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June 19, 2020

Arroyo Grande veterinarians became invaluable lifelong volunteers

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How two Arroyo Grande veterinarians became invaluable lifelong volunteers of the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden

As charter members since 1991, Gaby and Ken Levine had no shortage of incredible history to share with me about their time with the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden. Before speaking to them over the phone, I already had heard about their involvement and impact with the garden community. As it turns out, they have always been an integral part in the Botanical Garden. Gaby served as President of the Board of Directors for many years and Ken has been an educational docent since the program began. As volunteer coordinator Joscelyn De La Torre put it, “they know almost everything.” With that recommendation, I knew Gaby and Ken would be the best place to start.

Because they have both been involved in so many parts of the botanical garden, I wasn’t sure where to start the interview. Fortunately, Gaby and Ken have no hesitations when speaking about the beloved garden and so they jumped right into our conversation. Check out some of the highlights of our conversation below. 

Hannah: You’ve been around since the botanical garden started, right? 

Ken: Yes, we’re charter members so that was 1991. We’re both veterinarians. We had a veterinary practice in Arroyo Grande, so we were still practicing at that time, and we saw a little article in The Tribune that said, “if you’re interested in being involved in the formation of a botanical garden, call Eve Vigil” and so we did. So, we’re charter members and now, probably next to Eve we’ve been around the longest. [laughs]

Hannah: So, what was the beginning of that journey starting to volunteer at the botanical garden? I would love to hear more about that!

Ken: We both liked plants. We both used to visit, and still do, botanical gardens when we’re on trips and I had actually said at one point, “you know when we retire, I would like to be a docent in a botanical garden.” The problem was there was no botanical garden! [laughs] We weren’t going to move. And then this came along and we got involved. At that point of course there was no garden and we had meetings quarterly. And so that’s where we started! Right away, I was invited to be on the program committee. We had programs, so I was involved in getting people to speak.                      

Gaby: There would be educational programs about gardens or something about Mediterranean climates. The garden demonstrates what a great garden you can have in a Mediterranean climate by using plants from a Mediterranean climate. It’s all over the world! You look at your hills here [San Luis Obispo] they’re all dried out in the summer and that’s because there’s no summer rain in a mediterranean climate.

We’re trying to promote sustainability and water conservation by looking at the whole ecosystem. In other words, trying to understand how everything balances out and looking at how things come around, so the garden evolves with the way social ideas evolved.

At this point in our conversation, Gaby began to discuss how the botanical garden was designed.

Hannah: You’ve been around since the botanical garden started, right? 

Ken: Yes, we’re charter members so that was 1991. We’re both veterinarians. We had a veterinary practice in Arroyo Grande, so we were still practicing at that time, and we saw a little article in The Tribune that said, “if you’re interested in being involved in the formation of a botanical garden, call Eve Vigil” and so we did. So, we’re charter members and now, probably next to Eve we’ve been around the longest. [laughs]

Hannah: So, what was the beginning of that journey starting to volunteer at the botanical garden? I would love to hear more about that!

Ken: We both liked plants. We both used to visit, and still do, botanical gardens when we’re on trips and I had actually said at one point, “you know when we retire, I would like to be a docent in a botanical garden.” The problem was there was no botanical garden! [laughs] We weren’t going to move. And then this came along and we got involved. At that point of course there was no garden and we had meetings quarterly. And so that’s where we started! Right away, I was invited to be on the program committee. We had programs, so I was involved in getting people to speak.                                                                       

Gaby: There would be educational programs about gardens or something about Mediterranean climates. The garden demonstrates what a great garden you can have in a Mediterranean climate by using plants from a Mediterranean climate. It’s all over the world! You look at your hills here [San Luis Obispo] they’re all dried out in the summer and that’s because there’s no summer rain in a mediterranean climate.

We’re trying to promote sustainability and water conservation by looking at the whole ecosystem. In other words, trying to understand how everything balances out and looking at how things come around, so the garden evolves with the way social ideas evolved.

Next, Gaby and Ken begin to explain why and how the buildings in the botanical garden were built.

