Part one of the Treasures of City College article series.
By Gene Thompson
On the north side of City College, a garden, visible through a vine-draped fence along Judson Avenue, emits a vague fragrance, perhaps from the purple flowers on the ceanothus shrubs inside.
Students in the Environmental Horticulture and Floristry Department, which grew from a program founded in 1938, cultivate the myriad plants in the 2.3-acre lot behind the fence as part of their training. Due to understaffing and safety concerns, general access is limited, but students enrolled in horticulture or floristry classes work in the gardens and other facilities.
Professor Malcolm Hillan, who prefers that his students call him “Malcolm,” has taught in the program since 1991.
This Saturday morning he is preparing his introductory Horticulture 50 class to repot and eventually transfer seedlings into the garden. Sitting on the edge of his desk, enthusiastically poking holes in the air, he describes nature’s circular process of enriching soil, and human efforts to quicken the process with hot composting.
“As much as possible, let nature do the work for you,” Hillan advises.
On break, student Sean Jackson says he loves the class, but is not a horticulture major. “I got into this class because I wanted to grow my own marijuana,” he says, referring to himself as an entrepreneur. He describes the garden as beautiful, and also mentions watching a recent PBS video “about how trees communicate to one another.”
Roberta H., an herbalist, also says she loves the class, which she says helps her understand the big picture of plants. “Horticulture classes are giving me an incredible background of how the world is structured, how the plant world is structured.”
Hillan gathers the class and leads them briskly out of the classroom into the cool October mist beginning to dissipate under a brightening sky. On the other side of an asphalt parking lot, more than 50 raised wooden planters, some as large as 8 by 40 feet, others much smaller, display some of the plantings students care for. In one bed several thorny vines look naked except for a single white rose clinging to its last petals for the season, while another bed is inexplicably full of red, white, pink and orange flowers atop green foliage.
Hillan guides his class beyond the raised beds through a 50-by-50-foot alcove where plants are protected from direct sun by slats, from which hang signs designating plants’ native regions: Asia, Europe, America, Indian Ocean , California, etc.
The class finally catches up with the speedy Hillan, who tells them to pick up several trays of plants: lettuce, basil, chard and other edible greens, and bring them to the headhouse, as the workroom is called, where he demonstrates the proper technique of transferring the tiny seedlings to their roomier digs. Later they will place them in the greenhouses or the garden and monitor their growth, checking them from time to time throughout the rest of the semester.
Professor Thomas Wang, Hillan’s colleague, conducts his horticulture machines class on Wednesdays. He stoops over a small heating element on the ground, flipping a container the size of a sardine tin. The process generates a surprising amount of smoke or steam. He opens the tin; instead of sardines inside, there is a blackened piece of char cloth, traditionally used in tinder boxes to start a fire. The activity begins to make sense when Wang explains his class is preparing to study the basic principles of diesel engines and has been making fire pistons. The course helps horticulture students become comfortable with machinery they may need to operate on the job.
Wang has taught at City College since 2006 following a long career working for San Francisco Recreation and Parks. He enjoys working with City College students in lab situations outdoors, and says the classes are appropriate “for everybody who wants to learn about plants, and about the living world that surrounds them,” whether they are seeking a job in the industry or enjoy gardening as a hobby.
The head of the Environmental Horticulture and Floristry Department, and the third of the three instructors to survive the recent layoffs, is Professor Steven Brown. Brown has been devoted for many years to developing the floristry program, a highly successful enterprise recently featured in the City College magazine, Etc.
Brown, often busy in his office conducting the business of the department, points out that the department grounds extend beyond the garden itself, including not only his floristry program, but three enormous state-of-the-art greenhouses and some uncultivated natural areas. Several certificates are offered by the department, including design/construction, nursery work, landscaping, floristry, and an A.S. degree in Environmental Horticulture and Floristry.
Wang abruptly rises with the char cloth and disappears into the headhouse. The morning mist has burnt off, except for the slightest hint of moisture glistening on the petals and leaves of shaded plants. A few yards southwest of the raised beds a gated, formal garden roasts in sunlight. A wooden bench at the edge looks inward toward a stone fountain, and boxwood hedges radiate symmetrically from the center. An iridescent hummingbird stops by to inspect an iris, then flits away.