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Week of August 16, 2010

Staff Spotlight

Garden specialist 
connects with inner artist

Designing a garden is like planning a painting, says Judy Dluzen, collections and natural areas specialist at Matthaei Botanical Gardens. But it’s not enough to match plants by their standard color representations.

“After years of doing this, I have found catalogue descriptions don’t always get the nuances of color correct in their descriptions. So I plan the combination the year before when I can actually see the colors and pick a flower and hold it up against another to see what they really look like,” Dluzen says.

Photo by Austin Thomason, U-M Photo Services.

Even more satisfying than getting the colors right is seeing how visitors enjoy the gardens. “Folks make comments like, ‘Oh, grandpa used to grow those flowers. I haven’t seen those kinds in years.’ That is very satisfying,” Dluzen says.

Dluzen grew up in a suburb of Cleveland, then moved to Michigan to attend Adrian College. She studied biology, majored in physical education and met husband Bob in an ornithology class. “He had a lot of farm background too and went on to become a farm extension agent for 10 years and later a gardener/land manager for two private estates. So our lives have revolved around food and plants,” she says.

When she started at Matthaei as a temporary gardener in 1990, Dluzen was already mother to the couple’s three children: Joseph, Robin and James. She soon found that working at the gardens connected her to a family past with growing things.

“My father was a great gardener. He was known on our suburban block as the man who could grow anything. My grandmother was also a gardener and a farmer. When I was 10, 11 and 12 I spent up to six weeks at her farm in Michigan in the summer,” Dluzen says. “I remember the big dinners she would cook for my two older brothers and my cousins who were working on the farm. There were lots of fresh grown vegetables that had been picked an hour or two before. That made a lasting impression on my mind of what food should be.”

At home in Petersburg, there is a family garden with cucumbers, beans, garlic, tomatoes, squash, heirloom pumpkin, peppers, cabbage and eight apple trees. “We will be putting in a fall crop of lettuce, spinach and radish,” Dluzen says.

Dluzen, who enjoys babysitting grandson Connor, 2, birdwatching, and the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder, also maintains a home flower garden of daylily, catmint, daffodils, sedum, iris, hosta and phlox. She occasionally travels with a group of “botanically minded” women, to destinations including the Bruce Peninsula in Canada, the Missouri Botanical Garden and the Chicago Botanical Garden.

At Matthaei, her day opens by organizing plants and tools for four to eight volunteers to work with. Dluzen says she tries to make sure these helpers are doing the activities that they enjoy. “What was unexpected in this job was learning the interpersonal skills of working with people,” she says. “Many people use gardening as a way to have down time and get away from people. But that doesn’t happen when it’s your job. It’s a collaborative effort.”

Dluzen is responsible for three gardens, shares the management of another and stages presentation of conservatory exhibits. “I design how I want to present the plants that were chosen and grown by my co-horticulturist, and display them according the general theme chosen by the exhibit committee,” she says. Dluzen says she is pleased that two gardens she cares for have appeared as paintings on the cover of Ann Arbor Observer.

“I am happy whenever I see artists and photographers out in the gardens. All of MBGNA is such a good place for folks to have a chance to let the beauty of nature heal and relax them, something that we definitely need,” she says.

The weekly Spotlight features staff members at the university. To nominate a candidate, please contact the Record staff at



Judy Dluzen, collections and natural areas specialist, Matthaei Botanical Gardens, on learning interpersonal skills on the job: “Many people use gardening as a way to have down time and get away from people. But that doesn’t happen when it’s your job. It’s a collaborative effort.”


  • The Sean Dobbins Trio performs from 8-10 p.m. Aug. 18 at the U-M Museum of Art in the free Jazz Series curated by Associate Professor of Music Adam Unsworth. It is sponsored by UMMA and the Katherine Tuck Endowment.

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