Tending with Care
Canopied by overhanging oak trees in the Mary Wattis Brown Garden of California Native Plants, a memorial bench dedicated to William Reinert serves as a restful spot for those venturing through the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden. His widow, Nori Reinert, works as a volunteer garden steward in the Peter J. Shields Oak Grove, where the Texas live oak planted in William’s memory provides a special reminder of her late husband.
Under the shade of the same oak trees, lifetime gardener Barbara Ohlendorf regularly enjoys picnic lunches with her friends. With a passion for plants and a background in entomology and pest management, she had always considered a position as a volunteer gardener. Now retired, Ohlendorf has been a part of a community of plant lovers for the past 11 years as a volunteer.
Reinert and Ohlendorf are members of the Friends of the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden. Founded in 1971, the group provides the Arboretum with critical volunteer contributions and financial support through an annual membership program and other fundraising activities.
In the volunteer program, over 250 committed members contribute over 26,000 hours of service every year with an estimated value of more than $780,000. Volunteers play crucial roles in plant collection management and conservation, nursery plant propagation, curatorial work assistance, the presentation of public programs and through participation on leadership committees.
“The Friends organization really is an outgrowth of a collection of very talented, committed volunteers that always valued the Arboretum,” said Ann Trump Daniel, president of the Friends organization.
Added Ohlendorf, “It makes you realize what a gift that place has been to the city, because it is our place of natural beauty and relaxation. It is the scenic focal point in this town.”
Its place in Davis, however, wasn’t always so secure.
Now 85, the Arboretum gradually grew and developed through its early years before encountering a sudden pause in late March 1971. Then-Gov. Ronald Reagan slashed the University of California funding by $11 million — leading the UC Davis administration to announce it could no longer fund the Arboretum. That endangered plans for Putah Creek channel preservation, research on the usage of Mediterranean-type plants in Central Valley gardens and providing plant specimens for academic purposes.
The future of a beloved UC Davis gem was beginning to look bleak — that is, until the Friends entered the picture.
Wishing to support the Arboretum and determined to sustain a valued public resource after the budget cuts, a collective of community members led by Nancy Crosby, Mary Major, Art and Winifred Spurr, Lloyd Ingraham and others began preservation efforts immediately. They wrote letters to potential supporters with a short and precise message: “Due to budget restrictions, the future of the Arboretum at UC Davis is seriously threatened. Can you join us to discuss ideas for continuing its support?”
The Friends were not alone in their endeavor. They received letters of support and protest against budget cuts from the California Association of Nurserymen, the California Native Plant Society, other UC campuses, garden clubs, and the university’s academic staff and students.
“It’s really powerful and humbling to think that it only takes a few people that have commitment and drive and organizational ability to do amazing things. Today, as we celebrate our 50th anniversary, we’re appreciative of community members and people away from Davis recognizing the importance of the Friends,” said Trump Daniel.
The group that started with eight to 10 individuals has grown to include over 1,800 members, and these members span from Yolo County to foreign countries.
The Friends group earned its place in the distinguished group of the university’s top donors known as the Chancellor’s Laureates in 2008. This association comprises individuals and organizations that have donated $1 million or more to university programs.
“It’s really nice to have a place to go to once a week where you’re with people who have the same passion about plants. There’s a lot of camaraderie that goes on,” said Ohlendorf.
Volunteer gardeners and stewards are responsible for ongoing maintenance of designated garden areas. Tasks include pruning, planting and spreading mulch. “Our team members come from various backgrounds but share devotion to the Arboretum, and we take pride in being very hard working while having a great time together. The work we do is rewarding and satisfying, and there is always plenty of laughter,” said Reinert.
The Friends also collaborate with the Arboretum staff to run seasonal plant sales, held six or seven times annually at the Arboretum Teaching Nursery, that continue to be a popular draw for the campus and city. Grown and propagated by student interns, community volunteers and professional nursery staff, these plants are low-water, easy-care, and regionally appropriate to support more sustainable gardening.
“From the very first sale of iris rhizomes harvested from the Arboretum’s collections, to the first plant fairs on the lawn in front of Arboretum headquarters in 1974, to today’s seasonal fall and spring plant sales that attract over 8,500 customers to the Arboretum Teaching Nursery annually, Friends members and volunteers have been there for the Arboretum and Public Garden over the course of the last 50-plus years,” said Trump Daniel.
During the pandemic, however, plant sales moved online: Buyers were offered contact-free curbside pickup at the nursery.
As a Friends member since 2009 and a member of the Friends board of directors since 2011, Martha Rehrman, along with husband Fred, has helped grow plants and provide customer support for plant sales for the past decade. Martha also has coordinated social gatherings for the Friends to show appreciation for Arboretum donors and volunteers. “I’m proud to have become a gardener and member of the board. I feel pride and pleasure in being a member of the Friends,” said Rehrman.
Annual memberships aid the Arboretum’s education programs, student environmental leaders and public gardens. Friends can receive a variety of member benefits — gardening advice, free or discounted admission to botanical gardens across North America, early access to and reduced prices at plant sales, private, one-hour plant shopping at the nursery or golf cart tours.
Friends also support fundraising efforts including through annual gifts and endowments. Gifts designated to the Annual Fund promote the current priorities of the Arboretum in that given year; gifts made out to the Friends Endowment Fund, and the annual interest generated from the endowment, accumulate continuous financial support.
The Friends Today
The team behind the Arboretum has supported and witnessed countless memories for visitors. Friends members and volunteers say they receive as much from their visits as anyone else, especially as the pandemic limited their movements over the past year.
“During the pandemic, I continued to take long walks in the Arboretum and on the Davis greenbelts, along with working in my own garden. Spending time outdoors, alone or with friends, has been helpful during a distressing time,” said Reinert.
Added Rehrman, “The Arboretum is marvelous for gardening and walking the entire wonderful area.”
As part of its 50th anniversary celebration, the Friends have put together an online Memories Project, where community members can share remembrances. The Arboretum has been the setting for numerous proposals, weddings, birthday parties, and memorial services over the years.
Retired Vice Chancellor John Meyer tells of his wedding in the Arboretum in 1986, and Friends member Sandra Fisher said she enjoys bringing her grandchildren for walks through the redwoods after having met her husband on the UC Davis campus.
“It’s nice to be able to celebrate the good work that was done by the Friends founders and early leaders that had drive and initiative and organizational skills.” Trump Daniel said. “We can’t let them down. We need to make sure that we build on their legacy for the next 50 years as we continue to improve accessibility, diversity, and the opportunities within the Arboretum and Public Garden for everyone.”