Seven gardeners came together 41 years ago to plant the seeds that cultivated what is now the 57-acre Dubuque Arboretum and Botanical Gardens.
“I think we were just like a hidden secret, even for people growing up here,” said Sandi Helgerson, executive director. “I grew up here and didn’t know (the arboretum) was here.”
The space started with a few rose bushes and has blossomed to include hiking trails, a legacy tree learning forest and 400 volunteers who tend to the greenery.
Other updates through the years include a pavilion built by the Lions Club and an all-edible display called the Garden of Eat’n. Its prairie also had a facelift, Helgerson said, adding educational signage and a self-guided brochure.
The property is “100 percent” maintained by volunteers, Helgerson said, including running the visitors center. Team leaders maintain specific areas of the garden, but those interested in volunteering don’t have to be experts, she said.
“We have people to train on the garden,” she said. “If you want to be part of a team, you can be part of a team.”
Pat Puls is one of those volunteers and has been part of the green team, which tends to annuals and perennials, for seven years.
She began volunteering after retiring and said the greenspace is her happy place because “nobody comes to the arboretum in a bad mood.”
“I’ve always had interest in any kind of flowers and stuff, (and I was) just looking for something that would take a lot of time,” said Puls, who spends about 30 hours a week at the arboretum.
Helgerson joined the team full-time eight years ago to fill the need for more structure, visioning and strategic planning.
“It’s obviously worked out,” Helgerson said. “A number of businesses provide sponsorships of our concerts.”
Additionally, the Dubuque Racing Association funded upgrades to the site’s largest greenhouse.
The space, according to Helgerson, also has become a tourist destination with nearly 55,000 people visiting annually.
The City of Dubuque, as well as the Dubuque Area Chamber of Commerce and Travel Dubuque, value the arboretum, according to Helgerson, who herself has “integrated” into the community, serving on city committees to give the arboretum a presence and a voice.
“I think it’s just that we are more entrenched than we ever were. I definitely think that we are recognized as one of the features to go see when you come to Dubuque,” she said.
In the past year, people from seven countries have visited the arboretum.
“We’re finally where they may say, ‘We’re coming from the arboretum, where else can we visit?’” Helgerson said.
And amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the arboretum gained volunteers.
Helgerson said people felt safe volunteering, with one person telling her that being out in the garden made them feel like the pandemic didn’t exist, that the greenspace was “like a safe harbor.”
Puls was among those volunteers, spending almost every day there.
“It was the one place everyone could go and work by yourself,” she said. “I don’t know what I would have done if I couldn’t go to the arboretum.”
People also used the former farmland to gather socially — there were several “lawn-chair meetings” at the gardens.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Helgerson said.
They also saw more local visitors than ever before, with self-hosted events ranging from line dancing to yoga classes.
“We’re lucky, the arboretum really didn’t suffer,” Helgerson said. “The visitors center stayed open and did well.”
While concerts and children’s parties were cancelled in 2020, they are back on for 2021, she said.
The uptick in visitors, according to Helgerson, was “absolutely because of COVID,” but has sustained as the months go by.
“We still have a number of people walk through here for exercise and bring their kids to the playground,” she said.
During the course of 41 years, Helgerson said, the biggest change has been the amount of community financial support. The arboretum’s budget has tripled in the past eight years, allowing for more projects.
It also has become an arts and culture touchpoint not only for Dubuque, but Iowa as a whole, according to Helgerson.
“We did achieve museum status here, so we’re gaining in status and gaining in credibility as a tourism destination,” Helgerson said.
Midwest Living magazine, for example, included the arboretum and botanical garden in its March coverage of “Top things to do in Dubuque.”
The goal, according to Helgerson, is for the arboretum to be “100 percent self-sustaining.”
“We’re not quite there yet, but we’re doing very well with diversified ways of being funded.”
That includes a few estate gifts that Helgerson said made the gardens “more self-sustainable than I ever dreamed would be.”
Established in 1980, the arboretum is on former farmland that Mack Marshall gave to the city with the stipulation it “remain green,” according to Helgerson. The grounds are open 365 days a year, from 7 a.m. to dark, and there’s no admission fee.
“We know that everyone is welcome here, whether they have money to pay to get in or not,” Helgerson said.
As part of the gardens’ 40th anniversary çelebration — which was partially postponed due to the pandemic — all volunteers received T-shirts sponsored by Jim Theisen. And at concerts this season, there are plans to sing “Happy Birthday” to the arboretum.