Horticulturist Paul Knuth shares some of the secrets of the Sunken Garden
You might not know his name, but if you’re a fan of the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory, you’ve definitely admired his work. For more than 31 years, horticultural supervisor Paul Knuth has been the head designer behind Como’s seasonal flower shows, curating and cultivating nearly every plant, plug, bulb and blossom bound for what’s often been called Minnesota’s most beautiful room. Set to retire later this month, Knuth recently talked with Como Friends about what it takes to grow this community treasure.
You’ve planned and produced 185 Como flower shows over the course of your career. How do you get started?
Planning for every show starts about a year in advance, so right now, we’re already thinking about next year’s Holiday Flower Show. Probably the most fun part of the flower shows is picking out the plant material—it’s like being a kid in a candy store, poring over catalogs, brainstorming with other gardeners, and getting excited about the new plants on the market. To steal from the Lexus ads, our goal is the relentless pursuit of horticultural perfection, so we’re always pushing the envelope, always trying new things. Other growers are often quite conservative and will only dabble their feet with new plants, but we plunge right in and take risks on plants we’ve never tried growing before like the Christmas Mouse or the Orange Glow Poinsettias that visitors will see in the Holiday Flower Show going on now. We want to be ahead of the trends, ahead of Martha Stewart, and quite often, we are.
Some shows, like the Spring Flower Show, will feature several thousand bulbs and plants. How do you make it all look perfect at once?
It’s a challenging room in that it requires so much labor. First we have to grow the plant material in the greenhouse, and then, six times a year, it takes about 200 hours to rip out the old show and install a new one. Because we spend over half a year growing all of these plants, we really take our time when we put it in. It makes a big difference if you throw it in or if you say “hmmm, this needs to move over an inch.” Sometimes it’s that subtle, and the finesse we put into the layout, matching each side of the garden to the other, really shows.
We plant about 10 percent more plant material than we think we’ll need so that if something dies, or gets stepped on, we’ve got backups. We get here at 7 a.m. and the horticultural staff spends the morning watering by hand, going to the greenhouse to change the plants that need replacement. By 9:30 a.m. our maintenance crew comes in to mop it up, and by 10 a.m. we’re open to the public.
It’s really a huge amount of labor, which is one reason so many conservatories and botanical gardens have gotten out of the flower show business. Part of Como’s charm is that we’re still committed to growing and producing five seasonal flower shows designed to delight our visitors, as well as our rental clients.
That’s right! Como’s Sunken Garden is the backdrop to hundreds of weddings every year. Do you think about the brides and grooms who are going to be making memories in this room when you’re designing it?
I was one of those grooms! My wife and I got married in the room in 2002, so I’m speaking from experience. It’s such a unique room, you can change the flavor of it dramatically going from the spicy and crisp chrysanthemums and autumnal colors of the Fall Show to the brilliant red and pink Poinsettias from the Holiday Flower show, for instance. Because we plan a year in advance, we do share with our rental clients what the room is going to look like, what the color themes are going to be, so they can plan around that. The variety is something that people really love. I hear from visitors who come here all the time, who say they just never get tired of it.
Have you ever had a flower show that failed?
Probably the closest thing to a disaster was in January of 2013 when the boilers failed and the room actually froze. Luckily, in January the winter show runs cooler, so when the temperatures dipped below freezing for a few hours, some of the plants could handle it–we didn’t have to replace everything. After that, we started having engineers and security staff walk through the greenhouse and gardens more frequently to monitor the temperatures and make sure that will never happen again.
Do you have a favorite flower show?
I’ve always been a proponent of what Frederick Nussbaumer, the original builder of the Conservatory and the first St. Paul Parks Superintendent, called “floral abundance.” I love just wowing people with a lot of color and fragrance. Probably my favorite show of all time was the 2008 holiday show, which we designed around a new Poinsettia called Carousel Dark Red and Carousel Dark Pink, and then decorated with six horses from the Cafesjian’s Carousel next door. That was a lot of fun.
Visitors often ask you how to create this kind of garden at home. What do you tell them?
I tell them that the Sunken Garden is what you might call a cottage-style garden with a mix of perennials and annuals. Playing around with colors you like, and then going with odd-numbered groupings of three, five, seven plants at a time is the place to start. Go for different heights and textures and play around with it and have fun. That’s what we do here!
You’ve been working with a team of younger horticulturists who’ve been designing some of the more recent Sunken Garden shows. Do you feel good about your succession plan?
I feel really good about the staff that is here and I’ve done everything I can to empty my head of whatever knowledge I’ve gained to help them be as good in this room as possible. They’re a very talented group of people with great dedication and an artistic eye. I really look forward to coming back to the Sunken Garden for future flower shows and seeing how they do! (In order of appearance, Paul Knuth, Ariel Dressler, Miguel Goebel, Victoria Housewright, Carrie Dressler, and Jeremy Gavard)
The Holiday Flower Show at the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory runs now through January 9, 2022
Thank you for all you do to support Como Park Zoo and Conservatory.
Make your free reservation to visit Como Park Zoo and Conservatory here: