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Mystic Seaport gardener celebrates a half-century in the perfect job

Mystic — As a young boy growing up in Stonington, Steve Sisk would venture into the woods near his home and begin landscaping the forest. He’d also dig up trees and bushes and replant them in his yard. And he was the only one in his large family who liked cutting the lawn.

So, it was little surprise that when Sisk was a junior at Stonington High School, his uncle helped him land a job at Mystic Seaport Museum, as what else but the museum gardener.

That was more than 50 years ago and Seaport employees two weeks ago celebrated Sisk’s half-century of employment at the museum with a ceremony in which they gave him a wooden sea chest fashioned by various Seaport artisans.

Sisk, 67, said it doesn’t seem that long ago that he arrived at the Seaport for his first day of work.

“Time does fly,” he said.

Sisk and garden supervisor Julia Jankowski are assisted by a small army of 29 volunteers who care for the 17 acres of museum grounds. Sisk said they are always planning two seasons ahead for what will have to be done.

Their work depends on the time of the year. Currently they are digging up plants that cannot tolerate the coming cold and bringing them inside the greenhouse, cutting back plants and preparing garden beds for the winter. They also will be making holiday wreaths and greenery with volunteers.

At other times of the year, they grow flowers and vegetables in the greenhouse, replant garden beds and assess what went well the past season and what did not.

For instance, this year, Sisk said, wildlife decimated the museum’s vegetable garden. “We had a terrible problem this year with deer, woodchucks and rabbits. All three of them decided to gang up on us,” he joked.

He said another important part of his and Jankowski’s work is interpreting what a 19th century garden looked like and how to replicate that in the museum village. They study historic archives and photographs.

“We’re trying to get the right plan for the time period,” he said. “We're trying to make it as accurate as possible.”

From April to July, Sisk said his job is seven days a week as he tends to the plants and landscaping.

When he travels, he is always looking at gardens to get ideas for what may work at the Seaport, as well as being inspired by magazines and books. He and Jankowski maintain written records and photographs of plantings across the museum.

As for the attraction of being the museum gardener, Sisk summed it up simply: “I just love being outside. In my spare time I’m hiking and taking pictures. I can’t imagine being inside in a building especially on a warm summer day, so I’m lucky to do what I do. I can’t picture myself doing anything else.”

Asked if he has the perfect job, he quipped, “If it’s not, it’s too late now.”

He said the other attraction of his job is the people who work and volunteer at the museum.

“They’re not your co-workers. They are your close personal friends. That’s what makes it enjoyable coming here each and every morning,” he said. “I’ve made so many friends here over the past 50 years. People I met my first day I’m still in touch with. They keep asking me when I will retire.”

If Sisk continues working for another three years, he would eclipse the late Howard Davis’ record for length of time working at the museum.

He says he has no plans to retire, and offered an example of why.

He said he remembers taking a morning break with Jankowski one warm day this spring. As they looked out over the calm Mystic River, boats glided past.

“You can’t beat this," Sisk told her.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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