well it’s been twenty four years

since I first stepped in the Strybing Arboretum and botanical gardens

and started weedin the area known as cape province south africa

its been twenty four years

since I was hired to work alongside

master Don Mahoney in the nursery

taking out the trash, cleaning the corrugated roofs of algae with a long brush

driving the loaded electric cart up and down, watering the plants

its been twenty four years

since I planted the shrubs and trees in the childrens garden out back

with little kids alongside digging

while the red tailed hawk tore apart a gopher on the pine tree overhead

kids screaming and full of excitement

its been twenty four years

since general King Sip took me on as an intern

and encouraged me in my horticultural pursuits

twenty four years

since I met my wife working in the garden

marrying in the garden

weeding and planting in the garden

twenty four years later

i am still here, doing the same ol thing

volunteering to

pulling out long vines of blackberry

sweeping the pathways clean

weeding the basin of prized specimens

amending the poor sandy soil

keeping the love alive

for plants

for people



the curator was a botanist

the curator knew their plants and families

this is

very important for a botanical garden

botany, plant identification, an eye for the flowers

back in the day

there was a gentleman named Bian Tan

f _ _ _ing amazing that is how I can describe his skills

he be there in the office, going about his business, smiling

door is open

you just go right in like I got a question about this plant

he give you the name right away if it was the least bit common

or if it was some obscure weird creature from the hinterland tropics of asia or caribbean

he would look at it, look at it some more

and say

its this family, lets find it

and he would pull one of them tomes off the shelf, flip to the page, and boom


let me emphasize this

what Bian possessed is accumulated over years and years and years

still today, no app can surpass this breadth or this complexity

of the natural world

he knew his families of flowering plants

he was kind and present and knowledgeable

willing to share

loved plants



the nursery was full of happiness and joy

Dr Don Mahoney was in rare form

the eye of the storm

the host of the party

the arbitrator of all questions and disputes

plants or human related

that being questions of how to cultivate and grow a cloud forest rubiaceous bush

that being arguments that arose over territory and table space in the greenhouse

at the communal pizza and chips lunch

Don Mahoney was in excellent form

eating the burrito he has eaten religiously for some thirty odd years from gordo’s

all the volunteers would be crowded about the table

gossiping, laughing, but mostly asking questions

about plants

and Don, because he loved plants so

and spent all his days reading and potting up and watching the weather channel

knew the answers

and the volunteers were hilarious

mostly ladies but a few gentlemen

the median age was about 82 years old or so

Ora Walker grew the roses and passion vines

Ora had the hahah grin of a little girl

who bought a bunch of plants from home depot, to sell at our botanical garden plant sales

at double the price hahahaha

Ora had the grin of a green thumb

who accidentally grew cannabis in her san mateo county back yard hahaha

Then, there was Virginia Obrien of the shrub section with Chuck as a helper

Margaret, 90+ years old, who drove to san francisco from walnut creek for her begonias

in a little red nissan

Jean and her salvias

Liz and her trees and her attendant Jason

Nan and Jim of the rhodies, still of the rhodies

Margery Edgren who piloted the california native section of buckwheats and ceanothus

and many more

back in the day

the nursery was not well funded

was not state of the art

was janky around the edges, plenty DIY

the nursery was built in the coldest lowest part of the garden

the greenhouse roof was asbestos

the hoop houses were hand made of PVC frames, scrap lumber and 2-5mm plastic

the upper growing area was terraced with old logs and found concrete block

you would look at all of this and be like

“this is the grow area of one of the premier botanical gardens in the country?!”

back in the day

we had less frequent plant sales

we took cash from customers as they stood in line

receipts were written by hand

and we were happy to make 1500 dollars at a sale

1500 dollars !!!

fern section made 100 dollars, natives made 300, rhododendrons made 50

and so on

that is to say, we really did not make a whole lot of money


in spite of the less than ideal growing conditions

in spite of the lack of cash flow

we grew beautiful adapted strong plants in field conditions

we grew rare specimens and introduced them to the bay area horticultural community

The lines were long, but the mood was friendly

It was not a mad dash of gimme gimme gimme

It was pure joy

the volunteers were the heart the core of plant knowledge

the volunteers were the living libraries accumulated under hundreds of years of 

soil and roots and petioles and perlite and dirt under the finger nails

we enjoyed watching plants grow and shared this passion

this love for sprouting seeds, elongating stems, and bursting flowers



the botanical garden society was in thick with teaching and learning

thick i tell ya it was the center stage of all education activities

plants related

for San Francisco bay area

classes, conferences, visiting botanists, seed exchanges, field trips, travels abroad, plant doctor, newsletters, the works!

these names to me are legendary now, but likely forgotten

unless I jot them down

Kitty Fisher, Betsy Flack, Margaret of the bookstore, and Barbara Pitschel of the library

