Rick Johnson and his former mentor stood last year within the H.O. Smith Botanic Gardens in The Arboretum at Penn State.
During his undergraduate days at the university, Johnson, 53, the arboretum’s horticulturist, had drafted an imaginary design for a class project. Back then, the arboretum was only a beautiful dream.
Decades later, he and Robert Nuss, a professor of ornamental horticulture, gazed in wonder at reality.
“Here it is, 30-something years after I graduate, and it’s finally here,” Johnson said.
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These days, Johnson is busy overseeing the formal garden’s first full season.
One ongoing project involves cataloging about 17,000 plants in a database, mapping their locations and verifying their correct scientific and common names. Eventually, Johnson said, plastic cards will identify specimens for visitors.
“It’s a museum to study and watch these plants grow,” he said.
Not everyone understands. Part of Johnson’s job is teaching the public that the open gardens aren’t a park for Frisbees and sunbathing, but a live collection for future generations to learn from and enjoy as it expands beyond its initial phase.
“This facility, there’s nothing like it around, so it’ll be very exciting, a lot of potential,” he said.
Originally from Pittsburgh, he has devoted his career to plants — first a horticulture/landscape architecture degree, then work in San Diego in landscape management and landscape construction, and, back in his native state, as a Cooperative Extension educator.
Even to the veteran green thumb, the arboretum “is something special.” Unlike a building that only deteriorates, he said, the gardens will improve over time.
Shrubs and trees will grow into walls and arches; vines will cover trellises; new spaces will emerge.
For now, he savors the reactions of first-time visitors such as the art student who gushed about the leafy enclave.
“When you get students that excited about something,” Johnson said, “it makes you feel like it’s really worth it.”