Professor McCrory loved flowers. And growing plants of all kinds. He dedicated his life’s work to the study and education of horticulture. He even wrote a half-dozen books on things like how to grow raspberries in unforgiving climates.
But writing books about flowers wasn’t enough.
See, this was the 1940’s, and the stunning beauty of perennial azaleas or sprawling hostas couldn’t be captured by TV in its infancy.
By 1947, Professor McCrory was teaching in the South Dakota State horticulture department, and he had a vision. He wanted to open a large, public garden for SDSU students to study and practice, and for the public to observe and enjoy.
He had no way of sharing his love of horticulture with the public other than to invite them in. So that’s exactly what he did.
Today, McCrory Gardens is a 70-acre plot of land, home to hundreds—maybe thousands—of plants in the good professor’s home of Brookings, SD.
The Gardens are a hidden gem, and they have a beautiful mission of providing education through nature—all of it in honor of Professor McCrory’s vision.
Yes. Well, yes and no. It is a big garden. That part’s true. But it’s also WAY more than that.
The Gardens really are South Dakota’s best kept secret. First of all, it’s huge—over 70 acres. Can we examine that for a second?
Your typical backyard garden might be about 70 square feet: 10 ft × 7 ft.
There are 43,560 square feet in an acre.
That means this place is the same size as 43,000 backyard gardens!
Or, in simpler terms: it’s about the size of 50 football fields—COVERED in flora and fauna
The site was cleared for the gardens in the early 60’s. The original plants were used for research purposes near SDSU’s Old Horticulture building.
In 1965, 2 acres were cleared for flowers, shrubs, and other ground plants. Later, another 10 acres were added as more of a research woodland area. There are over 25 acres of display gardens as well as a 45 acre arboretum.
Without the help of expert gardeners who understand the needs of each plant, McCrory would not thrive in the way that it has. McCrory currently has 4 official employees that bear the titles:
Special Events Coordinator
Assistant Gardener/Education Coordinator.
In addition to their employees though, McCrory relies on volunteers as well as seasonal help.
The gardens are home to hundreds of different types of flowers, shrubs, trees, and more. McCrory is full of Perennials, plants that come back again year after year.
Some areas of the gardens have been expanded between the 80’s and 2000’s. It contains 50 annual beds, totalling around 40,000 plants that are planted annually.
There are 216 different types of plants that McCrory tracks. Within the 70 total acres, there are actually 14 themed gardens. All with their own unique flair and character.
Here’s the full list—
Alcove Garden – Butterfly Garden
All-America Display Garden I – Cottage Garden
All-America Display Garden II – Daylily Collection
McCrory Gardens was named in honor of Professor S.A. McCrory. He had envisioned an educational garden, for the university students as well as the public. He was the head of the Horticulture Department at the time that the development of the gardens commenced.
Sadly, he did not live to see his vision. He died in 1964, right around the time the site had been cleared for planting.
We like to believe that Professor McCrory would be proud of the expansion of the department, as well as the outpouring of support from the community, the expansion of the gardens, and all of the education that takes place at McCrory Gardens.
Due to the natural beauty of the gardens, they are also a great location for photographers of all experience. It is easy to take beautiful pictures of the gardens as they were well-designed and are well-maintained.
For families that have seniors in high school, McCrory also offers a great location to have senior pictures taken.
Let’s throw it back— in 1985, there was a series of cuts made to the funding of the gardens. In an attempt to save the beloved gardens, the whole community came together to create a fundraising drive.
Backed by the local businesses, the state of South Dakota, and multiple horticulture associations, the fundraiser was a huge success. Since the fundraising was left to the SDSU Foundation in 1986, all maintenance of the gardens has continued to be supported by donations from the community.
McCrory Gardens hosts annual fundraisers, education opportunities for the community, and more.
One such event is the annual music and mistletoe fundraiser every December. As the event is seasonal, the link for tickets, and the description for the event can be found online around the end of November, early December.
According to Christina Lind-Thielke, the Assistant Gardener and Educational Advisor at McCrory, “there are always different volunteer opportunities available at different times. McCrory loves having new volunteers.”
In addition to a working space for your event, McCrory also provides catering. On the McCrory website there is information, and a link to the SDSU catering website where you can find all the information you could possibly need to use their catering services.
Facility rental rates are as follows:
$32/hour (SDSU Rate)
The Great Hall
$120/hour (SDSU Rate)
The Straw Bale House
$20/hour (SDSU Rate)
The Display Garden
Ask anyone who’s ever attended an event there and they’ll tell you how gorgeous it is. Absolutely worth hosting your event there!
In order to maintain McCrory Gardens, there is an admissions fee, unless you are under 5 years of age, a student of South Dakota State University, or a McCrory Gardens Member. However, it’s not an expensive trip.
There are three different types of memberships available, each with its own pricing:
Friends of McCrory
According to the website, the photography membership pertains to professional and amateur photographers and videographers. All formal, posed photography requires a membership or a day permit.
