why, you know, there's a method behind the bad news, folks. This is the reason we did it this way to begin with. And, and here's why. Here's what happens if you don't do it that way. 

David Horst: Yeah.  

Ryan Welch: We have you know, you talked about weather extremes in terms of the flooding and the winds and the cold. What about the other end of that spectrum? Instead of like the wet, the, dry. 

David Horst: That’s a good point. I missed that one. The droughts 

Ryan Welch: The droughts 

David Horst: And there's been plenty of those. Even last summer, it was pretty dry. We tried to prevent droughts ahead of time by putting on a nice layer of woodchips, usually with mulch. 

Ryan Welch: Because it will retain the moisture for longer periods of time. You don’t have to water out of the bucket every day and water. 

David Horst: That's right. And it keeps the sun from making the soil. As much as many other benefits, but drought is probably one of the most important ones that keeps the soil a constant moisture level or more consistent anyway, and temperature level. 

But we do have hydrants spaced throughout the arboretum. It does get too dry. We start watering the new plants first, the ones that don't have a fully developed root system. We water them first and then we will go to the ones that were planted the year preceding the drought period over water those and then we keep monitoring other ones beyond that. 

Ryan Welch: So it's a systematic process depending on if the drought conditions are here. You go around and say, okay, the newer stuff that hasn't been established first may not be ready for this stuff yet. We handle that. But as you go down the years, you probably get to plants that are have the least, if nothing else, have a pretty good reserve system set and you may not have to do as much. 

David Horst: That’s right they have an established root system. And if they're healthy, they can tolerate a certain amount of drought anyway. 

Ryan Welch: Oh yeah, that's natural. You probably have those plants I've been around for long enough where they, while they have been healthy, have been here for a while. They may have also been affected by other things that may have lowered their defenses as well, correct? 

David Horst: That's correct. 

Ryan Welch: Yes, Arboretums are collections of living woody plant material, but it is often the people that plan, plant, maintain and educate about these plants that really bring life to the Arboretum. This dedication and knowledge about the area also allow the staff at the Arboretum to be better prepared for what Mother Nature throws at us, which allows them to continually show off this jewel of Clinton, Iowa. I would like to thank Francie Hill, Margo Hanson and David Horst for their time, dedication, passion and knowledge that they share with me for this podcast. I would also like to thank Otis Welch for the musical selection.