Following up on Holly’s theme of “I can’t believe I get paid to do this”, last Wednesday I participated in a walk-through and inspection of the Justin ‘Chub’ Harper Collection of Dwarf and Rare conifers at MSU’s Hidden Lake Gardens in south central Michigan. The Harper collection is widely regarded as one of the premier collections of rare and unusual conifers in the world.
Harper Conifer Collection with fall color background. Photo: Jack Wikle.
A little background: Chub Harper was the former grounds supervisor for John Deere’s world headquarters in Moline, IL, an avid plant collector, and a founding member of the American Conifer Society (ACS). He acquired hundreds of rare and unusual conifer specimens around his home and eventually had to lease a nearby lot for the overflow – demonstrating that ACS also stands for ‘Addicted Conifer Syndrome’. In the early 1980’s Chub donated 300 conifers to Hidden Lake Gardens to establish the Harper collection. All of the plants were balled and burlapped by hand and shipped in three semis to Michigan. Chub continued to add plants to the collection and today the collection includes over 500 accessions.
I met Chub about 8 years ago and with his guidance and inspiration started a series of ‘Conifer Corner’ articles in the Michigan Nursery and Landscape Michigan Landscape magazine. (visit my faculty page for .pdf’s of some sample articles http://www.hrt.msu.edu/bert-cregg/pg5). Once or twice a year Chub would travel from Moline to Michigan to inspect the collection along with members of his conifer posse. To me, the most impressive thing about the walk-throughs was how absolutely ruthless Chub was in disposing of under-performing plants or plants with continual pest problems. “Time for that thing to take a ride on the chipper truck” was a favorite Chub-ism. Hidden Lake Gardens has a garden staff that could spray pesticides or prune away dead material regularly; but Chub wanted none of it. This is not to say that Chub was into organic gardening; as far as I know he had no particular aversion to chemicals. Rather, he felt the mission of the collection was education and that maintaining plants in an artificially superior condition would mislead the public into thinking some conifers were better suited than they actually were.
The Conifer posse at the 2007 walk-through. Chub Harper is 3rd from left, back row.
Chub passed away unexpectedly earlier this year and last Wednesday’s walk-through was the first evaluation of the collection without him. The conifer posse carried on, led by former ACS President Dennis Groh; Chub’s longtime friend Jack Wikle; and Sam Lovall, the landscape architect who developed the original design for the collection. We found homes in the collection for several new specimens including an Abies concolor ‘Charmin’ Chub’ and condemned a few underachievers to a ride on the chipper truck. Chub left many legacies; the most obvious and tangible is the Harper Collection and the staggering generosity it represents. Imagine dedicating half your life to acquiring and cultivating a world-class collection and then simply giving it away. Just as important, however, is the legacy he left with those who knew him, who felt his passion for conifers, and were inspired by him.