The Head Gardener

Linda Cicero

Grounds services manager Herb Fong hasn’t sprayed hard pesticides or insecticides on campus for more than seven years. Instead, his crews hose down plants and buildings to wash away tussock moth cocoons before the insects can devour eucalyptus trees. They also cook weeds between the Inner Quad bricks with flame throwers and release natural predators to control pests.

From sowing seeds to flowing asphalt. In addition to gardening, Fong’s 90 full-time staffers do small-scale road repairs, lay driveways, install irrigation systems, build barbecues and work on landscaping designs for private homes on campus. “We grow our own staff,” he says, pun apparently not intended, “and offer the equivalent of a two-year degree in horticulture, with plant identification, pest control and equipment usage.” The net result: certified arborists, pest-control advisers and water technicians.

Speaking of pest control, have you heard the one about the bat condos? “We put out raptor and owl nests to encourage nesting in trees,” Fong says. “And we’ve also put up bat condos—alternative housing to the tile roofs—in palms by the Business School.” The 3-foot-by-3-foot boxes are covered with tar paper and exposed to the full sun so they’ll be nice and warm and welcoming.

Just call him Johnny Oakseed. Ten years ago, Fong started seeding acorns in the Foothills. The resulting coastal live oaks are well established and don’t require any irrigation. “They’re 10 and 15 feet tall now and a rewarding sight to see,” he says. “We’ve got about 2,000 new trees in the Foothills.”

From glen to glen, and down the mountainside. Fong jogs to a different campus site each day, keeping mental records of anything that needs follow-up attention. “There isn’t a corner of this campus that I haven’t explored,” he says. Some of his favorite spots include Bowman Grove, Frost Amphitheater, Lasuen Mall and a vernal pond in the Arboretum where blue herons stroll.

This busman never takes a holiday. Fong doesn’t have a lawn to mow at home. Instead, he lavishes attention on the so-called collector’s garden in his greenhouse, where he specializes in cacti and cyclids. “It’s a labor of love for me,” says Stanford’s head gardener.

Even the plants get into the cross-Bay rivalry. “We do look for red and white plantings, like red Flanders poppies, red statice and red flax,” Fong says. “But it’s hard to get away from [blue] lupines and [golden] California poppies, so we’ve kind of loosened up. We don’t make a point of excluding them.” Did we mention he went to Cal?

Median strips that are anything but ordinary. Fifteen years ago, former University trustee Peter Bing, ’55, and his wife, Helen, began donating money to plant wildflowers in plots that had been drab and fallow. It’s meant extra work for the grounds crews in fall and winter quarters, but the cosmos and larkspurs that burst forth in the spring are worth it, says Fong. “Unfortunately, we can’t get them to bloom during graduation. By the time parents get here, they’re way past their peak—unless we’ve had late rains to sustain a nice flower show.”

And that big tall plant in the cactus garden . . . ? Would be a prize Idria columnaris, aka boojum tree, with not particularly showy white flowers. But you want spectacular? Try the flame tree—excuse us, brachychiton—in the Inner Quad. Or the silk floss tree with eight-inch pods near the clock tower. Or the coral tree by Old Union, with its panicles of red blossoms. Cardinal red, of course.