Arboretum News

Growing with Jenny Thull

Meet the research professional/viticulturist in the Horticultural Research Center's Cold Hardy Grape Project, who also happens to be the mastermind behind the World of Pumpkins display at the Arboretum.

Visiting the Arboretum: All members and visitors need to make a reservation in advance of their visit to the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. We hope to see you soon!

Jenny Thull in the vineyards. Photo courtesy of Jenny Thull.

By Liz Potasek

Every fall at the Arboretum, Jenny Thull’s passion for pumpkins becomes contagious. Thull is the mastermind behind the Arboretum’s World of Pumpkins display. Each year she researches and purchases hundreds of varieties of pumpkin, squash and gourd seeds. She plants the seeds in the spring and coordinates a small army of volunteers to harvest the pumpkins in the fall. This year, she harvested 318 varieties planted in 11 fields.

After they’re harvested, the pumpkins, squash and gourds are displayed throughout the Arboretum grounds — this year, the Thull and other staff styled yellow, orange and while pumpkins into a large piece of candy corn, which is displayed on the Dahlberg Terrace. She also decorated the KARE-11 backyard. Many of the pumpkins are for sale at the Arboretum’s AppleHouse, too. 

Jenny Thull doesn’t just style the pumpkins, she also cooks with them. Before starting a career in horticulture, Thull trained as a chef, and she’s cooked up almost every one of the varieties that she grows. She’s shared her recipes on our blog (here and here) and some of the recipes are available at the Arboretum’s AppleHouse. “I really want to show people that there are thousands of squash varieties in the world and how versatile and complex their flavors are,” she says. 

But pumpkins aren’t Thull’s main job at the Arboretum. She’s a research professional/viticulturist in the Cold Hardy Grape Project at the Horticultural Research Center, where her chef’s ability to analyze flavors comes in handy as the program searches for the next big grape introduction.

Thull started volunteering at the Arboretum in 2006 while she was working full time as a chef, and ended up switching careers in 2008 to work on the grape project. She spends the majority of her time at the Arboretum tending grape vines.

Jenny Thull and Lucky pruning grape vines in the winter. Photo courtesy of Jenny Thull.

What do your job duties involve?

 As far as the Grape Project, my job duties include management of the vineyards, including seed starting and transplanting, pruning, tying, canopy management and harvesting. The research aspect includes designing and execution of grape crosses, as well as extraction of seeds and evaluation of the seedlings, including how they grow, cold hardiness, taste of the fruit and the wines.

Every season we have a new task to work on, starting with pruning in the winter. Pruning to me is like Sudoku or crosswords puzzles to others. It is a high-skilled job, and I love learning from it every year. Ninety percent of the vine comes off every year, and it sets the tone for the rest of the year. 

We start thousands of new grape seeds in the greenhouse and propagate cuttings from high priority vines every spring. We plant out thousands of vines in our nursery and research vineyards. 

Canopy Management and de-suckering the vines keeps us busy throughout much of the summer. 

Managing weeds and pests (birds, raccoons, mice, turkeys) throughout the season is a tricky, but necessary part of the job. My black Labrador, Lucky, who recently passed away, was our lead mouse hunter — she caught hundreds in her day, as well as turkeys, gophers and raccoons.

Evaluating flavors and harvesting grapes in the fall are definitely highlights of the job. For some crazy reason, my brain seems to store many different tastes, flavors and smells (as well as music trivia) and has become an invaluable tool in evaluating grapes, apples, and wine. I enjoy honing my skill with blind smelling aromas from a kit I have, smelling and tasting herbs and spices in my extremely large collection, and trying all types of wines from all over the world. 

Why are you passionate about your work here at the Arboretum?

I am passionate about my job at the Arboretum because it’s the most amazing job I have ever had, and I am lucky to work with and learn with my husband, John. We have learned so much in 15 years together and continue to do so. 

I was in the United States Air Force as an intelligence specialist during 9/11 and following and decided that life was (or could be) insanely short and wanted to live my life well and happy.  

I have worked every job in the restaurant business — as a server, in the kitchen and in management, and I decided to go school to become a chef. I graduated in 2006 from Le Cordon Bleu and worked for a few years until the recession hit in 2008. 

All the while, I was volunteering at the Horticultural Research Center. John and I had planted a vineyard at his family farm in 2007, and I was becoming well-versed in grape growing when a job opened up with him in 2008. I loved growing grapes, and it changed the way I tasted wines. One piece of advice John has given over the years is the “be the vine” when you are learning to grow them. I feel like after 15 years, I have indeed become the vine!  

