An unlikely green thumb
With ropey muscles, sun-burnished arms, and dirt-smudged jeans and t-shirts, C.J. Drenth looks like she’s lived her whole life in the sun surrounded by flowers.
She lets loose a dramatic, cigarette-edged laugh at the suggestion.
“My mother couldn’t plant anything and couldn’t grow anything. I used to take care of her houseplants. I never cared much about plants,” Drenth says. “In ’87, I bought a house and so then, I started planting things in my yard. I’d go plant something because I liked it and stick it in the ground and figure out what it does.”
As the gardener educator for Kalamazoo in Bloom, Drenth oversees the planting of the flowerbeds in Bronson Park, the Kalamazoo County Courthouse, Kalamazoo City Hall, Arcadia Creek Festival Site, the Portage District Library and Portage City Center. It’s a task that takes about 20,000 plants each year.
“I don’t want it to be the same every year, so I try to come up with a different plan for each bed,” Drenth said. “It’d be a heck of a lot easier to plant the same thing each year but it’s boring.”
She speaks her words with emphasis, which hints at her long history in theater at the Kalamazoo Civic Auditorium and Portage Central and Portage Northern high schools, where she was a stage manager. That theater background was part of what led to her role with Kalamazoo in Bloom, which is not just as a gardener but flower and gardening cheerleader, she says.
Drenth is one of two employees for Kalamazoo in Bloom, along with Monika Trahe, executive director. Trahe admits she’s not much of a gardener yet, but she’s in the park each spring helping coordinate the planting along with Drenth and hundreds of volunteers.
Before COVID, all of the planting in Bronson Park would be done in one day, with 500-600 volunteers descending on downtown to stick everything in the ground. Portage would take another half day. After the pandemic hit and large groups were discouraged, the planting was spread out over several days, so volunteers could have more room to work while maintaining their distance from each other. In addition to those volunteers, Trahe said there are hundreds more who help Kalamazoo in Bloom as sponsors for each bed and bed adopters who help maintain the beds throughout the summer.
But Trahe says it’s Drenth who creates the vision for the flower beds each year, creating the colorful centerpieces to Kalamazoo and Portage’s summers.
Drenth spent the majority of her working life as a secretary, for more than two decades, starting as a legal secretary in the Barrister Building. She worked at companies such as American National Bank, James River, the Gilmore Brothers, Biggs Gilmore, and PlazaCorp Realty. And then she found herself laid off and wondering what would come next.
She ended up going to work at Wenke Greenhouses.
“It was my midlife job change,” Drenth said. “I’ll tell you what: It was hard. I’ve never been overweight. I have been thin — but being thin and being in shape are not the same thing. After 26 years of sitting in a chair, going to Wenke’s and being on my feet all day on concrete — my body hurt so bad. All I could do was go home and sit in the bathtub.”
But a few years in, she was working in the greenhouse one hot August, wearing a tank top as she took care of the plants, and a customer sidled up to her and asked, “If I work here am I going to look like you?”
She flexes her bicep. The hours hauling plants and bags of mulch and dirt, and digging and moving pots and plants had given her those trademark muscles. Wenke also gave her the chance to develop much more than muscles — that was where she really started to learn about plants.
“Wenke’s would let employees take home plants. If there was a six-pack and one of the plants was dead, you couldn’t sell it, so they’d give them away to employees,” Drenth said. “I’d take them home and plant them in containers and see how they did.
“The next year, I was the best customer service rep because I had growing experience. So that was smart of the store, to let employees do that. It helped me because then I learned. I could say, ‘I planted this last year and it got to be 8 feet tall. It’s my new favorite.’ And I sold it every time.”
She also completed the Master Gardener program in 2008. At the same time, Wenke’s would offer gardening classes to customers, and Drenth taught several. Former Kalamazoo in Bloom board member Mary Van Tassel attended one of her classes, and when the board was looking for a new gardener, she thought of Drenth.
Kalamazoo in Bloom started in 1984 as Kalamazoo County Flowerfest, which was seen as a way to promote Kalamazoo’s role as a leader in the bedding plant industry. The organization planted flowers but also organized a three-day festival with concerts and entertainment. “It really put the emphasis more on the festival and lost the focus of the flowers,” Trahe said.
In 2003, it changed its name to Kalamazoo in Bloom and returned the focus to planting flowers around the community. The group has won awards from America in Bloom and Keep Michigan Beautiful. It supports a positive view of the community through beautification, said Trahe, who has been with the group since 2011, a year before Drenth was hired.
“We really rely on the community members to come out and plant and be bed adopters. They’re investing their time in their community. That tells people this is a place where you want to live,” she said. “I mean it’s something you might take for granted every year. Oh, yeah, the flowers are out; that’s great. But if they were not out there, you’d certainly notice.”
As Drenth wanders the park during the recent planting, she offers direction to the volunteers, coordinates with City of Kalamazoo parks staff, who she says are invaluable partners (along with the city staff in Portage and Western Michigan University facilities staff) and chats with passersby, like the young couple who stop to chat.
Drenth says they used to be homeless and spent time in the park, but they are now the owners of an RV and have plans to drive out west. She said she often talks with those who spend their days in the park, so they feel connected to the flowers and the work and the beauty.
Each bed is work, but it is also a creative effort. While the beds used to be designed by committee, Drenth has taken over the bed design even though she says with a smile that when she was hired she was told all she had to do was “water the plants.”
“I look at color and texture varieties and height variety,” she said. ” And now, it’s even more important to look for things that are heat- and drought-tolerant. I can’t plant anything that will fade in the sun because we’re warming up. I also take into consideration my bed adopters. I get low-maintenance plants, so you don’t have to deadhead the plants and nip the dead blooms. I don’t want them to be a lot of work. It’s just easier that way.”
One change that Drenth made a few years into her tenure was the size of the plants she ordered. Instead of ordering flats of small plants, she now purchases 4-inch pots. They’re faster and easier to plant – and they look more impressive more quickly, with an “instant garden” quality. She charts each bed before ordering and there are no longer excess plants at the end of the planting season.
Riverstreet Flowerland plants the containers that line the Kalamazoo Mall. The Kalamazoo flowers are ordered from Napps Greenhouse, while the Portage flowers come from Corstange Greenhouse. Drenth goes to Napps in the early spring to tend the seedlings. “I get to start all my babies so I have real ownership of them.”
Her mom didn’t have a greenthumb and Drenth didn’t discover hers right away, but now it’s part of who she is — from the dirt under her nails to the catalogs that serve as her bedtime reading material. She says that maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising.
“I recently found out that my ancestors registered on Ellis Island to be celery farmers on North Westnedge Avenue. The greenhouse I work in is on North Westnedge Avenue. So, it’s in my genes.”
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