Dieter Martin, the man about campus

Bernadette Vangool

Saskatchewan Perennial Society

A friend of mine was recently invited to a birthday party in honour of Dieter Martin who is ninety years young. Dieter is a well known player on the horticultural scene in and around Saskatoon. He is the man who was instrumental in looking after all the green space at the University of Saskatchewan as head gardener from 1957 to 1976. He moved to Langham, Saskatchewan in 1970 where he and his late wife Ilse had begun a small greenhouse business attached to the house. In 1976, he retired to Langham to devote his time to the greenhouse operation. Dieter Martin Greenhouses, now operated by two of his children, Nancy and Peter, continues to thrive. And Dieter’s many acquaintances still drop by on occasion to spend an enjoyable afternoon with one of its founders.

Dieter Martin was introduced to horticulture by his grandfather. He worked for Parks and Urban spaces in his native town of Aschaffenberg, Germany before coming to Canada in 1953 and working at the University of Alberta. A year later Ilse Brauning immigrated to Edmonton where they met and married in August, 1955. In 1957 he was hired as the head gardener for the University of Saskatchewan. He was just 26 years of age. Although the bowl area and a nursery for plants were well established, much of the campus was in a steady state of construction for the first 12 years of his tenure, with 10 new buildings added. So besides having to maintain the existing grounds, he was also in charge of creating new green spaces to replace the construction zones surrounding the new buildings.

Besides what he referred to as “clean up, clean up and more clean up”, his first concern after his arrival on campus was the sorry state of the elm trees along what was then known as King George Drive leading into the bowl. The elms were doing poorly and at first it was thought they had Dutch elm disease. Dieter diagnosed the problem as compaction of the soil and lack of adequate moisture. He developed lawn areas around the trees which provided some winter protection, and with irrigation in summer, gave them the much needed moisture the trees required.

When asked about his first impression of the campus, he recalled that the bowl looked impressive, but he did not like the John Mitchell building and that Kirk Hall reminded him of an European prison. Rather than prisoners, he found out it actually housed Agriculture students. In his own words “I thought to myself, if I have a chance, I’m going to hide that building.” A master of disguise, he was very successful in his task. With the careful planting of trees and shrubs, the building has faded into the background.

Originally Dieter used tree material from the nursery and test plots developed by Dr. Cecil Patterson. But in order, to make an immediate impression, he sometimes needed bigger trees for his projects. He asked permission to move larger trees, a practice of which Jim Wedgewood, his supervisor, and Dr. Cecil Patterson were skeptical. President Thompson allowed him to give it a try and in 1958 the first trees were successfully moved from the area near the Biology building. The work was done in winter, using a method Dieter had observed in Germany. A slow burn over five days to a depth of about five feet around the roots thawed the soil. The dormant trees were then lifted using slings, and the trees and root-balls were then transported to the new location. This method proved very successful and many trees were moved in subsequent years from other places on campus, as well as some 200 trees from a shelterbelt at the nearby Forestry Farm.

Dieter made things happen around him, through mentorship, co-operation, collaboration and sometimes subterfuge to get things done. He was equally at home conversing with and chauffeuring the President of the University, Dr. Spinks, around town, as talking to students about tasks that needed doing. He is such a genuine person that when I think of him, I get a smile on my face and get ready to hear his latest story or to obtain a new plant I just had to give a try. Happy birthday Dieter.

Thank you to the University of Saskatchewan for the Youtube video ‘Landsaping at the U of S – A storied History’.

This column is provided courtesy of the Saskatchewan Perennial Society ( ). Check out our website ( or Facebook page (