When the University acquired the old Fort Collins High School with plans to turn it into the University Center for the Arts, it came with a 2.5-acre park in front of the school. James Klett and an advisory committee worked to move and expand the Annual Trial Gardens into the space.
Over the past 15 years the trial gardens have become one of the top tourist attractions in Fort Collins during growing season. This last year more than 1,000 varieties of plants, and 400 of them new variations, were planted and studied to see how they grow in the unique conditions of the Rocky Mountain West.
“It’s a lot of research, not just me but with the graduate and undergraduate students,” said Klett, professor of Landscape Horticulture, Ornamentals, and Nursery Management in the College of Agricultural Sciences. “We also looked at outreach for the community and tying it in with the museum over there. We’re looking to better plants that both consumers and the industry people can grow.”
Klett has spent the last 35 years at CSU dedicated to the search for better plants. Hailing from Cincinnati, he earned his bachelor’s degree at Ohio State University and his master’s and Ph.D. at the University of Illinois. After six years of teaching and outreach at South Dakota State University in Brookings, Klett learned of an open position at Colorado State University, in a much larger industry.
“I thought there was a greater opportunity here for me to expand my career options,” he recalled. “So I made the move to deal with the challenges here, with developing an arboretum and annual trial gardens.”
Passion for plants
Coming from an urban area, Klett spent his childhood learning about plants and how to garden from his uncle. He had a passion for it. “I remember growing plants and taking them to the fair and earning blue ribbons on some of the better flowers. I always had an interest.”
In January 1980 Klett expanded coursework in Plant Materials, then only a two-credit course, into its current four-credit format. Klett also developed courses in herbaceous plants, and rebuilt Nursery Production and Management.
Working with the development of the Plant Environmental Research Center, the Trial Garden, the Arboretum, the development of new trees off Centre Avenue and adding perennial trials to the Gardens, all while teaching courses, Klett has certainly made an impact that spreads further than the Front Range. Klett has even played roles in legislation helping the State House with issues such as drought regulation.
“I’ve seen the green industry really mature an awful lot over the last 35 years and feel that I have been somewhat helpful in a lot of that growth,” he said. “I remember some of the original meetings that I’ve gone to where we’d just meet as six or seven people in a restaurant, and now they have offices and executive directors full time, and staff, to just see those associations grow over time.”
One of Klett’s favorite challenges is helping students create their careers and succeed in an industry that is constantly changing. Every year the premier Rocky Mountain Regional Green Industry Conference meets at the Denver Convention Center, and the department displays all of the research and outreach it has conducted. It’s also where Klett gets an opportunity to see his former students. “It’s a very rewarding experience to see them be successful,” he said. “To see, at least I’ve helped them somewhat shape their life and their career.”
Klett is looking forward to the next phase of his career, which will include working on the relocated Plant and Environmental Research Center and new Horticulture Center, updating the Perennial Garden, and to make sure the Plant Select program is on a solid pathway.
When Klett first joined Colorado State University, the green industry and the University kept fairly separate. Now they work together to solve common problems.
“It hasn’t only been myself to get a lot of these things done. It’s been working with other industry people and students and faculty to achieve some of these accomplishments that have come over the last 35 years,” Klett said. “I hope that the administrators and so forth will see the value of our Plant and Environmental Research Center and the new CSU Horticulture Center and the Annual Trial Gardens, and that that can continue for all for the citizens Fort Collins, the state of Colorado and elsewhere.”
When Klett isn’t on campus catching up on work, he enjoys gardening in his own yard, collecting antiques and pottery, and enjoying the better restaurants Fort Collins has to offer.