Gaby: That’s the point that we said, “maybe we should look at putting up a building.” Well, the master plan shows the building north of where the developments are now over the hill a little bit towards the eucalyptus grove. That were supposed to be and there will be, eventually, a visitor’s center, a library and a conference room. Well, we ran a feasibility study to see whether we could raise enough money to build and found all these buildings were about 20 million dollars. So, this company said we could probably in the next four years raise 1 to 2 million dollars. We changed that plan and decided to build it along Dairy Creek road. The whole thing basically has been built by the garden. There’s essentially no government money into it at all. Really fortunately, Ken Haggard and Polly Cooper are the main, top people in the United States working on straw bale construction.                                                        

Ken: They’re both Cal Poly professors and they have a company called San Luis Sustainability.

Gaby: Right, so they came on board and they designed.

Ken: Marilyn Farmer who taught architecture at Cuesta College also created a plan.                    

Gaby: Yes, both presented plans. We looked at both of them and what we ended up with was mostly Ken and Polly’s, but some of the good things Marilyn had wanted we incorporated. We’ve built our own building so we could have a place to have our own meetings.                     

Ken: Well, Cuesta College built the building.

Gaby: Well, that’s right. Then what happened? Go ahead tell that part. [laughs]

Ken: Well, we were lucky. A construction technology program at Cuesta College was looking for a project of sustainable green architecture that they could build in two years. Tuesday and Thursday, they would come over and build. It took 3 years because 1 of those winters we had quite a bit of rain and it was always on Tuesday or Thursday it would seem like! [laughs] The first two years the construction itself was done by students and the third year the instructor hired Cuesta students that we paid. We also had donations like the electrician’s union. We ended up with a building that was built to LEED gold standard.                                                                     

Gaby: Very green.  A lot of the materials in the building are recycled materials.

 

Hannah: It sounds like you both have had a significant role in many parts of the garden.

Ken: Well, we’ve been involved. And then we retired in 1995 and that’s when we really got involved.

Gaby: We really think it’s like our second home. Normally, we’re involved almost every day. Either emails or going over there or Ken does a lot of tours, we have events over there, so it’s just it’s kind of like what we do.

We began to discuss the community they’ve established as regular volunteers.

                                                                    

Gaby: Once you’re involved and friends come along with you and see how much fun it is. That’s the thing; it is so much fun! It’s a great group of people and it’s just a very nice community.         

Ken: Tuesday mornings have always been, for as long as I can remember, the time most of us are volunteering in the garden. It’s a workday. That’s the day you really get to say hello to a lot of friends. Everyone is there because they want to be there. We enjoy each other’s company and we work together really well.

Gaby: We constantly have about 100 volunteers that put in regular time. That’s a really good group. Actually, now we’ve developed a really nice tie with Cal Poly and Cuesta. We get a lot of interns and people with AmeriCorps that come with great ideas and lots more energy that some of us old people have now! [laughs] We have a board that’s much younger and very capable with wonderful active people. I’m just so pleased and proud and I felt perfectly good saying, “Ok, you take over. I’m done with this for now. Let me know what’s going on. You can always ask me for questions. If there’s something you want me to do, I can tell you yes or no.” Our staff is amazing.

Hannah: It sounds like it’s been an incredible community from the start.                                                  

Gaby: It has been. It’s changed a little bit, but it’s always kind of found the right direction. Somebody always seems to step up when it’s needed. There’s a lot of people around. There’s nobody who really doesn’t care. And we’re all interested in what the others are doing. It’s nice.

                                                                                                             

Hannah: What are your favorite botanical garden memories you recall most frequently and why?

Ken: We had for many years a garden festival. And it was on a weekend and it was held in the park right across from the preview garden. They let us have the whole park and we had booths and big tents, one for each of the five areas of the world. We had displays of gardens from different architects in there and children’s activities in each one of them. I have fond memories of that because I was much younger. [laughs] It took really 6 months of preparation for that weekend. One year, Gaby was in charge of the whole thing.

