December 5, 2022

As a child growing up in Minnesota’s North Woods, Chuck Levine spent his free time studying plant life.

He foraged for and pressed plant leaves. Neighbors gave him flora to bring home and grow. His family nurtured his budding green thumb, too.

“My mom would buy the plants, seed packets, and I started growing things like orange trees in the windowsill,” he said. “I had a whole indoor fruit orchard — pineapple, pomegranates, papayas. You can grow all kinds of fruit indoors.”

His fondness for studying fruits, vegetables, ornamental plants and more turned into a full-time career for Levine, who recently retired as a horticultural educator.

His affection for plant life didn’t end with his day job. The 1-acre garden at his Roseville home is a testament to his life’s dedication to plants. His plant catalog is sizable, estimated to be in the thousands, with hundreds of varieties, including rare finds from around the world.

The garden in the backyard of his house on Sherren Street near Hwy. 36, was named a winner in the Star Tribune Beautiful Gardens contest. It is a horticultural museum of sorts, with Levine the tour guide and walking encyclopedia of cultivator knowledge.

‘An environmental science’

“When you study horticulture, it’s really an environmental science,” said Levine, who taught horticulture at Hennepin Technical College in Brooklyn Park for three decades and is a former consultant for the Chicago Botanic Garden. “I really like the way of conserving through cultivation.”

One of his main goals is to create an ecosystem.

During the growing season, a redbud tree is an abundant source of nectar and pollen. A weeping mulberry tree “invites birds and other creatures to the yard” because they come to nosh on the berries from it, Levine said. The flowers and berries of a pagoda dogwood and an Amur chokecherry tree also do their part to attract pollinators and other wildlife, the latter serving as a nesting site for birds.

A low-growing arctic raspberry plant is another source for berries, as well as provides ground cover. Varieties such as Scarlet runner beans, nasturtiums and salvia attract butterflies and bees, not to mention hummingbirds.

“We mainly get the ruby-throated hummingbird. I see them daily,” he said.

Some parts of the garden have a tropical feel, with plant life that includes lush ferns, giant elephant ears and rare pineapple lilies, while variegated Japanese hops climb up trellises.

An awe-inspiring 100 varieties of ginkgo trees can be found dotted throughout in what Levine calls the Enchanted Ginkgo Forest. There he studies one of the world’s oldest living tree species, as well as the environmental role they play.

“I like the look of the ginkgo tree, and it’s very tolerant of toxins. It absorbs the toxins from the highway,” he said. And “I like a lot of Asian plants. The climate here is similar to climates in Korea, Japan.”

The lay of the land

As far as landscaping, brick- and rock-lined garden beds hold prairie plants, succulents and more. Shingle-lined walking paths lead the way to several themed areas.

“The garden is really a series of puzzles,” he said. “I search the ads and make the garden with what I can get for free.”

Items in the garden also carry personal history, ranging from tiger lilies that an elementary teacher gave to Levine as a child to Golden Glow coneflowers from his landlady (from the farm where she grew up) when he studied horticulture at the University of Minnesota Crookston. Peonies are from his mother’s garden.

Other items in the yard are there to appease the next generations.

“I have currants and gooseberries because my children wanted them. They thought we have to grow something edible for ourselves that we liked,” Levine said.

Toys and dinosaur figurines also can be found. “The grandkids like to do scavenger hunts in the yard,” he said. “They’re always finding new and interesting things to put out here.”

The bounty from his garden is shared with the community, too. Each year, Levine holds a large plant sale. And his show-stopping double-petaled tiger lilies from France have made their way down the aisle more than once. “I’ve used these flowers to make wedding bouquets,” Levine said.

While he already has quite a vast catalog, Levine shows no signs of slowing down. His continued interest in planting items that benefit the ecosystem and collecting rare species won’t let him.

“For plant people, there’s always a joy in the search and the hunt,” Levine said.