December 15th, 2020

Happy Holidays, everyone! We had the honor of interviewing Senior Gardener, David Helgeson, of the Volunteer Park Conservatory for our recent holiday newsletter. The Conservatory has been such a special place to us as we’ve been able to volunteer many hours behind-the-scenes in the Cactus House over the years; with the guidance of David as well as gardener, Pan. We all have learned from each other, traded plant practices, shared favorite cactus mixes and shared the love of plants. Like we always say, “Plants bring us together!”, and this couldn’t be more true than working together with the wonderful people of the Conservatory!

Q&A featuring David Helgeson

 Interview questions by Candi Hibert

What made you decide to pursue a career in horticulture?

I was enchanted by tropical plants and greenhouses in particular from a young age and used to sneak into our neighbor’s orchid greenhouse. Mrs. Kletzer, a kindly elderly woman, gave me my first plant ever; an Orchid Ansellia africana, (along with a mild scolding for breaking and entering).  I was hooked and my interest grew from there. My parents were indulgent and my bedroom looked like the forest scene from Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are”.

How long have you been working at the Volunteer Park Conservatory?  And how did your career path prior, lead you to working there?

I moved to Seattle from Portland Oregon at age 25 in 1985, and worked for Ciscoe Morris on the grounds crew at Seattle U while I was finishing an associates degree from Edmonds community college night school.  I interviewed and was hired by Seattle Parks at the Conservatory in May of 1989. After a year I was promoted and went to the production greenhouse on Beacon Hill where flowers and plants are grown for the Park system. In 1993 I returned to the Conservatory as Senior Gardener in charge of the production Greenhouse. With the retirement of then senior gardener, Stephanie Johnson-Toliver,  I assumed the role of Senior Gardener for the Conservatory.

What’s your favorite thing about working in the greenhouses? 

My favorite things about working in the greenhouses are a certain atmospheric “Magic” that is hard to describe along with the endlessly fascinating study of plants.

Any particular Conservatory “Room” you like the best, and why?

It’s hard to have a favorite room or plant in the Conservatory but I get asked that all the time and I would probably have to say the seasonal house with its rotating display throughout the year.  It offers so much diversity and creative opportunity (ok Holiday season is my favorite, choo! choo!).

Which is your favorite season decorating the Seasonal House?

Holiday Season perhaps my favorite, mostly because it wraps up the horticultural year and we are pretty exhausted by then!

Could you describe a typical day for you at the Conservatory?

Typical Day:  I arrive at work at 6am each morning- This gives me an hour to plan projects for the day and to do administrative tasks before the crew shows up at 7am.  We meet briefly at 7am and discuss work details and I dispatch the crew.  The day is roughly divided into AM and PM with a lunch break at noon.  The AM period is when we do the routine daily tasks of watering, grooming, display changes and prep in the Conservatory before opening to the Public at 10am.  We usually take a short coffee break from 10 to 10:15 then it’s on to caring for collections in the production greenhouses. This includes many of the same daily activities as in the Conservatory, watering and fertilizing, grooming plants, Pest and disease control/IPM, greenhouse sanitation/cleaning, and projects for the day.  That all happens roughly between 10:15 and 12 noon.  The afternoon or PM interval is consumed by assigned projects of many kinds, from propagation of plants for seasonal use to potting and training/pruning of large plant specimens to facility maintenance like pressure washing floors to grounds maintenance on the faculty campus.  We do it all in an eight hour day and start over again the next day!

How many employees help maintain the Conservatory?

There are 3 permanent full time gardeners, and one halftime gardener assigned to the Conservatory Operation working in staggered shifts seven days a week .  The gardeners are employed by the City of Seattle Parks and Recreation department and are members of the public employees union local 1239.  The City also employs 3 temporary staff who work as Greeters in the Conservatory during public open hours. 

The Friends of the Conservatory non-profit organization was founded in 1980 to provide public advocacy, fundraising and educational programming to support the Conservatory. FOC employs a gift shop director who manages gift shop operations with volunteer staffing, a social media director and an administrative assistant, all who work part time. The FOC’s, 12 person Board of directors consists of the usual President, Vice president, secretary, treasurer, various committee chairs etc.  They have also at times in the past employed an executive director- a position that is currently not engaged.  The majority of educational and event programming is planned and implemented by committees of volunteers assigned to each function. Along with plant sales and other fundraising activities; FOC provides training for volunteer docents who are assigned to lead tours throughout the year.  There are a select number of volunteers that assist the Garden staff with horticultural tasks on a weekly basis, usually assigned to specific tasks. Often these folks come to the Conservatory from other Garden clubs or groups with specific skill sets that we are looking for.  Our involvement with garden groups and societies like the Cascade Cactus & Succulent Society has increased over the years and helps fulfill part of our mutual mission to support and promote participation in public horticulture in our region.  Plus it helps us get our work done and it’s fun!

We’d love to know what your favorite succulent or cactus is (sorry, but you should’ve known it was coming)!

That is a really hard question but I’m particularly fond of Agave parryi.  

Care to share a fond memory in your long tenure at the Conservatory?  Plant successes, events, etc….

Really and I can say this truthfully it has been working with so many cool people over the years. Gardeners are such generous people by and large and collaborating with Garden Clubs like CCSS has made my job so much fun!

How long has the Conservatory hosted educational events?

The Conservatory has offered educational programming as long as I can remember back beginning with the Partners in Public Education program or P.I.P.E programs during  Mayor Norm Rice’s administration, where school kids would regularly come to  the conservatory for field trip classes hosted by the garden staff.

Now that the Conservatory has had your doors closed to the public for quite some time due to COVID, could you share how this has impacted the Conservatory, and is there anything we can do to help?  And anything you’ve been able to accomplish that you normally wouldn’t have while being open to the public?  

The Pandemic has had its up side in that we have been able to take on some long awaited projects to improve the plantings inside.  One recent accomplishment was the installation of a 100 year old specimen of Cycas taiwaniana into the Palm House that was donated a few years ago.  It is stunning!

What’s the history behind the Holiday Display in the Seasonal House? Do you find as the years progress; there’s new ideas, decorations and plants added to the mix?

The Conservatory has always had seasonal/holiday displays, but the current traditional theme with Santa and the vintage toy trains was an inspiration for the centennial in 2012. The staff knew I had a secret hobby with old toy trains and encouraged me (much to their chagrin now!)  to set them up here some year and that’s how it came to be. We try and vary the color palate and décor a little bit each year but the general theme has been very successful and popular with visitors.

Do you have quite the collection of plants at home?  If so, what’s your personal favorite you like to grow?  

Haa!!  At home my wife Jennifer is the gardener, I’m lucky if I keep the lawn mowed!  My son, Nick, has the plant bug- cactus and succulents mostly.  He has quite a collection.  I putter in the garden and have big plans that haven’t been realized.  I am quite fond of Primroses and think it would be nice to have a small collection of fancy Auriculas.  Someday, sigh….

One last thing, let me know if you ever need a dancing Christmas tree at any future holiday celebrations at the Conservatory!  I come bearing the joy of plants as well as complimentary snow balls. 

I absolutely need the dancing Christmas Tree (Adorable!) to come and perform during the next public season!  Hopefully 2021!

Photos provided by David Helgeson, VP Conservatory and Candi Hibert