Editor’s note: You see the results of our horticulture staff’s work every time you visit the Arboretum, so we wanted to introduce you to the team who inspires our organization. Each month, we’ll highlight a different member of our horticultural team in our new “Growing with” series. This month we’re Growing with Jewel Engstrom.
Landscape gardener Jewel Engstrom doesn’t enjoy contributing to landfills.
“I have a hard time throwing stuff away because resources are valuable,” Engstrom said. Instead she gathers up materials that might be destined for the compost pile or trash bin and finds clever ways to re-style, re-purpose or re-use them. Silk flowers that adorned a scarecrow’s dress in the fall find new life on an evergreen tree in the Great Hall during November and December, and are then transformed into wall hangings for the Flower Show.
The birch she used in this year’s flower show came from research trees destined to be discarded at the Horticultural Research Center.
Her inspiration for much of the decor she creates at the Arboretum comes from this idea of repurposing. “What material do you have in your hand,” she asks. “What do have a lot of and what can we do with it?”
Engstrom, who started working at the Horticultural Research Center in 1982 and has been working in various roles at the Arboretum ever since, is the creative force behind much of the Arboretum’s seasonal decor, designing, installing and maintaining displays of scarecrows, pumpkins and gourds in the fall, creating cozy winter scenes in November and December and bringing spring colors into late winter during the annual Flower Show.
She’s also responsible for the gardens in the Arboretum’s entry way from Highway 5 through the Gatehouse, and she works on the Conservatory with Ricky Garza. She also designs cut flower arrangements throughout the growing season for the Arboretum Cafe, as well as special events, including Mother’s Day and Easter brunches, Taste & Toast and more.
Why are you passionate about your work here at the Arboretum?
It may sound funny, but I do feel like I go to work in paradise everyday. The Arboretum is a wonderful place to work and learn. I love it. My co-workers are so dedicated and hard-working. The team work is fabulous. Our volunteers make all the difference. They are amazing. We could not do what we do without them.
What is your earliest memory of gardening (and/or nature)?
I was raised on a Northern Minnesota dairy farm, so when our chores were done, we created many playhouses, tree houses and forts of all kinds. One of my favorite things to do was climb the largest Norway pine tree on the farm, where I could see for miles around!
My parents always grew huge vegetable gardens, and we helped out. My Mother loved her flower gardens, which provided beautiful peonies, snapdragons and dahlias for me to cut and bring in the house. Mom loved cutting slips to start more plants. Her Christmas cactus and Amaryllis where amazing!!
Who taught you to garden? Share a story about them.
I took classes at Hennepin Technical College for landscape design and specialty crop production. We went on many field trips to the Arboretum with our instructor Mel Knapton. It was like touring the Arboretum with a walking encyclopedia! It was a great way to learn.
What is the most challenging plant you work on at the Arb and why?
Buckthorn. It took years to remove it from the Front entry gardens.
Do you have any favorite gardening tricks or tips you’ve picked up along the way?
Keep your gratitude high and expectations low. It’s all about attitude. Also, always carry a pruner.
Share a favorite memory when your work at the Arboretum impacted a member/visitor in a meaningful way.
A few years ago, someone brought a box of handmade mittens to the Arboretum and invited me to pick out a pair, saying “Anybody so creative and talented shouldn’t have cold hands.”