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Davis, California

Monday, February 26, 2024

Meet the people who keep the UC Davis Arboretum running

Learn about the community members and volunteers that work to make the Arboretum a beautiful place for visitors to enjoy


By REBEKA ZELJKO — features@theaggie.org 


The UC Davis Arboretum is a diverse natural reserve that runs along the UC Davis campus. It includes more than 20 distinct gardens that span over 100 acres, all maintained by hardworking faculty and volunteers from the Davis community. According to the UC Davis Arboretum website, the Arboretum is a great place “for visitors to informally explore the academic richness of UC Davis.”

Carmia Feldman, who is the assistant director of the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden, said the botanical gardens stand out from other natural reserves. 

“The Arboretum is unique because it is right in the heart of campus, meaning people can get here by walking or biking from the dorms or the City of Davis,” Feldman said in an email. “This nearby nature makes it an attractive and beloved open space for the campus and local community, as well as making it easily accessible to visitors from farther away.”

Feldman began working at the Arboretum during her time studying plant ecology and science education at UC Davis. 

“It was inevitable that I would get connected with the Arboretum!” Feldman said. “I started as the Education Director of the Arboretum in 2001 and was promoted to Assistant Director in 2006. I truly love how the work we do impacts our campus, community and beyond.”

Community members and students are highly involved in the Arboretum. According to their website, the Arboretum has dozens of volunteer internships and positions for students and Davis residents, all of which contribute to the projects and upkeep of the natural landscape.

Our organization, the Arboretum and Public Garden, is also unique in how we engage people through our innovative initiatives, with an emphasis on giving UC Davis students leadership growth opportunities through our Learning by Leading™ program,” Feldman said in an email. “We have over 100 students participating each year in Learning by Leading™ internships that focus on Sustainable Horticulture, Ecological Land Management and Public Horticulture & Engagement.”

One volunteer, Barbara Ohlendorf, began working in Arboretum’s teaching nursery when she retired in 2010.  

“I’ve always worked with plants,” Ohlendorf said. “It’s my hobby, it was my profession and when I retired from the university, it was a no-brainer.”

Like many others who got involved with the UC Davis Arboretum, Ohlendorf’s affinity for plants and gardening has grown into a full-time passion.

“I started in college in Wisconsin with my indoor plants, and when my plant that I was growing indoors bloomed all winter, I was hooked,” Ohlendorf said. “And at my first house, I had a garden full of zinnias, and I’ve been gardening ever since.”

Like Ohlendorf, Taylor Lewis wanted to make his love for plants his career, and now, he works as the nursery manager for the UC Davis Arboretum Teaching Nursery.

“My initial exposure was as a student [at UC Davis] going through the environmental horticulture program,” Lewis said. “I was growing my first seed that I collected from the California native plant, salvia, and after seeing it germinate and grow, it was sort of my lightbulb moment. I thought, ‘I want to do this every day.’”

Lewis’s love for plants, combined with his love for the UC Davis Arboretum, meant that the nursery manager job was a dream opportunity.

“When I saw this position pop up almost 10 years ago, I knew I had to apply,” Lewis said. “I guess I needed something that was more hands-on, and I knew this was more hands-on than what I was doing.”

For Lewis and many others, the Arboretum is the ideal escape from the city into nature. 

“It’s a free plant museum that people use for exercise, research, being out in nature, forest bathing and getting that nature fix,” Lewis said. “It gets better every single year. We are improving and growing, and our gardens keep expanding.”

Lewis also manages the many volunteers they work with.

“I think there are about 40 different community members that volunteer for the nursery in [some] way, shape or form,” Lewis said. “We have well over 150 volunteers that work for the arboretum and at least 150 for plant sales. You need that many people when you get 1,500 people walking through the doors in four hours.”

The UC Davis Arboretum has a wide variety of internships and positions available. 

“There’s something for every student,” Lewis said. “We have programs like no other on campus. I don’t know of any other program on campus with over a hundred students volunteering.”

Many volunteers and staff are particularly concerned with climate research and studying the effects of different climates on plants. One of these volunteers is Sam Vitt, a fourth-year environmental science major. Vitt works as a coordinator for the urban tree stewardship team and is currently involved in a long-term project.

“It’s a project called the Texas Tree Trials, and we study tree specimens from Texas and their adaptability to differing climates,” Vitt said.

Ohlendorf is also contributing to the Arboretum’s forefront involvement in climate consciousness and how it affects plant life.

“I think it’s important the way that the Arboretum is showcasing native plants and drought-tolerant plants,” Ohlendorf said. “They’ve been a leader in the state for the promotion of these plants and have partnered with the nursery industry to grow and market these plants.” 

Apart from the research she is involved in, Vitt also enjoys the Arboretum recreationally.

“I think it’s really cool, it’s like a living museum from all around the world attached to our campus,” Vitt said. “It’s such a perfect getaway.” 

Vitt’s interest in the Arboretum began before her time as a student at UC Davis.

“I remember coming to the Arboretum before I chose to go to Davis and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, what is this place? I want to get involved!’” Vitt said. “It’s definitely one of my favorite places.”

 Like other students, Vitt finds refuge in the Arboretum gardens. It’s easy for students to get caught up in their studies, so the Arboretum is a great way to take a step back, according to Vitt. 

“I’ve always been interested in getting in touch with nature, especially because I feel like everything is moving more toward urbanization,” Vitt said. “So I like to push back on it and go back into nature.” 

Lewis emphasized that the Arboretum is the perfect place to connect with nature.

“We definitely are able to make our impact felt across campus,” Lewis said. “We are raising awareness sort of by putting people in touch with plants.”

Volunteers at the Arboretum believe plants are beneficial to everyone, whether they are plant enthusiasts or simply in need of a breather. 

“It was such a rest spot for everyone,” Ohlendorf said. “It was one of the few places you could gather during the pandemic, and it still is my favorite place. It has so many wonderful gardens and areas to offer for everyone.”


Written by: Rebeka Zeljko — features@theaggie.org