If beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder, there are definitely a lot of beholders who annually walk through the gates of Janesville’s famous Rotary Botanical Gardens.
The man in charge of keeping the gardens lush, lovely and colorful is Horticulture Director Michael Jesiolowski, an Illinois native born in Oak Park and raised in Chicago.
A graduate of Lane Tech High School in Chicago, Jesiolowski has a Bachelor of Science degree in horticulture from the University of Illinois. He also holds a degree in accounting, which was his original discipline before going green.
Jesiolowski’s professional career also includes stops at Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, Missouri, and at Chicago Botanic Garden, where he was senior horticulturist. He also has worked at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois; Bernheim Arboretum in Clermont, Kentucky; Epic Systems in Verona and at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
1. What initially sparked your love for horticulture? I was inspired by the edible component of plants as I saw my family grow vegetables in the backyard in a very simple way from a seed packet or some cells. Soon after, my passion evolved into flowering plants such as zinnias and marigolds, and that is all I needed.
2. Explain your role as horticulturist for Rotary Botanical Gardens. My primary responsibilities are to add to the living collection, create the displays of the garden and lead the horticulture staff in the maintenance of the garden. In addition, I work with many dedicated volunteers, place orders for plant material and supplies and contribute ideas to the garden on a larger scale—such as Holiday Light Show. It is a lot of work but also very fulfilling.
3. Share the title of a movie or TV show that, even if you didn’t see it at the start, you absolutely have to sit down and watch. I am not a big TV or movie person these days, but I did watch the “Last Dance” documentary on the ‘80s-’90s Chicago Bulls. It has special meaning to me because I would watch the games with my mom when the Bulls couldn’t get past the Pistons and eventually used those defeats to sharpen their resolve to greatness. I can appreciate that now more than ever.
4. What are your favorite things to grow and why? Really anything that is a challenge. I like doing the research and figuring out what conditions a plant needs to survive. This can mean failing a few times, but so much can be learned from failure.
5. People would be surprised to know that I: Have seen Pearl Jam about 20 times in concert. I was supposed to see them again in St. Louis in April until everything halted with COVID-19. My cousin and I received their debut album, “Ten,” in the mail as a promo from a radio DJ before they were well known, and the rest is history.
6. Do you have allergies? I didn’t think I had any, but I recently discovered I am highly allergic to cottonwood trees. They are such a pain.
7. At the grocery store, what item always goes in your cart whether you need it or not? Unsalted pretzels. People can’t believe that is an actual thing, but they are comparatively healthy to other snack alternatives.
8. In your experience, what is the most difficult plant to grow? In this neck of the woods, I would say any of the plants in the Ericaceous plant family. These plants require acidic soils and great drainage, which most of us don’t have in our gardens. Hmm ... RBG was built on an old sand and gravel pit. I love a good challenge.
9. There are a lot of songs and musical artists with plant references in their names. Do you have any particular favorites? Music is a great love of mine that intersects with plants and nature with many songs, including these: “Echo” by Mandolin Orange, “In My Tree” and “Cropduster” by Pearl Jam, “Morning Glory” by Oasis, “Bougainvillea” by Dickey Betts and “Orange Blossoms” by Mofro.
10. Is there any truth to the theory that playing music will help plants grow? I always have a song in my head, and this has been true for a long, long time. This keeps me charging through the day, so if music gets me to a state of flow or being in the zone, that is only good news for the plants.
11. What is one thing Rotary Botanical Gardens visitors do that you wish they wouldn’t? Walk through garden beds. We want visitors to have a wonderful experience when they visit the garden, but walking through garden beds has an adverse effect on the living collection we are cultivating for them.
12. If you could learn to do anything you can’t already do, what would it be? I’ve always thought it would be an absolutely amazing experience to catch a wave on a surfboard in the Pacific Ocean. Maybe one day.
13. Share one secret you’ve found to be universally successful when it comes to growing plants. You need to look at the plant’s needs before your own needs. Sure, that magnolia looks great in the picture with all of its large spring flowers, but if you put it in too much shade or on a southern exposure, you might not be getting that display of flowers.
14. Most people like to look at pretty flowers, but they don’t realize how dependent we as a species are on the existence of plant life. What can you tell people to enlighten them? Plants are vital to our existence, from providing the oxygen we breathe and the food we consume to medicines that improve health and just the enjoyment we get from looking at flowers and fall color. It is so important that we take care of a plant’s natural habitat so it can be there for us when we need it.
15. Some people tend to plants as a hobby, but you do it for a living. What do you do as a hobby? I enjoy taking some time away from plants by playing music. Pre-COVID, I would get together every so often with some friends and we would break out guitars and a keyboard to jam on The Rolling Stones, Tom Petty or some other more obscure rock/folk covers. It’s lots of fun, and I hope we can get back to that soon.
16. Share a plant name that always makes you giggle when you hear it. Pinky Winky panicle hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata ‘Pinky Winky’). I have a fond memory of playing a game with an old colleague at Chicago Botanic Garden where we would go back and forth naming the dozens of cultivars of panicle hydrangea just for amusement. Pinky Winky would get tossed in there with no abandon.
17. What makes flowers smell so nice? That would be their essential oils, which are inherent to a plant and are a means of attracting a pollinator—or a trick to get humans to plant more and more of their kind as a means of keeping the species going.
18. Have you ever been involved in the discovery/breeding of a new variety of plant? I haven’t discovered a new plant, but I’ve tried. I’ve gone on a couple of plant-collecting trips to the Ozarks and Appalachian Mountains, and I’m always on the lookout for mutations in existing plants. There are thousands of crazy plant names, and I have one in my head that hopefully I get to use one day.
19. What is the strangest question you’ve ever been asked about plants? We were in the process of removing some invasive ground cover from a bed at Chicago Botanic Garden, and a guest came up and saw this large pile of plants and asked for them. We explained they were harmful to the environment, but we really had to keep an eye on those plants to make sure they didn’t walk away.
20. Is the grass always greener on the other side, and why would one want to grow grass anyway? The grass is actually greener on the side with no grass at all. To have a lush, green, weed-free lawn has long been a source of pride and social status, but the synthetic fertilizers, broadleaf herbicides, gas and water—not to mention hours of labor that go into making lawns look their best—have ill effects on the environment and do nothing to support pollinators. Kermit was right, “It’s not easy being green.”
Editor’s Note: Kicks presents 20Q, a feature that introduces readers to people involved in the area’s arts and entertainment community. Compiled by kicks Editor Greg Little, each piece will include a short bio, photo and answers to questions that provide insight into not only that person’s artistic interests but also his or her unique personality.