Don Engebretson was born in a barn, a pole barn, an old pole barn built down by the sea.

At least, that’s what his parents, Anders and Uma Engebretson, always told him whenever young Don would ask what body of water it was that spread out below their log hut clinging precariously to the rocky shore. “That’s the Bering Sea,” his father would reply. “And this great land is the Chukchi Peninsula, the eastern-most tip of the vast Siberian territory to which your mother and I arrived, lo those many decades ago, tired, penniless, spent, and naked, having escaped the clutches of the mad Bolshevics, and their silly trained monkeys.”

Years later Engebretson would discover that the approximately twenty-acre body of pea-green water was in fact Moose Lake, one of seven Moose Lakes dotting the Northern Minnesota wilderness in a line running from Beaver Crossing to Kettle Falls. Anders and Uma were kidders.

An only child, Don spent his boyhood summers fishing, hiking, felling trees, and helping his father unload the shiny glass bottles filled with brown liquid from the bottom of the canoe that would appear in misty early mornings along the banks of the nearby Rainy River. Don and his father would carry the bottles to the back of the family car, a 1956 Rambler Station wagon. When the canoe was empty, his father would hand money to the silent, stern paddler, then playfully slap the head of the jovial paddler in the bow. Anders was gregarious, for a Norwegian; in an elevator, he looked at the other guy’s shoes.

It was in his teens that Don began to develop his love for the outdoors and its magnificent flora. One autumn day, he became so distracted while sketching the intricate form of Swamp Smartweed (Polygonum coccineum) in flower that he lost all track of time. First evening descended upon him, then an early-season, three-week blizzard, during which time he survived by gnawing on wild ginger root (Asarum canadense) and drinking from a few of the shiny glass bottles he had hidden about the woods over the years.

As the storm abated, Don found himself so emaciated and disoriented as a result of this sustenance that he wandered about the woods aimlessly for three years, until one night when he glimpsed the glow from a great light in the distance. Six hours later, near daybreak, he breached the city limits of Thunder Bay, Ontario. He was nineteen years old.

Unshaven, penniless, and never having spent a day in school, Don felt fortunate when he was hired immediately as a blackjack dealer at the nearby Sabaskong Tribal Casino and Bingo Palace. He spent the next twenty-four years dealing blackjack, attempting to hold down food, looking in wonder behind televisions, and learning to walk in shoes.

By 1997, Don had saved enough money from “tokes” (blackjack vernacular for tips) that he was able to pay off his tent and buy a bus ticket back to the United States, for he knew that somewhere within his native shores lay his destiny. At the Thunder Bay bus station, he pulled from his pockets an odd assortment of American quarters, Canadian loonies, poker chips, bingo vouchers, pull-tabs, and slot tokens. “Give me a bus ticket to America, as far as this meager wampum will take me,” he said at the counter. His stash totaled nearly sixty Canadian dollars.

Following the instructions neatly written on his arm by the station agent, Don boarded the Express Liner to St. Paul, Minnesota, transferred to the 61A to south Minneapolis, then the 52B to Bloomington, transferring finally to the 18E running west to the tiny hamlet of Deephaven, Minnesota. The bus wheezed to a stop. “Why are you stopping, kind sir?” asked Don. “End of the line, pal,” intoned the driver.

Don turned to thank the driver for throwing him so smartly to the sidewalk, but the bus was already pulling away. Turning, he saw a small, hand-lettered sign adorning the door to the modest brick building before him. “Writer Wanted,” it said.

Don entered the building and walked down the stairs to a door marked Lakeshore Weekly News. He knocked. “How many ‘Ls’ in ‘parallel’,” boomed a voice. “Uh … three,” stammered Don, guessing. “You’re hired,” yelled the voice behind the door. “Get in here.”

Don entered the office to find a young, red-faced, husky man sitting behind a desk wearing shorts, a Green Bay Packers jersey, eating popcorn and smoking two cigarettes. “We need a new gardening columnist. Pay is forty bucks a column, five hundred words, every two weeks. Don’t write anything fancy I can’t fix with spell-check, don’t piss off anybody in Edina, and don’t get us sued.” “But I’ve never written about gardening,” confessed Don. The editor eyed him suspiciously, then broke into a grin. “Good, a kidder. Well then, this is indeed your lucky day. We’ve entered a new age of journalism, my boy. Make it up.”

Don began writing his column that day, in the spring of 1997. A year later, an HGTV producer living in the Twin Cities and familiar with the column called Don to ask if he had any on-camera experience. Thinking back to his years as a blackjack dealer, when his every move was captured and recorded by the “eye in the sky” video cameras of the casino, Don replied, truthfully, that he had worked on camera for twenty-four years. “You’re hired,” said the producer, and Don became the gardening correspondent for HGTV’s TIPical Mary Ellen show.

Today, in addition to working with HGTV, Don is the monthly gardening columnist for Mpls.St.Paul Magazine, field editor and garden scout
for  Better Homes & Gardens, and frequent contributor to Northern Gardener,   StarTribune, Garden Deck & Landscape and other publications. He has appeared on PBS TV’s HOMETIME program in addition to WCCO TV, KARE 11 TV, and KSTP TV, in the Twin Cities.

Don Engebretson is the recipient of a 1999 Minnesota Newspaper Association Better Newspaper Award, a 2000 and 2001 Garden Writers Association of America (GWAA) Quill & Trowel Award, a 2001 Minnesota Magazine Association Silver Award of Merit, and a 2002 GWAA Garden Globe award. He lives in Deephaven with his wife, Victoria, his son, Elliot, and his two cats, Anders and Uma.

And though now published nationally, he still makes it up.

You can visit The Renegade Gardener’s web site at www.renegadegardener.com