The photography membership includes:
1 year admission to McCrory Gardens, as well as free admission for all clients during business hours
Hi-resolution photos are allowed to be posted on McCrory Gardens/Facebook and add a link to photographers site
10% discount in the gift shop
All rights to sell photos taken at McCrory Gardens (if photo rules are followed)
A relatively new membership option at McCrory Gardens is the business membership. The business membership has perks for professionals. This membership offers:
One (minimum) Membership Card, providing free admission for up to 6 people which is valid for one year.
Free day guest passes.
Discounted rentals in the McCrory Garden Education and Visitor Center
The ability to provide a free day to the public (McCrory Gardens would place newspaper ads and create banners to hang on 6th Street and 22nd Ave. stating business’ sponsorship of the free day)
Recognition on the McCrory website, donor wall in the Education and Visitor Center, print ads, and at the Annual Garden Party.
Also on their website, McCrory has a brochure and registration card, as well as a list of their Business Membership Levels, which can be found here.
Friends of McCrory Membership
Lastly, and most popularly, the Friends of McCrory membership. First it is important to note that there are different levels to this membership that all come with their own benefits, all of which can be found here.
To give you the basics, here is a table with just the membership categories and costs. If you are looking for the additional year-long benefits, click here.
Individual (one person)
Family (up to 4 persons)
Group (up to 6 persons)
Supporter (up to 6 persons)
Sustaining (up to 6 persons)
Associate (up to 6 persons)
Patron (up to 6 persons)
Exit through the gift shop
While there are shopping opportunities available around McCrory, you can shop at the gardens themselves. McCrory Gardens has a lovely gift shop.
They have a number of products ranging from clothing, to jewelry, to planting material. They offer discounts for members and have other promotional offers available in store.
Like many shops, they have seasonal items and many unique gift ideas. There’s even ice cream!
So you came to the gardens but a friend or loved one couldn’t make it? Get them something from the gift shop! If you are interested in seeing some of their products, you can see them online here.
To better understand McCrory and its seasons, Christina Lind-Thielke, the Assistant Gardener and Educational Assistant, was interviewed. Christina was kind enough to let us in on an abundance of cool information about McCrory.
She tells us that there are only 2 full time gardeners—only TWO gardeners tend to all 70 acres of the garden! They work year-round on the gardens and perform 60% of all gardening tasks.
As spring is the time for renewal and rebirth, the spring is planting season! The seeding process begins in January. The first plants seeded are those that take longer to to grow indoors. This seeding process continues into April.
Christina told us that they individually plant a staggering 55,000 seeds. These are kept in small planting spaces until they grow to be transplanted into larger containers, and eventually the gardens. Spring is also when garden events begin; right around May.
The planting stage occurs at the end of the spring-the end of May/beginning of June. McCrory puts on an event called Tulip-palooza. There are 12,500 tulips planted and showcased.
Due to their inconsistent blooming, the tulips for this event are “primed to bloom.” After Tulip-palooza, all of the tulips are transplanted to permanent homes or given to volunteers.
Summer tends to be filled with classes and then mostly weeding the gardens, rejuvenating certain areas, and working on projects. Projects can range from event planning to specific plant-based projects.
Volunteers are always welcome during all seasons, but especially during summer projects. Check out volunteer opportunities here!
September-April used to be considered the off season. This was due to the fact that many of the volunteer workers were university students. So when September hit, most of them go back to school, and therefore have conflicts with working times at McCrory.
The fall, though, is similar to the the summer: there are some classes and events, pretty much until frost. When frost sets in, the gardeners begin pulling up the annual beds.
Annuals are plants that need to be replanted each year, and perennials come back each year. In the fall there is a pumpkin harvest, and the tulips are planted in October. Most volunteers become “project-based” help.
Work is conducted out in the gardens until snowfall. After this happens, gardeners work to clearing out chunks of the arboretum. Part-time help typically stops at this point.
According to Christina, McCrory goes into “winter-mode:” paths are cleared, and in the first week of November, the process of putting up the lights begins.
Christina estimated that there are approximately 60,000 lights that are hung for the winter events. The trees behind the terrace take 1,000 lights per tree. The winter wonderland is beautiful and very family friendly!
While McCrory Gardens are located near 6th street, a fairly major road in Brookings, the areas that are streetside are all enclosed. Beautiful high fences are there to keep everyone, both drivers and garden visitors, safe.
Due to its closeness, in both proximity and relationship, to the University, McCrory makes for an excellent field trip location. There is a lot to be learned at the gardens.
In the summer there are camps available for the younger crowd. Year round, on the third Thursday of every month, there is a different class or workshop available. Most of the available classes and workshops are open to most ages, the exact age restrictions are addressed in their class descriptions, which can be found on their website as well as in flyers and pamphlets.
McCrory is also a great way to get the family outdoors because McCrory has accessibility for those with disabilities, and dogs are allowed, it is a great way to take everyone out for a stroll and take some great photos as well!
McCrory has seasonal positions available. The positions available change depending on need, of course. In addition to having seasonal positions, there are a number of different volunteer opportunities.
Different volunteer opportunities are available at different times over the year. All volunteer opportunities and jobs are available on their website.
McCrory is with the times! In addition to having their own great photos, they are on social media. Did you take some awesome pics on your visit? Tag McCrory Gardens in your posts! If you are looking to see what’s going on, check out McCrory’s page here to keep updated!