It’s spring quarter again, which means we’re back in the Wild Davis saddle and starting our urban ecology field observations! As always, the quarter includes the students choosing a location to do 45-minute observations throughout the quarter at different times of day. Often, the students in the class haven’t done this sort of activity before (just sit and experience a place for a long time) and so as an example, and just because I find it relaxing, I do them as well.
In past years, I’ve chosen natural spaces near my house – the Wildhorse Ag Buffer in northeast Davis, the East Regional Pond along Road 102 between Davis and Woodland, and the Biological Orchard and Garden on the UC Davis campus. This year, I’ve chosen the Dr. Ruth Risdon Storer Garden in the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden.
I’ve chosen the Dr. Ruth Risdon Storer Garden because Ruth herself has been on my mind a lot lately. She was the first female physician on the UC Davis campus and the first female pediatrician in Yolo County. She was also an avid gardener and dedicated member of the Friends of the UCD Arboretum. The building that I work in (Storer Hall) is named after her husband, Dr. Tracy Storer, a well-known zoologist/ecologist and professor at UCD for over 30 years.
The reason Ruth has been on my mind is that she is part of a revamping of the Storer Hall Lobby that, while somewhat derailed by the COVID pandemic, has been in the works for a while now. In response to feedback from undergraduates in the EEB major at UCD, published research on how public spaces impact students sense of belonging, and faculty interest in more visibly representing diversity, the faculty in my department are planning some changes to the signage and portraiture in the Storer Hall Lobby. Currently, a large portrait of Tracy hangs prominently in the entranceway over the main staircase, along with a small biography plaque. We hope to add similar imagery and a biography of Ruth to this space (either by adding an individual portrait of her, or replacing the one of Tracy with one of the couple together). While the garden is a beautiful dedication, and aligned with Ruth’s own love of gardening and the Arboretum, I have found that few students (and faculty!) are aware the garden exists, or knowledgeable on Ruth’s legacy. Indeed, the faculty member with whom I am working on the Lobby updates has been a professor here for 10 years and didn’t know the garden existed. Consequently, we think including her in portraiture in the Storer Hall Lobby will both increase visibility (literally and figuratively) and knowledge of her contributions to UCD and Davis, and bring attention to the garden as her dedicated space.
Since that process is moving rather slowly given (waves hands at the world), I’ve decided to use this small platform as a way to at least bring Ruth’s accomplishments and her garden to the attention of my students. Our first observation occurs at dawn, so I made my way out to the Ruth’s garden at 6:45 Tuesday morning (Apr 6).
The first thing I notice when I park on the road next to the garden is the redbud tree blooming inside. I love redbud trees, with their quirky shape (you absolutely cannot prune a redbud, you have to just let it be the shape it will be), and their unabashed blooming when everything else is still green or brown. I identify a lot with redbuds, to the point that I frequently use the screenname Cercis, the name of the redbud genus.
The garden is clearly meant for just such observational experiences – there are many benches spread throughout the garden, along its winding and interconnected paths. Each of the benches bears a dedication; the bench I’ve chosen today is dedicated to Allie Greene by her husband. The benches and their dedications lend a quiet sense of community to the space, a feeling that you aren’t completely alone in the garden, or at least not alone in enjoying it. Allie’s bench sits beneath a crabapple and a cenizo tree, both of which are in the early stages of budding out.
Perhaps my favorite dedication in the garden is the plaque honoring Ruth’s friendship with Mary McGraw Miller. The garden has many varieties of roses, which apparently were a favorite of both Ruth and Mary, and I very much love the special honoring of long-time female friendships.
The roses indeed are beautiful, particularly so in the early morning dew. I imagine they will smell quite lovely on my midday observation when they are warmed in the afternoon sun.
As I settle on the bench with my coffee, I quickly notice the noise; the garden is loud with both natural and anthropogenic sounds. The garden is near the road and even at this early time cars driving by are audible, as are distant trains. A grounds crew is also working in the Arboretum lawn nearby, and their leaf blowers distract from the natural peace of the garden. There are several bird species loudly calling to one another – I recognize the cawing crows and screaming scrub jays and the worn-out-squeek-toy call of an Anna’s hummingbird. There are several other twitters and chirps that I can’t identify by ear, though I recognize the birds themselves as white-crowned sparrows and (the most unfortunately named bird) bushtits. Later in the morning, I hear a single loud barking call and while I don’t recall ever having heard it before, I instantly think of a green heron. Later, when I check the Cornell lab and eBird recordings for green herons, I’m pretty sure, but not certain, that’s what I heard.
As I wander the gravel paths of the garden, I startle a trio of ducks; one male and two females. They quack at me and continue on their way, amusingly keeping to the paths just as I do. They are dabbled with white, indicating that they are offspring of hybridization between the wild mallards and the couple domestic white ducks that have taken up residence in the Arboretum. The origin of the domestic ducks is unclear, though the most likely mechanism is that they are former pets, released to the Arboretum by their disinterested owners. I also notice birds flying over the garden, including a hawk that is harried by three of the cawing crows, and two great egrets. All of them appear to be leaving the Arboretum waterway, flying northwest over the garden.
The garden itself contains quite a bit of signage. The majority of plants have ID cards posted at their base identifying their common and scientific names. Plants of note (called Arboretum All-Stars) also have larger signs outlining their range and environmental needs, interesting facts, etc. These sorts of signs are common throughout the Arboretum. In addition, Ruth’s garden also has signage with gardening tips and strategies – a testament to her knowledge of tending her own gardens. I chuckle at one titled “Am I high maintenance?” Having recently received my second COVID vaccine, I also am disease resistant and now consider myself a ‘low maintenance rose’.
Considering the sign, I check the roses in the garden closely for signs of disease, and as the sign suggests I find very little. I do see one leaf which appears to have a fungal infection, and a remarkably small number of rosebuds carry aphids. While the signage focused on fungal infections, I wonder if ‘low maintenance roses’ also harbor some protection against aphids. The photos below may appear to contain a lot of aphids, but compared to rosebushes I’ve seen elsewhere on campus, these are small aphid loads.
Just as I’m nearing the end of my observation, the sun begins to peek out of the trees to the east, blanketing the dewy lawn behind the garden in shafts of sunlight. It is a beautiful sight, and makes me pleased I chose this location for my observations, and pleased that it is dedicated to a woman I’ve recently learned more about and come to appreciate (even if I still think she deserves a portrait in Storer Hall as well).