In 1974, Tom Luedtke was hired at the San Diego Zoo as a part-time summer worker in the Building and Grounds Department. Before working at the Zoo, Tom’s previous job paid $2.10 per hour. The Zoo boosted Tom up to $2.30 per hour. By September of 1974, Tom went full time on a winter work crew, and his pay went up to the grand amount of $3.65 per hour. Tom says he was in “hog heaven” (and that was before we had so many pigs at the Zoo!) Tom was hired to a permanent tree trimmer position in 1976. After five years trimming trees, he moved into gardening.
Working in Fern Canyon, Tom was in charge of helping to make those gardens what guests see today, a simulated rain forest, peaceful and serene, and the only area in the Zoo specifically dedicated to displaying plants. He planted many small ferns into the recycled concrete walls, a tedious job but one that turned a stark wall into a lush vertical garden.
When Tiger River opened in 1988, Tom joined the team in that area. After six months in Tiger River (left), he returned to the Horticulture Department, joined the “Detail Crew” (now called Landscape Installation Maintenance Staff, or LIMS) and remains on that crew today. Over the years, Tom has become a highly valued member of the Horticulture team. Besides having an incredible breadth of experience and knowledge, he is also one of the hardest workers I know. From fine pruning to operating heavy equipment, Tom’s experience is indispensable when it comes to moving plants and trees to new locations, or in placing large landscape items like boulders or boxed trees into a garden.
Working at the Zoo for all these years has been a “phenomenal experience” Tom exclaims. He enjoys the creativity aspect. He relishes turning unremarkable landscapes into showcase gardens and working with nature to create something beautiful. While being interested in many types of plants, in particular Tom is drawn to the caudiciforms (plants with swollen bases), or anything unique, rare, or bizarre.
Mychael McNeeley is a lead gardener at the San Diego Zoo.
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