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Getting dirty

With a keen eye for color and texture, Jackie Dooley puts together another garden outside the sheep barn at the Dakota County Fair on Monday. Dooley cares for about 40 gardens she has planted on the fairgrounds.

It's Monday morning. It's steamy-warm outside. It's one week until the opening day of the Dakota County Fair.

And there's a 5x5-foot patch of black dirt outside the sheep barn at the fairgrounds that needs to be dealt with.

Enter Jackie Dooley of Farmington, an enthusiastic horticulturist who's spent her entire summer wearing dirty clothes and carrying a garden hose. On the bed of the small cart she drives sits a couple dozen plants -- annuals and perennials, some that flower and others that do not.

There are a few larger pots and some garden utensils lying nearby, but she's not ready for those yet. Instead, she starts to take different species of plants from her cart, mostly in threes, and set them in seemingly random spaces. Once in a while, she prunes some dead leaves or trims some stems from a pot.

She drops a good 15 or so, still in the plastic containers, onto the black dirt. Stands back, looks it over. Moves one or two to different spots. And all the while, she explains her thinking -- that an odd number of each species helps to bring visual interest to the garden; that this little spider plant won't last through the winter, but it's sure going to add a little sparkle alongside the purplish leaves of the plant next to it. The hostas she drops in are hearty. They'll come back year after year.

"It's money in the bank," Dooley said. "Money in the bank."

Satisfied with her design, she pulls up a stool, grabs a butcher knife and starts breaking the earth. When she's loosened up enough soil, she pulls each plant from its container and places it in the ground. She's got a week to make this garden grow.

Horticulturist on hand

Dooley's Monday project was about the 40th garden she has planted on the Dakota County fairgrounds over the past two summers. She is responsible for making a walk around the fairgrounds -- even before the fair has started -- an event for gardening enthusiasts.

Back in the 1990s, Dooley worked at the fairgrounds, doing just what she does now -- planting and caring for the gardens on the grounds. Eventually, budget cuts ended her career there. That is, until recently.

She was asked to come back last summer for 20 hours a week. And she's got a pretty limited budget, too -- only about $800, which is split between the county fair's budget and Dakota City's budget.

Any gardener knows $800 will only get you so far. That's where Dooley is really lucky, though. Some of the plants out there come up year after year. She planted many of them back in the 1990s. Some of them came from cuttings from her own garden, and some she cultivated in her home.

The lion's share of the plants were donated by Farmington Greenhouse, where Dooley finds her springtime employment. She's able to use the greenhouse as a place to get some of her cuttings going. This year, once the greenhouse closed for the season, owner Paul Gerten donated leftover plants to the fairgrounds.

The arrangement gives Dooley lots of flexibility to do what she needs and wants to do around the fairgrounds.

"It makes my job so much more fun," she says. "I'm like a painter with a color pallet."


Every garden she plants serves a purpose, and has its own theme. In the garden alongside the Harris House in Dakota City is a huge horseradish plant and something called sweet Annie -- a plant grown for its scent and used as a room freshener during the early 1900s. Those were typical of the plants grown around homes during that era. Over near the drug store, a medicinal plant commonly called fever few and used to cure headaches is planted.

"They all should have their own character," Dooley said. "The gardens add so much to the area. It adds a whole different dimension to entertainment."

Dooley carries that idea into each garden she designs. In front of the 4H building, she planted a butterfly garden. Over by the sheep barn, she kept wood shavings next to the doorway, knowing there would be much foot traffic with 4H kids and their entries, but then balanced the sides with hearty plants that can withstand the lower light conditions that come with the location.

Dooley also keeps in mind that fair week isn't the only time the public sees her handiwork. There are public and private activities planned at the fairgrounds almost every weekend, so she takes meticulous care of her gardens every week. She's got her own cart, she's got her own shed and she's got a lot of leeway from the Dakota County Agricultural Society.

"It's pretty much Jackie-land out here," she says.

There have been some challenges along the way, most notably gophers and rabbits, but Dooley works with an enthusiasm that even the pests can't suppress. Come fair week, she'll be out at the fairgrounds every morning around 5 a.m., just so she can start watering her gardens and getting most of them finished before fair visitors arrive.

Dooley isn't the lone gardener at the Dakota County Fairgrounds, though. Several landscaping businesses from around the county also contribute gardens at different locations around the grounds. But hands down, Dooley has the most.

"There's gobs of them, over 35 for sure, probably closer to 40," Dooley said. "That's how many I babysit."

Michelle Leonard

Michelle Leonard joined the Woodbury Bulletin staff in November, 2014, after 14 years covering news for the Bulletin's sister publication, the Farmington Rosemount Independent Town Pages.  Michelle earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Mass Communications: News-Editorial from Mankato State University in 1991. She is an active member of the American Legion Auxiliary Clifford Larson Unit 189 of Farmington, and served as the 2014-15 Third District President to the American Legion Auxiliary Department of Minnesota. Michelle is also the volunteer coordinator for the Minnesota Newspaper Museum which is open annually during the Minnesota State Fair. She has earned Minnesota Newspaper Association awards in Investigative Reporting, Local News Coverage, Feature Photography and Column Writing. 

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