Meet Our Staff: Gardener Tom Luedtke

Posted at 1:15 pm June 27, 2008 by Mychael McNeeley

 Tom LuedtkeIn 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.

 Tiger RiverWhen 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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10 Responses to “Meet Our Staff: Gardener Tom Luedtke”

  1. Joan says:

    It’s wonderful to learn about the dedicated workers at the zoo. All of these workers help to create a positive and enriching environment for the animals. They all deserve our thanks!

    Thank you Tom!!!

  2. Lee in Vancouver says:

    To Tom and all the other gardeners – you do such a fabulous job! Yes, we all come to the zoo to see the animals, but the gounds are fabulous too. There is something to see at every turn. When you need shade – it is there; when you need sun – it is available; when you are walking from one exhibit to another – there is always something to see and enjoy. Yes, I love the animals but also enjoy just looking at the amazing flowers, vines, trees, and ground cover. Keep up the good work. It is appreciated by everyone even if we don’t say it often enough.

  3. Rose N. says:

    Hi Mychael – Every time we visit the Zoo one of the first things we do is to walk down Fern Canyon on our way to visit the Pandas. We really love this beautiful and tranquil place.

    Thank you for introducing Tom – now we know who is responsible for this wonderful display of unique, varied and colorful foliage in Fern Canyon.

    Your staffs hard work and skill at landscaping is evident throughout the Zoo and is always appreciated.

    Many thanks 🙂

  4. GoSanDiegoCard says:

    This is a prime example of what hard work and dedication can achieve. Tom never took his eye off the prize and it has gotten him a life long passion. I think we can all learn something from Tom. Kepp up the good work.

  5. Chris in San Diego says:

    Hey Tom,

    Can you tell me what the name of the two trees are at the top of the stairs, one on each side, when you walk down Fern Canyon? I swear the little name plate said ” yellow jacaranda” but when I do a search for it all I get is the tipuana which these trees are not! It sounds like you may have planted them many years ago, so any help is appreciated.


    Moderator’s note: The scientific name for tye yellow jacaranda is Schizolobium parahybum.

  6. Nathan Luedtke says:


    I always enjoy hearing about your illustrious, phenomenal career at the San Diego Zoo. Every time I wander around the zoo, I am so full of pride that you have been a part of such a wonderful treasure.


  7. David W. Reed says:


    I was at the Zoo this weekend with my family- we have been members for over 25 years- and noticed an interesting tree down by the bathrooms at the Mexican food & beverage center. It is loaded with blue “olives”, possibly an Elaeocarpus, and is just 15 or 20 feet North of your Zitherwood tree.

    Can you help me identify? Thanks.

    Mychael responds: It is a Chiananthus retusus.

  8. Amanda says:


    We visited the Wild Animal Park last week and, at the exit gate there was THE MOST BEAUTIFUL, fragrant, ginormous, honeysuckle-like flowers and vines all over the exit gate. What is this please??? I have googled and googled but no luck yet!

    Moderator’s Note: That’s a thriving Pyrostegia venusta, or flame vine.

  9. Tavo says:

    Thanks for all your help through out the years before my time born in 73 and thank you for comin to work everyday for the last 30 something years. pleasure it was to help you during the EO project… much love & my Respects…. Tavo

  10. Bill says:

    Thanks for all you do!