To me, Kitty was the best of the best, and exemplary of what it was like

back in the day

okay let me just get this out of the way first

she was black, she colored, not white

she started as a secretary at the botanical garden society staff

so she is no phd botanist, she did not get the job cause she got friends in high places

she was not brought in for the purpose of development and fund raising

she not one of them sit around and tell people what to do kinda person

she not one them bitter looking shut yourself in the office

one of them all day look at a computer person who is there because

it pays good, its a ‘job’, it a non profit

no no no, she was motivated by other forces

she was brought in to type and take notes and keep the office tidy

what was refreshing though was her attitude and soul

she had a purpose, she cared about plants and people

so with time and opportunity

she became in charge of the education department at the garden

and I would see her

copying the handouts for the instructors

making the coffee and tea for the students

cleaning up afterwards

early morning, late nights weekends

always organizing structuring and getting ready

for the next Dr Glenn Keator or Dr Frank Almeda or Dr Chen from Kunming Institute in China

keeping things rollling

keeping the care and love for the garden alive

with community involvement and


all heart




working for the city as a gardener

even at the botanical garden

seemed a lot looser of a gig

sure there are some gardeners who

treated it like a slacker city job

get away with what you can

do the minimum possible

take extra long breaks and lunches

suck up to the supervisor to get extra benefits

sit on your phone

abuse the sick time and holiday time

play the system to their own benefit

but most of the gardeners

are in the botanical garden

because they love plants and love diversity

because they love frogs and hawks and spiders and the whole bit

because its not just mow and blow and pick up the trash

you actually get to grow plants and talk to them everyday

back in the day

the gardeners were respected for their plant knowledge and authority

the gardeners were the caretakers and the perpetual presence on the beat

the gardeners knew what sprinkler valves were working

the gardeners knew how to keep the magnolia in good health

a gardener knew what it took

to care for three thousand unique specimens in a six acre beat

the gardeners knew how to

maintain myriad of water features

care for and cull the sick and dying trees

how to pull three tons of pond weeds from the pond wearing waders

and not drown in the mud or pull a hernia in ones back

how to haul thirty tons of decomposed granite and not get hurt

shovel up shovel down cushman up cushman down

because of the vast scope of responsibility and skill required of a gardener

the botanical garden gardeners

back in the day

were given much independent authority to take care of their beat

as they saw fit

they were not pushed around at every turn

to do things that were not

actually taking care of the plants

(that is the job you know, a gardener)

back in the day

the gardener’s internal drive and love for the garden

was stoked by this trust

and encouraged by the management

as a result, the garden flourished

and people worked together

not because of an external cattle prod that forced cooperation

but because of a shared love for plants, and a work ethic

that demanded it

thank you to King Sip and Terry Seefield and Jake Sigg

thank you to Mike Corbin and Steve Drosos and Steve Merrick

thank you to Andy Stone and his chainsaw

thank you to Paul of the demonstration garden rest in peace

thank you to Walt

thank you to Sue rest in peace



the managers were more relaxed

on the rec park side

the managers had field experience

field experience in working

working like with your hands and on your feet, well your brain too, but working working

not keyboard tongue sitting down working

not plantation boss slave driver working

the bosses came up from the bottom

the bosses once worked as an apprentice as a gardener as a supervisor as a superintendent

weeding planting watering blowing pruning picking up garbage raking

that made them more understanding

of the work that gardening requires

they knew the difficulty that comes with

getting up early, picking up human feces

the challenges of keeping your joints from breaking down due to repetitive labor

the importance of leading through action not just words

they had realistic expectations

of people and budgets

they understood the specialness

of an urban botanical garden in a metropolis like san francisco

they were more relaxed


and kind

you could see it in the sparkle of their eyes

in their down to earth body language

in the way they addressed you as an equal as a friend or even as a subordinate

they did not approach the garden

as an ego project

as a stock broker real estate developer

as another trophy to be had, a game to be played and won

as a war to be fought with tactic strategy and control

they approached the garden

with respect and love



on the society side

the managers were more hands off

(the botanical garden is governed by the city – a public entity

in cahoots with the botanical garden society – a private non profit)

the society was responsible for the curatorial, education and community aspects

the city was responsible for the physical upkeep and maintenance of the garden

even back in the day

I hardly ever saw the society directors in the garden

this is because their primary focus is fund raising

so some of them

could care less if they were fund raising for

starving kids in africa or homeless in tijuana or disadvantaged kids in the ghetto

the issue at hand is money money money

flowers and kids and gardens are the backdrop and the hook

to raise money money money

and when the money doesnt come through, or you get burned out

or a higher better paying job comes up

or you get caught with your pants down corruption milking the public system

you go, you cut your losses and go

back in the day

the directors would change every few years or so

the development staff would change every few years or so

this is natural

if you dont love plants and dont love people who love plants

you will keep moving and moving and moving on

to the next green pasture

its just a job, remember, its just a job



habitat gardening was looked upon in a positive manner

at the botanical garden

there was the recognition and smarts

that left patches of ground covers and weeds

brown seed heads and fallow ground and open sands

dense natural form shrubs and tree branches (their skirts) that touched the ground

remember the hundreds of quail that sought refuge here in the garden

the only best safest part of golden gate park?

k cooing k cooing as they raced throughout the menzies garden?

