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Home & Garden: Research center at Morris home to delightful garden experience

The 15-acre WCROC is celebrating 100 years.

Just a two hour drive southeast will take you to Morris, Minn., for a delightful garden experience. Morris is home to the West Central Research and Outreach Center (WCROC). It was originally established on the campus of the University of Minnesota/Morris and moved to its present location off highway 329 in 1973. The 1500-acre WCROC is celebrating its 100-year anniversary this year. It is part of the University of Minnesota College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. Its purpose is to provide applied research and rural and farmer education in crop production, animal sciences, horticulture, water quality, organic dairy, and renewable energy.

The horticultural garden features smaller, themed gardens and since 1990, it has been an All-American Selections display site. The gardens are open daily from sunrise to sunset all season, with no charge. A Horticulture Night takes place every year on the last Thursday of July. From 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., there are tours, demonstrations, discussions on garden topics, games for children, music and a picnic.

Steve Poppe, who has been with WCROC for 34 years, gave my garden club a tour, beginning with the children's educational area. One garden was divided into sections like slices of a pizza. Plants that are used to make a pizza such as wheat (for the crust), vegetables and herbs grow in the wedges. Colorful wooden animals represent the dairy ingredients.

Another garden is planted with plants that grew in prehistoric times and it includes a big play area. A bright table and chair grouping made from tree stumps and painted like a checkerboard is nearby. The world garden teaches where plants come from and features a huge teepee formed with vines. A prairie garden demonstrates what the land was like in pioneer days.

An heirloom vegetable garden is near the children's area and is surrounded by a ten-foot fence to keep out the deer. Here WCROC is testing the use of canola for organic weed prevention. Canola gives out a toxin from its roots that prevents 80% of weed growth. They mow it down after 3 or 4 weeks and then set in vegetable plants. They are also studying the use of 20% vinegar to kill weeds organically. In all of the gardens, fertilizer, other than manure is rarely used.

The main purpose of the gardens is research, and plants are rated for foliage as well as flowers. Each year 14,000 annuals are started in two greenhouses and are set out in the gardens by 30 volunteers. The seeds for planting and research come from several locations around the world.

From the entrance road, you get a panoramic view of all the display gardens, which are surrounded by tall evergreens. Most gardens have a theme, such as backyard garden, front porch, butterfly, etc. and many have been funded by sponsors. There is a water garden and a hosta glade has been recently planted among the evergreens. A rose garden includes 'Ole,' 'Lena' and 'Sven' hardy roses. A shrub rose called 'Spinosissum' was heavily laden with bright red rosehips and had been covered with white flowers in April. The Heritage garden was abloom with plants that were common 100 years ago. It included 'Love Lies Bleeding' (Amaranthus), Four O'Clocks, Alyssum, tall white flowering tobacco (Nicotiana), Amish Cockscomb (red celosia) and zinnias. In several garden structures throughout the area, hanging baskets overflow with blooms.

At the far end of the garden, on the bluff overlooking the Pomme de Terre river, WCROC is restoring a prairie. It looked like a sea of yellow rudbeckia. As you look up you get a close view of the windmill that provides 50% of the power to the university.

Many of the gardens display the 2009 top annual performers. An alyssum called 'Snow Princess' is a cutting (vegetative), not a seed grown variety. Others include 'Senorita Rosita' cleome, Vista 'Bubblegum' petunia, lobelia 'Smoke Princess,' the ornamental pepper, 'Black Pearl,' 'King Tut' cyperus and 'Pretty Much Picasso' petunia. I also liked the grass 'Firecracker' pennisetum and Vinca 'Garden Leader.'