As far as pumpkins, squash and gourds go my passion runs deep.  As a child, my mother Kim was an exceptional cook and always introduced us to many vegetables and different cooking styles. One of my favorite comfort foods was squash. I absolutely love it and could eat it every day. My husband, John, however did not grow up with it. I started out just trying to introduce him to it. I soon realized a lot of people were like him. I really want to show people that there are thousands of squash varieties in the world and how versatile and complex their flavors are.  Halloween was always a favorite, especially carving pumpkins. I learned many tricks in culinary school and have become of a bit of a master carver. 

Photo courtesy of Jenny Thull.

What is your earliest memory of gardening or nature?

My earliest memory of gardening is going to a pumpkin patch as a small child and my mother’s vegetable garden in our backyard in Woodbury, Minnesota. Everything always seemed to taste so much better from there! We also had a great local farm, Jordan’s, that would sell the most amazing vegetables. I absolutely love going there.

What or who inspired your career path?

As I stated earlier, being in the military during 9/11 definitely steered me to cooking and wine and then eventually to grape growing. I was determined to find something that made me happy and did not feel like work. 

John Thull is my biggest inspiration. I learn by doing, and John always supported and encouraged it. It is why we work so well together and are together all the time. (Other couples seem to think this is insane!) We bounce ideas off each other and have learned so much during all the wild weather changes and good and bad growing years.

Do you have a home garden?

Growing and gardening has become a bit of an addiction for me. I love Hollyhocks and have a tendency to spread them everywhere. We have two low rows in our vineyards that are not great for grapevines. They were spectacularly filled with hollyhocks this year. 

I love trying to grow exotic plants, like avocados from seed. I have a twelve-foot, 11-year-old Avocado plant that I started from seed in our apartment before we were married. I also have a Tuberose in a pot and two Olive plants.  My house is full of house plants, even though we live in a wooded, shady lot. 

I put all my sun-loving plants in two gardens in the front of my house. I am very proud of my Edelweiss, which I started from seed. I also have 30 different peonies, including three extremely rare ones. I have a weeping fruit tree garden, including a Snow Sweet apple, cherries, apricots, pears and peaches. 

We have great neighbors who love to share plants, and I have been able to fill in my garden without spending too much money. John’s Aunt Joan is my inspiration for my gardens. Her garden in central Minnesota is legendary and is absolutely heaven.

What is the most challenging part of your work?

The most challenging part of our job is the weather, especially the extreme temperatures and storms. When it comes to grapes and wine, there are definitely good vintages or years, and there are definitely bad vintages/years. It is how you handle these swings that determines whether or not you can grow consistently good grapes or make consistently good wine. Luckily, 2021 has been a great year. We have not seen a year like this since 2012. It takes time to bounce back after bad years or Polar Vortices. 

Another challenge is making the perfect grape to release. Not only does the grape have to taste great and make a great wine, it has to be extremely cold hardy and disease resistant. It also has to be grower friendly. As commercial growers ourselves, this is very important. The vines have to be manageable without costing too much and give the most “bang for the buck.” They need to be able to produce enough to sell and to make a profit for the grower. 

As an expert in your field, do you have any tricks, tips or advice that would help our readers?

Some advice I would give as far as grape growing goes is to start small. Start with a few vines and work up. Grapes are a challenging plant and take some time to learn. They don’t just grow themselves like wild vine. We treat everyone as an individual, like a child. You have to learn its personality first to know how to handle it.  

As far as pumpkins, squash and gourds go, grow as many as you can!!! They are such an amazing plant. They are so adaptable and so fast! You also cannot beat the ability to store! I still have three from last year and had one last 3 years once. Weeding is intensely important though. Make sure they are free from weeds, and the plants will treat you right!

How does your work impact Arb members or visitors (or the general public) in a meaningful way?

One of my favorite things in the world is listening to people’s reactions to the amazing rainbow of pumpkin, squash, and gourd varieties. I love that we get people who come back to buy squash varieties that only we have. I enjoy sharing my passion about grapes and pumpkin and feel as if it is contagious! We love the response we get back and hope that we influence others to try new and exciting things and become as passionate as we are.

5 comments on “Growing with Jenny Thull

  1. Renee Pohl

    Great article about you, Jenny. So great to hear that you are passionate about your job, it definitely shows in your hard work.

  2. Jenny Verner

    Always such a gracious, charming, lovely person- it’s fun to learn about your military background (Wow!) and gardening inspiration. We are so fortunate you have you, and John, at the Arb! Thanks for letting us get to know you better, Jenny
    (Nice name 🙂

  3. Matt Schuth

    I always said if I had two kids I would want them to grow up like you and John. Keep truckin’. Matt

  4. Heather Mainella

    You and John are some of my favorite people, always upbeat and generous with your time and talents! So nice to learn more about you. Great pictures, nice to see and remember Lucky.

  5. Jennifer Thull

    Thanks for all the lovely messages!

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: