Caring for 50,000 trees: Not a tall order for Bob Garner

Bob Garner has a dream that few Stanford employees could aspire to before retiring. He wants to oversee the trimming of every tree on campus. That’s about 50,000 trees in the central university alone. “That is truly my goal,” the 58-year-old tree crew supervisor says as he drives around campus in his white pickup to check up on work that he assigns daily to the Grounds Department’s tree crews. Garner talks slowly and easily, breaking to smoke a cigarette, and he enjoys recounting endless tales about outdoor life on the Farm.

Bob Garner, foreground, with tree crew members, left to right, Sergio Larios, Ray Castillo and Neftali Galvan. Garner has worked on campus since he was 17. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

“I’d like to touch every tree on campus before I leave,” he says.

That’s not a flip aspiration, Garner is a Stanford stalwart – he arrived here when he was just 17, going to work at an on-site nursery that grew flowers and plants for the university. His father owned land in Sunnyvale and Garner grew up harvesting fruit and nut trees, so the move into grounds work made sense. The teenager’s first campus assignment was to place fresh flowers in a vase at the front door of the Stanfords’ mausoleum every Friday. He also delivered flowers weekly to the dorm lobbies and residence hall offices.

From there, Garner started working part time in the tree crew. He helped plant the palm trees outside the museum and the oaks along Lasuen Mall decades ago. The plantings at SLAC, including the large eucalyptus trees, were done on his watch.

After 40 years on the job, Garner no longer climbs trees but he supervises 10 staff members, eight of whom are tree specialists. They spend their days high in the air, clipped to harnesses and ropes as they trim and cut trees.

“It’s just unending,” Garner says about the workload across the sprawling campus. “We deal with all the faculty and staff housing, academic [areas], the hospital, all the open land.”

Garner receives requests from the Facilities Operations’ work-control center and gives job estimates to clients before setting schedules. “When the job starts, I want to make sure everyone understands what they are doing,” he says. “When it’s complete, I check it. I want to make sure it’s done the way people want, and that they’re happy. That’s my routine with every job.”

Some of that experience has been learned the hard way. About five years ago, Garner says, he was given orders to cut down eucalyptus trees at a site where bleachers were under construction on Angell Field. As work was progressing, someone from outside campus arrived to inform Garner that these were “historic trees” planted by university founder Leland Stanford himself. Although the work had been approved, Garner says he should gave checked further. “We got a nasty write-up in the local paper,” he says. “Ouch, that hurt.” Eventually, following further negotiation, the trees came down.

“I’ve got one of the best crews. They climb around and swing around. But they’re conscious of safety. I don’t want anyone going airborne.”

—Bob Garner

Tree crew supervisor

But most of the time, Garner’s conscientious and easy-going manner helps with deal with customers. Glenis Koehne, assistant manager of property services at Stanford Management, which oversees 3,700 acres of university land, says that she relies on Garner’s experience and tact. He concurs: “I pretty well know everybody in the place after 40 years. I know who lives where, who not to mess with, who bites.”

Despite a grueling daily commute from his home in Stockton, Garner plans to continue working until a new seven-year campus tree survey is completed in about four or five years. The work is divided between the academic and faculty-staff housing areas and is based on a computerized tree inventory begun in 1984. The inventory records a tree’s species, its height and diameter and whether the specimen is suffering from disease or pests. So far, 25,708 trees have been inventoried. The campus also boasts an estimated 25,000 trees in the Arboretum, and more plantings in the foothills, student housing and Stanford shopping center.

“The [survey] is considered fairly essential for maintaining trees,” says arborist Karen Stidd as she sits in front of a computer screen that shows a campus map divided into dozens of grids that she clicks on to show the precise locations and types of trees. “With this, we can budget and plan schedules accordingly.”

The survey is an improvement from earlier years when tight budgets meant that the tree crews took care of problem areas only. Now the goal is to attend to each tree in the center of campus every seven years. Garner says that funding for grounds work increased after Gerhard Casper became president in 1992. It was tied to the ongoing construction program, which included monies for landscaping and replanting. With so much building still taking place, Garner’s experience is put to use, says grounds manager Herb Fong. “Bob’s seen a lot,” he says. “He’s good with new construction and has a good artistic eye.”

Koehne from Stanford Management also relies on Garner’s broad experience. She hires his crews to trim trees, remove downed logs from San Francisquito Creek and mow grass in the foothills that might become a safety hazard.

“[Garner] has foreseen things that could become a problem,” she says. “He’s very sensitive to the different areas and he absolutely loves the trees. He’s nursed campus and seen it grow.”

Spend a few hours with Garner, and it becomes clear how much this Bay Area native cares about his job. His ruddy complexion reflects the years spent working under the hot Peninsula sun. “Originally, when I came to the university, the open land here was just beautiful,” he says. “Today, you get out of Stanford and there’s no open space. Here, there’s still open space. I’m outside six hours a day. I love it. I just love it.”

Although Garner regrets watching open fields turn into construction sites, he is resigned to development. “That’s progress,” he says. “Now, you’re getting into more of a confined space. Before, it was all open land. Now the buildings have encroached, and the trees are up against the buildings.” Garner says that these days the university administration pays attention to the visual aesthetics of the campus, which keeps his tree crews busy. “They want everything to look nice,” he says.

Garner’s lifelong trade has changed since he started scrambling up trees as a boy. In recent years, tree surgeons have started using rock-climbing equipment, which has made it faster and easier to work. “I’ve got one of the best crews,” he says. “They climb around and swing around. But they’re conscious of safety. I don’t want anyone going airborne.”

Garner intends to maintain his crews’ safety record until he retires. His boss, grounds supervisor Bob Murphy, says that he is not looking forward to that day. “He’s saved me from making so many mistakes it’s not funny,” Murphy says. “I really value his input and help. When I lose him I’m going to be hard-pressed to replace him.”