The Renegade Gardener Signs Off

This column by Don Engebretson appeared in the November-December Northern Gardener. We wish Don the best in his new adventures and thank him for his enlightening and entertaining columns over the years.

Gardening and writing go hand in hand. Both are peaceful pursuits that gently coax creativity from the participant. Whether beginning a new garden bed or a new gardening article, the process is the same. Start with something blank. Draw on past experience. See what happens.

Don Engebretson renegade gardener

Don Engebretson, the renegade gardener, has retired from writing about northern gardens. We wish him well.

Already reviewing my lead paragraph above—no different from final appraisal of plant placement before digging holes and sticking them in the ground—I see that my choice of “coax” as it relates to inner creativity may be too kind a word. The concept of pulling teeth sometimes applies.

Whether gardening or writing, an errant will may cause a simple pond project to become as frustratingly elongated as an editor’s assignment of a simple article on how to build a pond. At the nursery, the new gardener buys too many plants. At the computer, the new writer uses too many words.

Creativity happens only when welcomed. It disappears when grabbed by the throat.

A Garden Writer’s Journey

As this is my final column for this award-winning magazine I’m feeling some pressure. No worries, it’s the same angst I’ve felt preparing the enormous hole and soil, then planting a $1,200 Pinus sylvestris ‘Hindu Pan’ tree in a client’s yard. I cover it with a two-year warranty. My wholesale nursery doesn’t. I’ve made an expensive misstep if it dies.

Now safely into the article the pressure is gone. Northern Gardener, after all, is my home. Thirty years ago, I wrote my first gardening article and submitted it to this magazine, at the time encumbered by the clanking and confining title Minnesota Horticulturist.

The editor, the wonderful writer Lynn Steiner, gave it a stern rinse and published it. She also encouraged me to join Garden Writers Association of America, now Garden Communicators International. I did, and through fresh contacts began writing for many national magazines. I wrote some books and started my crazy website, the Renegade Gardener.

About the website, I had to do it so I didn’t go nuts. Editors have rules. I tend not to. I recall the decade when I was pounding out articles for myriad Meredith Publishing magazines, including Better Homes and Gardens and Midwest Living. Working for Meredith, it helped to write in a suit and tie. I swear every masthead read, “We Don’t Find Anything Funny.”

Renegade Gardener became a place to supplant the classical guitar music played during the intro to yet another insufferable HGTV gardening show with punk rock. Or at least AC/DC.

What’s Ahead?

I am retiring from garden writing in order to write fiction and nonfiction on other topics. I would be remiss if I did not sign off with two confessions: 1) Every Northern Gardener editor through the years made my articles better. 2) I was burned out—pulling teeth—from writing about perennials the fifth and final year I wrote the Perennial Favorites column for this magazine. I did the best I could. (See number one above.) Once I started writing about landscape design, I was fine again.

I would be remiss if I did not sign off with thanks to the many readers who have engaged me over the years. Your comments, encouragement and corrections also made me a better writer.

I would be remiss if I did not sign off with some final advice to gardeners:

Remember, gardening is not tree surgery. It is simple, though not always easy. When it becomes hard it means merely that you are breaking new ground. If the new ground is dense clay, add compost.

You will save in the long run buying the most expensive gardening tools and equipment, particularly hoses and containers. Practice your speech about these costs before queried by your partner or spouse.

Newer gardeners, beware of burnout. Each season you want to accomplish so much! You will discover that nature provides a preordained pace. It is wise to match it.

Veteran gardeners, loosen up. Try to rekindle the awe and delight with which you first eyed Potentilla varieties, Coreopsis ‘Moonbeam’ or dwarf Alberta spruce decades ago. Now laugh as you realize, they were dreadful plants. Get thee to a nursery. This is the Golden Age of Northern Gardening.

Finally, if you love gardening, try writing about it. You never know where it may lead.



  1. Jeaneene Nooney. on October 18, 2020 at 5:35 pm

    Sad to see you go, but I understand that life has seasons, and wise is the gardener (or writer, or person) who recognizes it and alters his life to fit them. I’m guessing you are in the Fall of your life and Fall is a time for reflection, analysis and, as we enter Winter; plain ol’ seatwork.
    My prayer is that your work will be satisfying and noteworthy. I think it will. You’ve shown your mettle for the job. All the best to you. I’ve enjoyed your work.

    • Don Engebretson on November 19, 2020 at 3:11 am

      Thank you for you kind words, Jeaneene. So far, so good. My debut novel “Welcome to Kamini” will be published in September, 2021, by Guernica World Editions. I’ll see if I can’t coerce Mary into making mention of it in NG next year.

Leave a Comment