The name Pat Dye may conjure memories of Auburn University’s intense football coach pacing the sidelines at Jordan-Hare Stadium, as more than 85,000 fans cheered from their seats.
A lesser-known passion for the coaching legend is rooted in the tranquility of gardening, landscaping and hunting. His love for Japanese maples grew from a lone tree in his front yard to an extensive garden and nursery.
“My first contact with Japanese maples was in 1981,” Dye recalls. “I was building a new house and the landscaper said, ‘Coach, you need a specimen tree right here.’ He brought a 7- or 8-foot green Japanese maple. It changed colors about three or four times a year. I watched that tree for 12 years while I was coaching.”
Dye said when he retired from coaching, his interest in Japanese maples led him to plant more trees on his property in Reeltown. He soon found himself eager to learn more about the trees.
“I met Harold Johnson, who was a mechanic, but he was world-renowned for his knowledge of Japanese maples,” Dye said. “He introduced me to the different varieties and different characteristics of maples. My interest just grew from there. Now, I’ve got a Japanese maple garden, a Japanese maple nursery, and I’ve got over 7,000 trees. I enjoy working on them every day – planting them, growing them and pruning them. It’s a fun, fun way for me to live.”
Dye has 3,000 to 4,000 Japanese maples in pots at his two-acre nursery. The remaining trees are scattered across 15 to 20 acres. While more than 2,000 varieties of Japanese maples are known to exist, Dye has about 200 varieties on his property.
“The trees cross-pollinate,” Dye explained, “which produces a lot of varieties of trees.”
With acres of trees to enjoy, Dye said one Japanese maple tree holds a special place in his heart – the one he watched during his 12 seasons coaching at Auburn.
“I went back this year, and that tree is 30 feet tall,” Dye said. “I go back and visit it about every three or four months. I have two seedlings off of it.”
Dye enjoys sharing his love of Japanese maples with others. On April 5 and 6, he opened his Crooked Oaks Hunting Lodge and Quail Hollow Gardens for the inaugural Spring Fling and Outdoor Expo, hosted by Auburn University’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences. The event raised money for scholarships and included dinner, live entertainment, tours of Dye’s property and an auction.
“Auburn University is my family. I love the students, so this event is a way of giving back to Auburn,” Dye said. “I’m trying to help Auburn have the best School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences in the country so we can get the best students and the best teachers.”
Approximately 450 people attended the inaugural event, which helped the Auburn University School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences exceed its fund-raising goal of $50,000, said Lynn Huggins, sales and marketing director for Coach Pat Dye Properties.
Dr. James Shepard, dean of the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, said he appreciates Dye’s philanthropy.
“The event was very well attended, especially for a new event, and I believe everyone had a marvelous time,” Shepard said. “The proceeds raised will most definitely help our students be successful.”
While Dye’s events can help students receive a better education, he recognizes nature can be its own source of knowledge.
“You can learn a lot by watching trees and taking care of them,” Dye said. “My ambition is to make this property better every year for as long as I live.
“People ask me if I’m planting little trees. I say, ‘Yeah, I plant little trees, and I plant some big ones, too.’ I hope I can plant some little trees until the last day I’m on this earth.”