FARGO -- Neal Holland, a former North Dakota State University professor, owner and operator of Sheyenne Gardens and a pillar of the local gardening community died at 89 on Thursday, June 14.
His green thumb touched many and his knowledge of North Dakota planting was unmatched, said Ross Collins, a professor and mass media historian at NDSU.
“If you try to grow things in the North country, it’s sometimes a peculiar climate that doesn’t necessarily act very friendly to some of our plants and Neal knew how to deal with that,” Collins said.
Collins recalled Holland’s ingenuity in cultivating his fairy tale series of lilacs which include Tinkerbelle, Sugar Plum Fairy, Thumbelina, Fairy Dust and Prince Charming. Other species Holland cultivated include Mantador Broccoli, several types of squash including Gold Nugget, Emerald and Discus, several types of tomato including Sheyenne, Lark, Dakota Gold, and Cannonball, and the Hazen apple.
Holland retired from teaching at NDSU in his 60s, but rather than his retirement marking an end to his career as a horticulturist, it instead began a new chapter for him when he opened Sheyenne Gardens in 1988 on his farm in Harwood.
“It was a large nursery with stock that included huge trees and a lot of stuff that nobody else had,” Collins said. “He did a lot of it almost on his own, particularly in the early years, and running a nursery is a physical business. That was pretty impressive.”
Collins fondly retold his favorite memory of Holland, when a plant Collins purchased from Sheyenne Gardens started to wilt and die. When Collins called Holland for advice, he immediately knew what had gone wrong -- Collins had not unwound the root ball of the plant before planting it, so it wasn’t getting all the nourishment it needed.
“He said, ‘Oh just take a fork and poke the fork in there a little bit and that’ll move the roots around and it’ll come back and it’ll be perfectly fine,’” Collins said. “He said, ‘Oh I know it’ll work,’ and of course it worked.”
“He really cared about the stuff he sold and the success of his customers,” Collins said.
Former North Dakota State Senator Tim Flakoll was another of Holland’s customers at Sheyenne Gardens. Flakoll said he will remember Holland as a man as genuine and honest as the day is long who always had a gleam in his eye.
“You couldn’t go away from Cheyenne gardens without having a better day because of it,” Flakoll said. “Some days you’d go into the place just to see if he was around. He really did have such a good outlook on life and he brightened people’s days not just with what he sold but how he was around people.”
Flakoll affectionately remembered what Holland called his ‘Norweigan math system’ where he would round down prices to the nearest whole dollar. And if you didn’t have the payment on you, he’d trust customers to pay for their purchases the next time he saw them.
“He is just really legendary, without ever trying to be legendary,” Flakoll said. "Of all the flowers that they had in their greenhouse, he shined the brightest."