remember the hundreds of damsel flies that used to land on your fingers at the conifer pond?

the ones that laid their eggs on the water primrose?

remember the red legged frogs that hid under the wooden bridge, the hundreds of tadpoles that captured the imagination of children?


its the dense leafy tips touching another’s feathering canopy

its the unsprayed meadow of ripe seeds and humid understory of rhizomatous perennials

its the snag of a tree for the coopers hawk to sit on

the hollow of an agave stalk for the sap sucker to raise babies

habitat is magical and beautiful nature

I remember Barbara Deutsch the butterfly lady

she serenaded us with countless larvae and host plants

painted ladies swalllow tails checkerspots skippers alight aflight

in addition to the flowers

Barbara gifted us workers with burritos and an invitation to see her potrero hill serpentine outcrop

I sure appreciated this – thank you Barbara thanks for being here!

well, for those of you that do not remember or never learned this

know that clean and green

tidy and weed free parks

come at a cost

and I am not just talking about pesticides or hurt knees and shoulders

and a stress filled army sergeant like whip cracking control minded supervisor

the cost is the broken disjointed lack of connection to the lives around us

the cost is the lost of wonder and joy of discovery

the cost is a lack of tolerance and ability to see the beauty of the world

the cost is real, and we pay for it in subtle ways that ends in a condition called

soul suck

the cost is costing our kids, that is what it comes down to

the kids



there were rules of engagement in the garden

these rules were posted

no picking the flower no pruning the trees

stay on the paths dont go in the flower beds

no active sports on the lawns and no bikes and trikes and things on the paths

and so on

the point of all the rules

is that a botanical garden is for the plants

a delightful spot for people to appreciate the plants

a place where trees don’t have to worry about their roots becoming compacted by stompage

a place where delicate and seldom seen shoots and bulbs can emerge unharmed

a place where you can meet plants from the other side of the world

there is plenty of space

in the rest of the park

for human centered activities

the botanical garden is for plants, pure and simple

you might even say that it is a temple for the trees

a church for the flowers, a synagogue for the birds and the bees

back in the day

everyone helped out

to make sure people followed the rules

back in the day

rules were rules

we weren’t afraid to call each other on it

we did not think discipline was a bad word

we did not think that rules are ‘negative’ and that we should always be ‘positive’

back in the day

people felt shamed and embarrassed if they broke the rules

they would not start yelling back at you and giving you the finger or pulling rank

in addition to breaking the rules

back in the day

they would not have that fixed uncaring gaze

they would not ignore you look right past you

as if you were not worthy

as if

the whole world was a screen the whole world was a phone

instead, they would look sorry, say sorry, and stop what they were doing

back in the day

people agreed and worked together

to protect the garden and its plants

for everyone to enjoy



you did not cut things down, unless they were sick and dead and a danger to the public

if you wanted more planting room

there was plenty of stuff that died of natural causes, of fungal pathogens and beetles

of el nino storms and winter saturated wetness

the big coast live oak in the native cali garden meadow comes to mind

as does the redwood tree and big leaf maple by the nursery

another tree that fell

was the silver tree full of good seed in the south africa section bout year 2014

on and on, nature takes its own toll

over time over the years

you do not have to cut stuff down for no good cause

you could prune it hard, you could shape it

but you would not go start chopping chopping chopping

because it takes time to grow

because it is cool to see an old thick tree in the city

because time and age is not something that you can make or sell or speed up or slow down

because we are looking out for kids of today and the future

this is called being conservative, this is conservation

well to be fair, some directors did cut stuff down for control or for design

like that sixty or seventy year old healthy holly tree in the front of the county fair building

relegated to the wood chipper by then director Scot Medbury

I still remember its clear no knots trunk and gleaming white wood cross section

but besides this

back in the day

there was very little ax work done

there was room for the trees

the trees were left to grow big and grow tall

the trees were left to flower in abundance and swirl their roots deep

the issue was not a better more improved shiny and new landscape able to host

a million visitors and two food trucks and a billion video icon likes subscribes

it was about the trees

back in the day

the trees


Change is constant in nature

change is the way

there is only one way

and it goes from here forward, it does not go backwards

back in the day

back in the day had its problems too

I am sure I left out some details

mistakes and omissions and interpersonal interactions that were not

totally harmonious


there are many good things from the

good old days in the botanical garden

which if not recognized documented understood evaluated and practiced

in the context of time and nature and the toil of humanity

will lead to a poverty of the senses

a despoiling of the garden as a paradise and sanctuary

destruction of peace and tranquility of the human mind

and make our children into

slaves and zombies

slaves to cold hearted stiff eyed task masters with no joy in their heart

slaves to the ego of data and cash and resume building

zombies of hard wired machines with no quivering soul

zombies to false visions and fake ideas and lies and more lies and more lies

that is why a garden is important

because it is true and full of life and requires intense constant work

to work in a garden

you have to be present

you have to be humble and knowledgeable

you have to be willing to listen, engage, learn, share, and work together

you have to have love

that is the most important ingredient of them all

the thing that surpasses all the others

love for plants and love for people