In a lush landscape populated by colorful flowers, exotic shrubs and funky-looking succulents, there are no sounds except chirping birds in the oak trees overhead and the gentle hum of sprinklers. Here, the buds of plants anticipate the coming spring where they will bloom into full-fledged flowers. The only people around to appreciate this refreshing escape from the real world are its caretakers.

On the same campus, students walk briskly down the halls, one eye on the ground in front of them and the other on their cell phone. They sit in class or in the library, legs jittering and brows furrowed. It’s only the beginning of winter quarter and the air is filled with anxiety. Most of them are ignorant of the oasis hidden in the desert that is the stressful world of academia.

Alone, Cal Poly’s Leaning Pine Arboretum’s manager Chris Wassenberg quietly strolls down the walking paths, supervising the growth of the garden’s residents.
 “It’s definitely a well-kept secret,” Wassenberg said.

A campus oasis

The Leaning Pine Arboretum, located on the north side of campus behind the Environmental Horticulture Science (EHS) facility, serves as an educational tool for horticulture and botany students, as well as a beautiful destination for anyone looking for a brief release from reality.

Some students, such as environmental management and protection senior Caitlin Bergin, take time out of their day to relax and enjoy nature’s gifts.

“It’s really quiet and peaceful,” Bergin said. “I go up there to read and get away from people. It’s sort of out of the way for students, so they sometimes don’t notice or have time to go, but I really like it.”

Even Wassenberg said the arboretum’s biggest problem is being difficult to find. After you make it to the Poly Plant Shop, you have to follow signs through the greenhouses at the EHS facility in order to find it, he said.

Food science senior and Poly Plant Shop employee Hannah Drasil said she sometimes enjoys spending her free time at the arboretum.

“It’s a great place to go walk around,” Drasil said. “I’ll go up there and have my lunch. People come up here and have no idea we’re here. It’s a great resource. The arboretum is a great way to see another aspect of Cal Poly.”

The growth of the arboretum has been a slow but steady process, evolving into what it is today from years of classes and senior projects. To students studying botany, horticulture or landscape architecture, the arboretum is an outdoor laboratory where they can work closely with the plants that they’re studying.

“It’s all very hands-on,” Wassenberg said. “It’s the ultimate Cal Poly ‘Learn by Doing’ experience.”

The arboretum boasts a diverse display of plant species that can be found in the Mediterranean climates around the world. Each of the gardens has species native to Australia, New Zealand, Chile, South Africa, the Mediterranean Basin and California. Student employees work part-time on their respective gardens.

“We try to focus on landscape plants that do well in the landscape or garden setting,” Wassenberg said. “We’re really trying to show you plants that are well-suited to this environment.”

Along the garden paths, each species is labeled. There are signs designed to educate visitors on the species’ backgrounds. Some signs even have phone numbers students can call to hear recorded audio information about a specific species.

The Leaning Pine Arboretum is utilized in many other ways besides an educational tool for students. The arboretum’s lawn space, barbecue pit and gazebo allow campus clubs and departments to use it as a venue for special events.

The horticulture and crop science department (HCS) graduation ceremony has traditionally been held at the arboretum, as well as various faculty luncheons and alumni events.

“Our department’s graduation has become very popular within the department because of the personalized location,” Wassenberg said.

Last year, more than one thousand people attended the HCS graduation, which is a tight fit for the arboretum’s lawn space.

In April, Cal Poly’s Renewable Energy Club held a solar-powered concert at the arboretum.

It is equipped to handle a variety of events for campus groups, but as a resource, the arboretum remains generally unknown.

“Nobody knows it’s here, so I don’t get a lot of requests from clubs to do things,” Wassenberg said.

The unknown amphitheater

As a response to the growing popularity of the arboretum as an event venue, the HCS department began an amphitheater construction project specifically designed for this function.

“(The arboretum) is a great space, but it wasn’t actually purposely designed as an event space,” Wassenberg said. “The amphitheater is a space that is designed specifically for events.”

Jason Lewis, a sustainable landscape horticulture professor, is an overseer of the new amphitheater being created south of the arboretum. He said it can be used for events ranging from graduation ceremonies to plays and anything in between.

“It does have electricity running through the bottom, so there have been talks of movie nights and concerts, stuff like that,” Lewis said. “There’s a lot of different ways we can go with it.”

The amphitheater is already fitted with a barbecue pit, and there are plans to create a stage with trees behind.

“We’ll gradually transition the graduation ceremony down there,” Wassenberg said. “By June it will be done, but it’s still a young landscape. It’ll still be a couple years before the landscape looks complete with bigger trees. We’ll see what that evolves into as far as what types of events we’re allowed to do there.”

The amphitheater’s construction has been an ongoing process built through class projects, such as turfgrass management and irrigation labs. Like the arboretum, the amphitheater’s construction is an educational experience for students taking landscape architecture and horticulture classes.

The HCS department hopes the arboretum and amphitheater will eventually be connected through garden pathways, with an entrance more accessible to the general public in order to make the EHS facility more visitor-friendly.

“The idea is to have gardens that connect the amphitheater around to the unused back areas so you can walk through a nice landscape, and then to tie that straight into Via Carta for a public entrance,” Wassenberg said. “It’ll be planned like a public garden.”

Currently, the easiest way to get to the arboretum is through the facility’s greenhouses. But the EHS facility has the potential to be a place that the students and public can enjoy in many different ways from a peaceful study space to a club luncheon or even a concert. The first step is to let everyone know that this area of campus exists.

“Our first job is to be a resource for our students,” Wassenberg said. “That’s part of why we’re a well-kept secret, because we haven’t tried to market ourselves. Our first mandate is for education for our department. It’s evolved into something people love and want to see.

Whether it be to check out the progress of the new amphitheater or to enjoy the natural scenery, Wassenberg said the Leaning Pine Arboretum has something to offer everyone.

“One of the big things that people on our campus use this space for — and I want people to know about it, but I’d be hesitant to really exploit it and market it to get people up here — is that people come up here to escape from that,” Wassenberg said, pointing toward campus.

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Exotic Plants at the arboretum

The almond tree, or prunus dulcis is one of the only fruit trees that blooms in the winter time. The hot summers of the eastern Mediterranean basin make it dormant in the summer and bloom in the late winter. Small white flowers emerge from purple-tinged branches that reach overhead. Not to mention they provide a delicious and nutritious snack.

The arboretum’s Aloe and Palm garden is a small section dedicated to palm trees and succulents. Succulent plants are water-retaining plants that are adapted to dry environments, like a cactus. The succulent genus echeveria are typically short or small, but have some colorful and funny-looking blooms. They don’t take up much space in a personal garden and they’re easy to maintain.

The South Africa garden has some of the showiest plants in the arboretum. The genus Leucospermum are tall, leafy shrubs with dense, round, fuzzy flowers that are prominently shaped and colored. Like other Mediterranean plants, these bizarre plants bloom in the late winter.


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