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By Liz Potasek
Assistant gardener Sharon Pew started driving tractors before she went to kindergarten and always knew she needed to find a career that allowed her to be outside. Meeting Leon Snyder, the Arboretum’s first director, helped spark a love of horticulture. She got her start working in the Arboretum’s gatehouse in 1980, and has worked in a commercial greenhouse and worked with sustainable agriculture and community-supported agriculture farmers. Today she is an assistant gardener in the Woody Landscape Project at the Arboretum’s Horticultural Research Center.
Her job involves caring for a variety of woody plants, including birch, crabapples, maples, redbud, summersweet, forsythia, weigela, hydrangea, elderberry and viburnum that the Woody Landscape Project is breeding to develop new and superior selections to introduce into the market. “My work entails most everything from the seed stage to the end stage of the project goals,” she says.
Why are you passionate about your work here at the Arboretum?
I enjoy seeing the efforts of our labor coming to fruition. It takes a lot of work, care and patience to see things through.
What is your earliest memory of gardening or nature?
Horticulture has always been part of my life. I grew up on my parents organic dairy farm in Wabasha County, not far from the bluffs of the Mississippi River. I started driving tractors before I went to kindergarten. Nearly everything that our family ate, we grew and raised ourselves. We always had an enormous vegetable garden, chickens, pigs, and cattle. We never went on a vacation, the animals needed our attention and care day and night.
I also remember a neighbor that was a beekeeper, and being mesmerized by the honey-filled frames and how those tiny creatures were able to do their incredible and important work. For the past several years, my son and I have been keeping bees and extracting honey.
My grandparents were also a big part of my life, but my grandmother was especially an impressionable part of my upbringing. She taught me how to save seeds from our gardens for the next year. She also taught me the love of trees and perennials.
Who inspired your career path?
Being a farm girl, gardening was part of who I was and part of my day to day life, never thinking of it being a career choice. Then I met Dr. Leon and Vera Snyder through my husband [and Arboretum landscape gardener] Ted Pew, who was working at the Horticultural Research Center at the time. They were the most kind and encouraging people. Each time that we’d visit with them at their home with their increible yard, I’d learn more about trees, perennials, shrubs and vegetables.
I was initially hired at the Arboretum in 1980, first working in the gatehouse. (I remember Dr. Snyder coming through the gatehouse bright and early in the mornings with dirt on his knees because he had been out working in his garden before coming to the Arboretum). Not long after, I started to work with other learned people on the grounds like Ken Vogel, another great horticulturist. These experiences proved to be quite valuable for the work we do today.
Do you have a home garden?
At our home we have perennial and hosta gardens, but my favorite sanctuary is the vegetable garden. I start and grow hundreds of herb and vegetable plant varieties each spring. (I love seed catalogs.) Some think that I’m a little off-kilter for having such a large garden. Yes, it’s a lot of work, yet it’s rewarding and therapeutic being out there and seeing the plants grow and mature at an amazing pace from a small seed to wholesome produce in just a few months! It’s great having the summer’s nutritious bounty in the freezer to enjoy and savor in the winter months.
What is the most challenging part of your work?
The most challenging part of our job is staying ahead of the weeds. We have fairly large areas to care for, and it’s a constant battle. Another challenge is being patient enough to finally see the “one” of the thousands that don’t make the cut. I want to note that I’m so very thankful for our Tuesday volunteers that help and support us with our work, they are awesome!
How does your work impact Arb members or visitors (or the general public) in a meaningful way?
I truly hope that the results of our project brings pleasure and years of enjoyment to everyone that incorporates our released varieties to their yards and gardens.