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By Liz Potasek
Through her work at the Horticultural Research Center, Tacy Sickeler has helped develop plant introductions — like Honeycrisp apples or Marquette wine grapes — that have put the University of Minnesota’s fruit breeding program on the map.
Tacy, as she prefers to be called, started working at the Arboretum as a student intern in 1985. More than 30 years later, she has contributed to countless research projects and cold-hardy plant introductions through her work at the Horticultural Research Center (HRC).
Tacy earned her bachelor of science in Nursery and Landscape Management from the University of Minnesota. “I was hired that August as a 67-day temp to pick apples and assist in the greenhouse,” she says.
The next spring, she was hired to work with Harold Pellett. She assisted with some of the breeding work, plant evaluation and azalea research, continuing the ‘Lights’ series of azaleas. Later she began working with Bill Swanson in the HRC greenhouses, and she’s been managing the HRC greenhouses since 1995.
What do your job duties involve?
My current position is Greenhouse and Container Nursery Manager. I coordinate space and tasks and prioritize the work to a small crew, so scientists, project leaders, graduate students and anyone else who has permission to grow plants in my area can get the results they ask for. Last year we grew 10,000 apple seedlings; 5,000 grape seedlings; and more than 4,000 hydrangea, plus a whole lot of other stuff. We manage four in-ground beds with mostly azaleas. We also have a propagation house and do lots of cuttings.
Why are you passionate about your work here at the Arboretum?
The other morning it was 19 degrees below zero, and I got to go to work in an 82 degree greenhouse, what’s not to love?
The HRC and the Arboretum has been an amazing place to work, and I feel privileged. When my dad was in the nursing home he told the staff I invented Honeycrisp. I did not, unfortunately, but feel grateful to have been a part of all of the research and plant introductions that have been developed at the HRC.
What inspired your career path?
I really didn’t get into gardening until college, but I always loved the outdoors. I started college thinking I would go into forestry, but the jobs were hard to get, and I knew a few park rangers and that position sounded lonely. I accidently got into an upper level botany course and somehow — thanks to my assigned tablemates — passed the class! We did dissection of meristematic tips and it was fascinating. I did not know what I was doing, but loved it.
I was very lucky when I was assigned to Harold Pellett and his scientists. I can remember being out in the azalea plot at the Arboretum breeding azaleas with Harold and Kathy Zuzek [Editor’s note: Pellett and Zuzek are also known for their work on cold-hardy roses, in addition to the azaleas]. So cool! And that was my first year!
I never really had a career path, one thing just led to another. I had worked a little at a greenhouse when I was in college, and after working for Harold, knew I wanted to stay in research. So when I ended up at the HRC. It was fate, I guess. It did take me eight years to get a year-round position, but sometimes you just have to wait for it.
Do you have a home garden?
I’ve had lots and lots of gardens, but recently downsized to a townhouse with a deck and patio. What I have really gotten a kick out of the past couple years is my two adult children are now really into growing plants. My son is into hot (the hotter, the better) peppers, and my daughter likes herbs and flowers. She was always an indoor girl, so it has been great coaching her through growing. We just successfully got rid of aphids on her house plants by spraying a solution of palmolive soap, cutting them back and manually wiping off the bugs!
What is the most challenging/most rewarding part of your work?
A huge part of my job is keeping everything working and everyone happy. Something always breaks and someone always needs help, and of course, bugs, disease and weather.
The rewards have been many. Many of the people I have had the opportunity to work with have been wonderful.
As an expert in your field, do you have any tricks, tips or advice that would help our readers?
Over the years I have learned and relearned many tricks for control. Most problems can be solved in a non-toxic way. Usually soap, oil, neem or manual effort will work. Weeds and mice need chemical control however.
How does your work make an impact in a meaningful way?
My work affects all the researchers and students I am lucky enough to work for. People from campus and other research stations have often complimented us on the quality of the plants we try and produce, and I take pride in that. We have many outstanding volunteers assist us in my area, and I am grateful to have had those relationships.