Up close and personal with the Renegade Gardener


by SusanNew2008_005
Renegade Gardener Don Engebretson spoke at the Capital Home and
Garden Show last weekend and there’s no way I was going to pass up the chance to get this photo and interview the man behind the website.

The subject of Don’s talk was The Top 10 Gardening Blunders, a feature on his site that I’ve been known to recommend, and in person, with Don flipping the images on his laptap and in full rant mode, it killed!  No wonder the show’s PR guy is so eager to line him up for next year.  And this live version taught me a thing or two, like:  The gardens he creates for clients are gorgeous.  And among the exhortations and the quips about "starter castles" were these favorites of mine:

  • "Gardening raises the
    spirit as it lowers the pulse."
  • "Be a renegade.  Break the rules.  Kill stuff.  Try, fail."  That one’s positively Manifesto-worthy.
  • He’s big on "concept lines," most importantly the one between the lawn and the borders.  I knew that!
  • Use marine rope to mark borders – it’s easier to work than garden hose.
  • It’s even more important to know the mature width of trees and shrubs than their mature height.

Now here’s most of the interesting stuff I learned over a 3-hour dinner with Don after his show.  (Let the man have SOME privacy, will ya?)

Donwarheads78300Don’s the one wearing a tie in this photo of his punk band The Warheads (presumably because in the punk world ties are radical).  Over the course of a decade there were other bands with whom he played sax and trombone, one a "malt liquor acid rock punk-funk fusion" and the "almost famous" Things that Fall Down, which even
recorded and toured in the ’80s.  There were forays into rap and blues, too, and we can only guess at the crazy after-concert shenanigans Don was getting into – and then showing up for his day job in the world of gardening (no wonder he’s all about lowering the pulse).

Right out of college Don had started working for his father, who happened to own the Minneapolis Home and
Garden Show.  His duties included booking speakers and
coordinating 42,000 square feet of display gardens.  Twenty years went by in the world of garden shows, including the Des Moines show started by the Engebretsons.

Then in ’96 Don started garden writing on the side and launched his website the next year.  (So go ahead and complain about the lack of RSS feed and permalinks for the site but in Internet years that site’s an old-timer, a pioneer if you will.)  He next began doing garden designs for people and started Renegade Gardener Landscaping in

Now I know readers of my gender are particularly interested in Don’s personal life, and here what I learned without turning this blog into a tabloid.  One of the High Spots in Don’s life is his 17-year-old son, who plays drums, guitar, and
baseball, snowboards, and wants to be a music producer.  A big old Blackspot is his finally-completed divorce – some of us can relate –  but then comes another High Spot, and it’s a really big one.  Last summer he reunited with a summer girlfriend from his high school years.  And what a story.  34 years after that adolescent romance they met again in the same Ontario vacation spot and
fell madly in love.  Aww.  And they’re thinking of running off to Vancouver Island together.  Damn, that’s gardening paradise!  Now I’m starting to get jealous.

So Don, move West into the sunset with your lovely Karen – be happy, of course! – but please, don’t ever  give up that website. 

Speaking of which, I can assure readers I did my best to convince him of the importance of feeds so fans can keep up with his rantings.  He tells me regulars know that he posts new articles on the 1st of every month – TODAY – but new readers are awfully demanding nowadays so I pleaded with him to get on board the RSS train and give us our permalinks!  Then I got really pushy:  While you’re at it, how about a podcast now and then?  I’ll save room for ’em on my Nano.


  1. Don can’t move out west, he’s been a shining beacon of hope for low zone gardeners who would KILL (and do) for one tiny flower in April or May. Ok. He can. Maybe I’m jealous.

  2. Good work, Susan. And great profile – you have a keen journalistic streak. After you get him on to RSS, PLEASE remind him not to forget Zone 7 and below…
    I think that ties in the punk world were more about being ironic (the Reagan era), something the man carries with him in his writing.

  3. The ties were about not being hippies. About loathing that whole mid-70’s “take it easy” vibe. About looking back to the early ’60’s and that sharper and more amusing mod thing.

    Of course, the Renegade was a punk! He still is!

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