Gaby: Sent me to the hospital.                                                                      

Ken: Thought she had a heart attack, but it was just a strained back. My memories of it are that there were a whole lot of people having a really good time. We worked really hard and we would be there all weekend. We would get there at 6 in the morning and it opened at 9 or 10 AM. It was just a whole lot of people working together. The only problem with it was we worked really, really hard and put in a lot of preparation, but we didn’t make any money. [laughs]                                                            

Gaby: We called it, instead of money making, we called it “friend making.” And it did! People still say they remember those festivals we used to have. Actually, Ken was being really nice. It took about 11 months to get ready for it and 1 month to get over it. And then we had to start all over again. It took all our energy. About the time when we were looking at building the building is when we realized we couldn’t do both because both were all consuming. We had a staff of one or one and a half people and the rest of it were volunteers. All of us have other lives, too, so we just couldn’t manage it. And we couldn’t justify it as making money.

Ken: We thought people were learning where the botanical garden was and that was the other problem. It really wasn’t because we would offer tours every 2 hours to go into the garden and hardly anyone ever left the park because there was music, food, everything that a festival has and very few people were interested in crossing the street. So, part of our purpose was not ever accomplished with it, but I still have very good memories of it because it was fun except the hard work. There aren’t a lot of us around that now that were involved in that time. Thinking back 15 years ago when we were still having the garden festival there aren’t a whole lot of us around that were involved then.

This brought us back to discussing the building. It was great to hear about how much Gaby and Ken care about the process of establishing the Botanical Garden’s facilities.

Ken: That was another reason we had to build the building. We had a library, but it was divided between Dr. Malcolm McLeod, who was the botanist with Cal Poly who retired, Eve, and our house. There were all these books, but they were in three homes and not in a place where anyone could use them.

Gaby: Yes, and I was on the membership committee and I would meet with a lady in Shell Beach to work on membership cards. All our office stuff was scattered around, so finally we moved along, and we had a volunteer that was Debbie Hoover. The administrative stuff was at one end of the living room and they only had a trailer! You can see a lot of people were really dedicated. [laughs]

 

Hannah: Walk me through a day in the life as a volunteer.              

Ken: It really depends on where you are volunteering,  because it can be so different. If you talk about the workday Tuesdays, there’s different teams. There’s the garden team that is planting and weeding and watering plants and really developing the garden as a garden. And then there’s people in propagation up at the greenhouse–                                 

Gaby: That’s where I was.                                                     

Ken: –and they’re planting seeds, making cuttings from the garden, growing them up and producing plants for the garden. Then there’s the other teams, like there’s 3 of us on the accessioning committee which is cataloging the plants. We have a database where all of the plants are given a number and the year they’re planted. They have a little aluminum tag on them which has that information on them the botanical name and a number. There is a record when they die, if they die, unless someone doesn’t report it [laughs]. We have sheets in the kiosk where they write down the number and what bed the plant was in, so we can record that.

Gaby: And then there’s a librarian or 2 in the library every Tuesday, so people can come check out books.                                                                     

Ken: There’s the program committee and membership committee. They’re always involved with events.                                                          

Gaby: Because membership is kind of the greeting committee and then we asked them for the donation when they come into the meeting or program.                    

Ken: And the program committee is the one who gets the programs and introduces them.

Gaby: So, there’s all these different activities. Actually, the children’s garden group’s workday is Thursdays. Generally speaking, we’ll have a day camp for kids and it’s really a chance for the kids to get outside. We actually have an oak tree they can get up into. [laughs] And they get to plant things and they get to go on hikes, and they get to explore the creek with someone and just be outside for most of the day.                                       

Ken: It’s really where you’re volunteering for what your day is like, but it’s always a people thing. Whatever committee you’re on or whatever group you’re working in, those are the people you know best, but you also know all these other people that you’re going to be talking to and asking questions to. As a volunteer I would say, and I’ve been a volunteer for many different things, the garden is very special.

Thank you again to Gaby and Ken Levine for chatting with me about their experience with the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden!

By Hannah Stein

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