Our hats are off to 2021 Volunteer of the Year Debby Smith who has tended gardens at Como for 14 years!

How did you get started taking care of the gardens at Como?

We moved to Saint Paul in 2006 near Como Park. I would drive by the East Gateway garden and I could tell that no one was tending it. I went online to figure out if I could volunteer. I met with the man who oversaw gardens. He said “don’t plant any invasives” and I got started. The next year I took on the round garden at the Lexington walking bridge. The next year I asked for the big one by the lake – that garden had become all weeds. And I got it!

That’s a lot to take on! Have you always been a gardener?

My mother was a gardener. She didn’t plant vegetables, only flowers – everything including roses. During the time she lived in Colorado, she grew those huge dahlias and when they lived in Florida she got to know completely different plants. Every house I’ve lived in has had large gardens. Our Saint Paul house had a lot 120 feet deep and we got some money from the Watershed District to help put in three big rain gardens. The key is to weed every day so they don’t get out of control.

Now that we live in Woodbury in a “Next Gen” house with our daughter and her family, I’ve been lucky that she has let me put in more gardens!

You have done a great job of recruiting volunteers to help with the gardens and then take them on as you need to give them up. How did you go about that?

It’s always hard asking for help. I watered one day last week for three hours. Something like that or deadheading, I do by myself. I only ask for help when we get the plants in or when it’s time to spread the mulch or for fall for cleanup. I put a sign in the garden that said “looking for volunteer gardeners, join us at these times” – that really brought out the neighbors. And of course, anyone who would complement the gardens while I was working, I would ask if they had time to help. One volunteer from Great River Greening then brought her mom – it builds by word of mouth. When we moved to Woodbury last year, I gave away two of the Como gardens.

What has been most rewarding about tending the Como gardens?

I really enjoy working in a garden – every two weeks it looks different as new things bloom. I take out and add things every year. The big garden by the lake gets everyone walking by, so I see all my old neighbors and make new friends from the walkers I see every time I’m working. So many people stop to say how happy the gardens make them. They like how it changes and someone always wants to know about the plants.

Tell us about your favorite parks.

I know all of Como and it has everything. It’s wonderful that you can just walk into the zoo as part of a walk rather than making it a big outing. I took a class at Como where they take you into the greenhouses and you learn how they plan a year ahead for all the sunken garden displays. The displays didn’t stop during Covid because they were all planned, the plants ordered or already growing. I looked through the glass to see the Christmas display when they had to close again during that winter surge. I also love Rice Park downtown and really missed it when it was closed for the renovation. It always has beautiful plantings.