Iowa State University

Inside Iowa State
May 1, 1998

It's high-gear season in the gardens

by Steve Jones

What happens in spring determines Nick Howell's disposition the rest of the year.

The superintendent of the Reiman Gardens knows if the springtime weather behaves and the gardens are prepared properly, they will look good all summer. Too much rain, and Howell and his staff lose valuable work time. And time is important when planting up to 30,000 bedding plants each spring.

"What we do this time of year really determines how well the gardens look the rest of the season," Howell said. "When it's not raining, we hit the gardens pretty hard. We have to because we're behind schedule."

Spring is any gardener's busiest time of the year, and it's no different for the 36-year-old Howell. Besides planting flowers, workers are cleaning the grounds, mowing, tending roses and handling a number of other maintenance jobs. Long days are needed to make the university's "front door" look colorful and inviting.

The gardens are named for Roy and Bobbi Reiman, Greendale, Wis., who donated the bulk of the money to build the facility. Roy Reiman is a 1957 ISU alumnus. Ground was broken in late 1993 and the gardens opened in full bloom in 1995.

The Reiman Gardens have become one of ISU's most popular and high-profile campus attractions. Already hosting nearly 50,000 annual visitors, attendance is expected to increase when additions are built in the coming years. Construction of a children's garden begins this summer.

The gardens' appeal can be traced to the nation's rapidly growing interest in gardening, landscaping and horticulture.

"Gardening is the number one hobby in the United States," said Michael Chaplin, head of the horticulture department. "It has been for 20 years or more, and its popularity continues to increase."

The horticulture department reflects the interest in the field. Last fall's enrollment of 275 is more than a 240 percent increase over the department's 80 students in 1991. Horticulture jobs are plentiful, and the department has nearly a 100 percent placement rate.

Howell's interest in horticulture started at an early age. He grew up on a Madison County cattle farm, the fifth of seven children. His father wanted all seven to go to college, so he planted 7,000 pine trees. Each child had an allotment of future Christmas trees to nurture and sell for college expenses.

The business venture, which still is in the family and has grown to 50,000 trees, worked well. Howell never had to seek a student loan.

Howell's green thumb and love of gardening were apparent in his care of the trees. After graduating in horticulture at ISU in 1985, Howell stayed on campus and worked at the old horticulture garden. Located between the power plant and rail-road tracks, the garden needed lots of work.

"I think I was hoeing weeds older than I," Howell said.

It turned out to be the ideal situation for a budding horticulturist.

"Anything I did was an improvement over what we had," Howell recalled. "I really learned a lot because I had to do just about everything."

Before long, Howell turned the garden into a well-manicured and colorful showplace. Still, the one-acre plot was small and in a less-than-ideal location. Then the good news came -- a new garden was planned south of the football stadium.

Taking care of the Reiman Gardens, however, is not a one- person job, and Howell has plenty of help. He directs seven student workers and benefits from thousands of hours of volunteer time each year from the Co-Horts, a garden support group.

Howell's supervisory duties keep him from many of the hands- on chores he enjoys. Now, if he needs a "garden fix," he hoes, weeds and plants at home after work.

"It's a great form of relaxation for me, which sounds odd because I work in a garden all day," Howell explained.

Most of his time in April and May, though, is spent at work. It's a fishbowl environment because so many see the results of his labor. But he adores the work and receives a great deal of satisfaction from the gardens' appearance.

"For a horticulturist, this is a dream come true," he said.

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