As a kid, Jessie Jacobson planted begonias and impatiens, earning 50 cents a flat, helping her grandparents at their family-owned greenhouse.
Later, as a teen, she spent every school break cashiering and unloading plants at Tonkadale, a Minnetonka destination for west metro gardeners. Her grandfather/mentor taught her how to cultivate plants. And every May, she celebrated her birthday among the fragrant blooms packing the garden center during peak planting time. “I always loved the way it made me feel,” she said.
After graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a degree in biology and horticulture, Jacobson worked at Tonkadale’s growing range, helping to select new annual varieties to cultivate for the garden center. “I always felt clumsy in a lab setting,” she said. “I was more comfortable with plants.”
Last spring, with her grandparents, Bill and Shirley Maruska, ready to retire, Jacobson took over the business, which includes the growing range in Breckenridge, Minn. “I was ready for the next step,” she said. Her husband, Luke Jacobson, oversees the financial side of the operation, while she oversees the plant side.
On a busy May afternoon, she strode briskly down the aisles of rainbow-hued plants, as familiar with the sprawling layout as if it were her own backyard. She planted a few annuals in containers at the potting station — “I love the hands-on quality of gardening,” she said — answered a few customers’ questions, then assisted with a video being shot for the Tonkadale website.
Jacobson’s mission is to attract a new generation of young growers — as well as gardeners in all stages, from beginners to plant collectors.
To engage with today’s gardeners, Jacobson and Tonkadale’s perennial pro, Megan Nichols, take turns blogging on topics such as shade container recipes and pruning hydrangeas. Jacobson also is in the process of redesigning Tonkadale’s website and expanding its reach on social media.
In the garden center, she’s tweaked the layout to make it more user-friendly for rookie gardeners. Big, bold-lettered signs and “grab-and-go” sun and shade containers, suspended from a wooden arbor at the entrance, make it easy to navigate the vast center.
Jacobson and Nichols also are setting up “Gardening With Purpose” displays, offering plant picks for everything from xeriscaping (gardening to reduce the need for supplemental water) to pollinator-friendly beds.
“People garden for all different reasons,” she noted. “As a hobby, for the beauty, for food or just to create a habitat for pollinators.”
Jacobson’s passion for plants also flourishes at her Minnetonka home, where she tends flower, herb and veggie gardens, as well as terraced beds along a rock wall.
But with all her expanded responsibilities at Tonkadale, there never seem to be enough hours in the day to care for her plants at home, she said.
“Sometimes I garden by the light of my car headlights.”