Places We Love: Secrest Arboretum

I remember going to Secrest Arboretum as a kid, where my mom would take me and my brother for picnics among the Crabapple Trees. I remember looking up at the pine trees that surrounded the property and thinking that surly I was in some sort of enchanted forest.

Fast forward a few years *cough, cough* and the Secrest Arboretum still holds the same sort of enchantment and continues to captivate my attention. Now with a family of my own, it is absolutely one of my favorite places to take the kids. We go there for picnics amongst the epic trees. We go there for strolls amidst the gorgeous flowers. We go there for the awesome slide that pops up out of nowhere and for the wonderful paths they can ride their bikes down. I’ve met friends there for coffee or a walk, or for picnic style snacks while the kids run around us and play. IMG_4059IMG_4055IMG_5132IMG_5139IMG_5175

Our friend, Matt Shultzman, is the arboretum’s Plant Materials Specialist. Matt is responsible for designing and maintaining the gardens, and grows the annuals and vegetables for all of the campuses and the arboretum, most of which he starts from seed. Last Sunday, Matt took me and his girlfriend, Gretchen, (and also my friend 🙂 ), around the gardens to share some of the history of the arboretum and to point out his favorite features.

I was surprised to learn that the arboretum was planted in 1908 to solve Ohio’s deforestation problem. As land was cleared for farming, Ohio suffered erosion and the loss of native plants and animals. According to the Ohio Department of Natural resources,

The Ohio landscape has undergone dramatic changes since the late 1700s, when nearly 95 percent of the state was forested. Massive deforestation occurred throughout Ohio during settlement as land was cleared and swamps were drained for farmland. Forest cover was reduced to a low of 12 percent in Ohio by 1942. This destruction of forest habitat, along with unregulated hunting, resulted in the extirpation of many native animals from Ohio including the gray wolf, elk, mountain lion, and the extinction of the passenger pigeon. (Source)

Founders of the arboretum planted a variety of different tree species to try and replant the forrest, unsure of what would die and what would survive. This question, of what will grow well in Northeast Ohio, is one that the arboretum still continues to try and answer through continued planting, care, and research.

On the grounds of the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC), Secrest is the main research arboretum for the whole Ohio State University. Matt is routinely sent plants from other growers to plant in the arboretum for observation on how well they’ll do in this area.

At one time, Secrest used to just be test plots of plants and trees, but now, the goal of the arboretum is to not only educate people on what can grow in this area, but to show them how to make it look good, too.IMG_3991IMG_3989IMG_3985IMG_3984IMG_3983IMG_3982IMG_3980IMG_3981

“The OARDC and arboretum is very relevant and doing important things in the world of research. [At the arboretum] we want to do our research in an aesthetically pleasing way,” said Shultzman.

And it is. It really is. The gardens are beautiful; full of flowers, bushes, trees, water features, and stone work, the arboretum is an absolute delight to wander through.

As you go through the arboretum, you’ll notice that each section has a theme. The rose garden, for which Matt is solely responsible, is a popular attraction. But Matt and Gretchen are most fond of the Ohio native garden. Matt didn’t like the native garden at first, as it can appear wild and unkempt, which as it turns out, is on purpose. The flowers represent something you would see growing wild in a field or prairie in Ohio.

I like everything about the learning and discovery gardens. There are all these different areas that you get to observe and watch change. -Matt Shultzman

IMG_3962Although the gardens are an obvious attraction to the arboretum, the property also boasts some impressive trees, like the Dawn Redwood Grove. The Dawn Redwood was first discovered in the fossil record, but thought to be extinct. It wasn’t until the 1940s that they were discovered to still be in existence in a remote part of China. The Dawn Redwoods you see in the Secrest Arboretum were planted by seed in 1948, and are some of the oldest in the country.

In 2010, a tornado swept through the OARDC campus and Secrest Arboretum, destroying buildings and parts of the gardens and forest. Today, Matt said his co-workers are doing “research on how a forest will naturally regenerate after a natural disturbance.” IMG_3967IMG_3966

Matt’s favorite trees are the White Oaks, part of the arboretum’s original planting. The Oak’s curl over the forrest creating a canopy and remind you of something you’d see in the south. IMG_3970

The mission statement of the Secrest Arboretum is to “Learn, Explore, Wonder, and Connect,” which is exactly what I did on my tour with Matt and Gretchen, and exactly what I love about coming to the arboretum. On the tour, Matt, Gretchen, and I wandered the grounds, with Matt pointing out notable features or me asking questions about what I saw.

Matt, who loves his job because he gets to “be creative,” especially in the “research and design of the annual beds,” knows a lot about plants. A lot. And he doesn’t just put that knowledge to use planting pretty things. He does it so people can come and learn about plants that could be growing in their own backyard. He does it so people and families can explore the grounds, taking in the beauty, and a little bit of knowledge about the natural world while they’re at it.

There is a constant tension at the arboretum between man’s desire to plant and maintain, and nature’s will to take over in it’s own way. Roses are susceptible to disease and insects. Certain plants won’t thrive in Ohio’s unpredictable climate. And trees topple in the wake of tornados, leaving once populated groves completely barren.

As I toured the arboretum with Matt and Gretchen, I couldn’t help but think that our perception of how our gardens will look is very similar to our perception on parenthood. We all have these illusions of grandeur. We all think that, if we put in the work, than certainly, we will be pest free; problem free; pain free.

The reality, however, is slightly different. There will always be this tug-of-war between our perception/expectations/hopes and the reality.


That can never diminish the beauty, of both our gardens, and our parenting. Roses will get mildew and kids will throw tantrums. Tress will be destroyed in a tornado and your home will look like it was hit one. That, I suppose, is the way of life.

And maybe, that is why the Secrest Arboretum is such a source of comfort to both myself and my family. We feel at home amongst the trees and the gardens. There is so much beauty in the natural world, whether that be the garden, or the family. We tend to it in the best ways we can, and leave the rest a little bit wild. A little bit wonderful. And a whole lot beautiful. IMG_2906IMG_2894IMG_2898IMG_2895

To plan a visit to the Secrest Arboretum, please click here.

Click here for a map of the gardens.

6 thoughts on “Places We Love: Secrest Arboretum

  1. I’ve been to the Holden Arboretum but not Secrest. It looks beautiful! Will definitely have to check it out. I love the comparison between gardening and parenting. It’s good to remember things will always be a little bit wild… 🙂

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