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May 17, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Jenna Rozum is a plant geek. Running the 8,000 square feet of annual beds and 70,000 square feet of perennial gardens of MU’s Botanic Garden takes someone such as her. After taking what she thought would be a blow-off horticulture class in high school, her infatuation with plants and flowers blossomed. She has a bachelor’s degree in horticulture from Illinois State University and enjoyed her classes so much that she went back for a master’s degree in agricultural business.
Now 27, Jenna is the supervisor of the herbaceous garden crew, which is in charge of the botanic gardens throughout MU’s campus. The gardens were started in 1999. For the past two years, Jenna has been in charge of three crew members and an occasional part-time student.
Vox spoke to Rozum about her plant expertise.
How is a botanic garden different from landscaping?
It is a garden solely for the purpose of collecting different plants and showcasing them in a variety of themed gardens. The south quad, for example, has six perennial beds, but each one of them is dedicated to a different plant. One of them is a peony garden, a spring-blooming perennial. One is solely for echinacea. There’s a geranium one, too. They’re just a collection of different types of gardens to showcase to the public. Plus, I just think they’re fun, beautiful places to go.
What is the benefit of having a botanic garden?
I find beauty in all of it, but I’m just a plant geek, so I think everything is pretty cool. A lot of the agricultural and horticultural professors use it for teaching. We have so many different species on campus that it’s a good way for them to do that. It’s also good for the community; it’s such a nice place to walk around. I come here some days when I’m off work. It also doesn’t hurt when giving tours to prospective students and their families.
Are there any other botanic gardens on university campuses that you know of?
The University of Michigan has a separate location that’s a botanical garden and a small children’s garden. The University of Georgia has a really large trial garden, which is where a lot of seed and horticulture companies will send the new plants that they have for the year, and they’ll review them throughout the summer. They’re trying to find out if it’s a good plant. Just because something looks pretty in a catalog doesn’t mean it’s going to do what it says.
How do you distinguish between good and bad flowers or plants?
For us, it’s definitely heat tolerance. Is it going to hold up in the hot Missouri summer when there’s no rain for weeks at a time? Also you want something that blooms profusely. You want something that’s going to be big and robust — not puny and tiny and never really takes off. There’s something that could have a really interesting flower, but if it’s not going to make an impact, especially from a distance, it’s probably not something we would use a lot of.
How does water affect what’s being planted?
If it’s a week that we’re not getting any rain, we’ll water on Mondays and then usually Wednesdays and Fridays. If it’s really warm — talking 90s, 100s — we’ll have somebody come in over the weekend and check the things that dry out faster. The containers will always dry out faster than things planted in the ground. This year on Lowry Mall we’re going to do an all-succulent garden in the containers. So, you’ll see a lot of agave and sedum, which we’re hoping will cut back on watering. And some vermillion — things that will tolerate drought a lot better.
What’s the first step to a good garden?
Know the area that you’re working with. Be aware of the light that it gets throughout the day. Not just in the morning or afternoon but the whole day. Also, know what kind of soil you have. If you have really poor soil, you might have to add something to it. If you have a really clay-heavy soil, you need to add something so it will drain better. Moisture requirements of plants are really important also. You don’t want to put a plant that loves water in an area where it will dry out and vice versa.
Any special tips or tricks?
There are little sayings that I’ve heard or read such as, “It’s better to put a 50-cent plant in a 50-dollar hole than a 50-dollar plant in a 50-cent hole.” This is better than buying something really expensive and not taking the time to amend the soil and plant it correctly. Other than that, people put down human hair to keep pests away, and some of the nurseries use Irish Spring soap to keep the deer away from the trees.
Do you keep a garden of your own?
I have containers on my balcony, but the area I have is mostly shady, so I have a lot of torenia, a lot of impatiens. I also grow herbs like basil, oregano and thyme just to name a few. And I actually use them. I haven’t had many problems with critters, though when I first started sowing the basil last year, the birds ate the seedlings. But I just moved the container away from the railings, and problem solved.