Tending the Farm: Chief Groundskeeper Herb Fong

After 24 years on campus, most of them as chief groundskeeper, this Bay Area native and son of Chinese immigrants has been a firsthand witness to the growth of Stanford.

As Herb Fong drives around campus he casually rattles off the Latin names of plants as if they were members of a favorite ball team: Olea europaea, Eucalyptus globulus and Quercus agrifolia.

Chief groundskeeper Herb Fong (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

That’s olive trees, eucalyptus and live oaks to the uninitiated.

Follow the university’s head gardener to any part of Stanford’s sprawling 8,180-acre campus and he will tell you what’s growing, what needs to be replanted and how that’s going to happen.

“I love learning about plants and how and why they respond the way they do,” the 47-year-old Fong says with a slow smile as he cruises across campus. “This is an ever-changing job.”

After 24 years on campus, most of them as chief groundskeeper, this Bay Area native and son of Chinese immigrants has been a firsthand witness to the growth of Stanford.

“If it’s visible and it’s outside, he’s had something to do with it,” says Gareth Hansen, a field engineer in Maps and Records who also has worked on campus a quarter century. Archivist Margaret Kimball, who worked with Fong on the $3.6 million reconstruction of Palm Drive in 1994, says his experience goes beyond his immediate job. “He’s not only knowledgeable about plants, he’s knowledgeable about campus,” she says.

Fong never dreamed of working with plants until he reached his junior year at the University of California-Berkeley, and then later earned a master’s in horticulture at U.C.-Davis, but his fascination with them started in first grade. In school, he planted a bean and watched it grow. Then he turned the jar upside down and watched how the shoot and root abruptly flopped direction. “Aha! That really lit a fire under me,” he recalls fondly.

Although Fong’s family comes from rural southern China near Guangzhou, his agricultural heritage had little influence on his career. In America, he says, his mother and father spent all their time running a small grocery store in the East Bay. “But I thank them for coming over,” he says. “Once I went to the village [in China] where my parents came from and I saw this guy about my age bent over in the rice paddies, up to his knees in water. I said, ‘Man, that could be me out there.’ You don’t appreciate what you’ve got until you leave here.”

Back on the job at Stanford, Fong supervises workers preparing one morning to move two gnarled 35-foot-tall coastal live oaks that are in the path of the new discus-throwing area, an operation that will cost $5,000 per tree and take two days. The workers will replant the trees on campus, Fong says, because “you can’t get a tree this size very easily. It’s very expensive and the county has restrictions [on felling]. They don’t want to sacrifice a tree this size.”

Fong then talks to a work crew preparing to clear undergrowth in the Eucalyptus Grove to make room for picnickers, a project that will include grinding down 250 tree stumps. “There’s a lack of tailgating facilities here so that’s number one on our list,” Fong says, standing near a thriving clump of poison oak scheduled for uprooting. “This will be a lovely area once we get it cleaned up.”

For a place that prides itself on academic accomplishment, Stanford also pays formidable attention to the environmental elements of university life. Building on foundations laid by Leland and Jane Stanford, who created an arboretum to bring together “every tree and shrub that would grow in California,” Fong’s aim is to keep the campus a beautiful, interesting place.

“There’s a realization that what we have here is a valuable asset and it should be preserved,” he says. “[President Gerhard] Casper has done a lot. He’s concerned about the aesthetics of the university.”

Some of that concern has been translated into practical results, such as the upgrading of Palm Drive and the Oval. While Fong’s $2.2 million annual budget has grown with Stanford’s construction boom, it has been accompanied by increased expectations. “One of the greatest resources of the university is its land,” he says. “We’re trying to maintain that.”

Fong works closely with the university’s Planning Office, which is responsible for the overall look of the campus. “Our office takes the initiative and Herb carries it out,” says Associate Director Judy Chan, who reports to university architect David Neuman. “[Herb] is one of the most easygoing people on campus,” she says. “But he can be a maverick — he doesn’t always follow the rules.”

For example, Chan says, Fong once planted a weeping form of the giant sequoia in the Main Quad and then had to remove it because it wasn’t part of the original plans laid down by the university’s first landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted. Fong says his intention was to replace a dead tree with something that would add to the university’s diverse plant collection.

In recent years, Fong’s office has followed a directive to introduce low-maintenance, drought-resistant plants. The area outside Meyer Library, for example, used to be covered by lawn. But during the long drought in the 1980s, the grass was allowed to die and replaced with a low-growing shrub called glossy leaf abelia. The turf along Galvez Mall used to have to be watered, fertilized and mowed regularly until it was replaced by pink- and red-flowering yarrow “Now we hardly have to touch it,” Fong says.

The university is also turning Campus Drive into a botanical boulevard featuring Mediterranean zone plants from Chile, South Africa, Australia and the Mediterranean region, interspersed with flora native to California such as coastal live oaks. These are plants that survive in regions with winter rainfall and summer drought. “We want the boulevard to be an educational tool,” planner Chan says. For Fong, the plan makes sense because it introduces attractive, low-maintenance plants like bunch grasses. “They’re not Mediterranean per se,” he says, “but they don’t require any water or mowing once they’re established. We’re trying to reduce the amount of resources we need but still keep a lovely landscape.”

Fong has 45 full-time staff and 10 seasonal employees who maintain the university’s academic and residential areas. His office also oversees solid waste removal and recycling, and is responsible for controlling pests.

About 150 feral cats that have been spayed or neutered live on campus and are listed on a registry. Ground squirrels, which tunnel under trees and destroy them, are killed with sulphur gas put into burrowing holes instead of with poison baits.

To deal with the long-horned borer, the beetle that kills eucalyptus trees, instead of using chemical insecticides, Fong has been introducing tiny Australian predatory wasps that lay eggs into the beetle’s eggs.

Light dormant oil is sprayed onto trees and plants to smother eggs and young insects like mites and aphids. Other tree defoliators that are controlled include the oak moth caterpillar, the tussock moth and the elm leaf beetle.

“We try to use the most environmentally safe ways,” Fong says. “We don’t want to have to routinely spray.”

When Fong’s not experimenting with low-impact pest-control methods, he’s searching for ways to make his diversified operation more efficient. Using data on 25,000 trees collected over 10 years, arborist Karen Stidd sits in the groundskeeping office and pulls up a map on a computer screen that shows the location of each tree in the Main Quad. “With an organized maintenance program, we can avoid demand work,” she says. A grounds inventory listing bushes, hedges and floor covering is also in progress.

And with water at a premium, Fong wants to expand a computerized watering system first introduced on campus in 1992. The system is tied to a campus weather station that reads temperature, air movement and humidity, and sends the data to a computer that calculates evaporation. Once water loss reaches a certain level, the system turns itself on automatically. “It used to take a man a week to turn on and off all the irrigation controllers,” Fong says. “Now it can be done in five seconds.”

Stidd credits her boss for making such programs work. “He’s very innovative and keeps up on the latest research,” she says. “And he likes to encourage people to develop their own expertise.” Field engineer Hansen says that Fong is pretty structured but he makes time for his employees. “Some of the people he’s had to put up with would attest to his flexibility,” he says.

Fong’s management style has a lot to do with the way he approaches his own job. “I try to stress that you should understand why you’re doing something instead of just following directions,” he explains. “I’m fortunate to have a job that’s basically my hobby. It’s very satisfying to nurture [plants] and allow them to flourish and grow so other people can appreciate them too.”