Arboretum Manager and Horticulturalist Merrill Jensen explains the changes at the Jensen-Olson Arboretum’s vegetable garden over the years. The arboretum is celebrating 10 years this Saturday. (Alex McCarthy | Juneau Empire)

Jensen-Olson Arboretum celebrates 10th anniversary

During its 10 years of existence, the Jensen-Olson Arboretum has gone from a well-kept secret to a full-blown destination, but very little has changed at the garden itself.

Arboretum Manager Merrill Jensen has managed the garden for the entire 10 years, adding little by little but trying to follow the wishes of Caroline Jensen (no relation to Merrill). Caroline gifted the arboretum to the city in 2007, with the stipulation that it not become an overrun tourist destination.

Still, around 54,000 people have visited the garden during the past decade, with more coming each year.

“Compared to the Mendenhall Visitor Center, (that’s) not a lot over that time frame,” Jensen said via email, “but Caroline’s vision was for our space to be more intimate where people can come to contemplate and quietly enjoy the space.”

This Saturday, the enjoyment might not be so quiet, as the Arboretum’s 10th birthday party begins at noon and runs until about 4 p.m. Merrill will give a tour for the first hour, talking about the history of the area. At 1 p.m., Michelle Warrenchuk and Liz Graham will lead a children’s program talking about the bugs that live in the area.

At 2 p.m., University of Alaska Southeast professor Cathy Connor will unveil the garden’s newest addition. The Word Garden, as it’s called, will include various stones with words on them that people can rearrange to make sentences or short poems. There will be words in English, Spanish, Tagalog and Tlingit. Saturday will mark its opening.

At 2:30 p.m., Parks and Recreation Director Kirk Duncan will unveil a birthday cake and serve ice cream. Acoustic band Bluegrass Holiday will begin playing at 3 p.m., finishing up around 4 p.m.

To accommodate a growing amount of visitors, the Juneau-Gastineau Rotary Club and the Friends of the Jensen-Olson Arboretum have helped raise money and put small construction projects in motion. The rotary build a small covered structure in one end of the garden that didn’t get much traffic, and now people are going there more often, Merrill said.

The next project is a 20-spot parking lot that will be built soon, possibly finished as soon as mid-September, Merrill said. It will be located near the street, and Merrill said it’s a much-needed addition.

“On sunny afternoons, it can get interesting when people park,” Merrill said as he walked around the Arboretum on Tuesday. “What finally got (the Alaska Department of Transportation) to let us do the parking lot and the right-of-way was we sent them a picture that had 50 cars that were strung out down the shoulder, people walking in the middle of the road coming up.”

The garden boasts the largest collection of primroses in North America, as certified by the American Public Gardens Association, and Merrill said the garden is the object of many plant experts’ “plant envy.” The number of primrose species has grown to about 200, and Merrill is always looking for more to add.

Even as the space expands and accommodates more people, he said he’s still careful to remain true to the founder’s vision.

“Every year we’re adding something into it,” Merrill said, “but we’re maintaining Caroline’s wishes. We’re honoring her spirit out here also.”

Know &Go

Where: Jensen-Olson Arboretum, 23035 Glacier Hwy.

Order of events

Noon: A Walk Down Memory Lane Tour, led by Merrill Jensen

1 p.m.: Bug Day Children’s Program, led by Michelle Warrenchuk and Liz Graham

2 p.m.: Ribbon cutting for The Word Garden, with Cathy Connor

2:30 p.m.: Cake and ice cream, with Kirk Duncan

3 p.m.: Live acoustic music, with Bluegrass Holiday

• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at

A Primula vialii blooms in the Jensen-Olson Arboretum on Tuesday, July 25, 2017. The arboretum boasts North America’s largest primula (primrose) collection, with about 200 varieties. (Alex McCarthy | Juneau Empire)