Mike Baad makes the trek daily, walking under the canopy of big trees while he surveys the health of newer residents. He knows each one by name, some since they were just wee sprouts.
"This guy needs more water," he noted while hovering over a small shrub.
Struggling to find sun, a little -foot fir copes with its oversize neighbors. "Maybe a little pruning is in order," Baad observed of the branches overhead.
His hands-on approach has helped his flora friends survive and thrive during the most trying of conditions. Hot Sacramento summers are bad enough; this garden deals with a lengthy budget drought, too.
Thanks to Baad and other dedicated volunteers, the University Arboretum at California State University, Sacramento, keeps growing amid hard times.
"Unfortunately, we're not specifically funded," said Baad, the arboretum's longtime director and a retired university professor. "I pay for any trees or new plants out of my pocket."
Baad has worked with the arboretum since he joined the university's staff in 1969.
"He is an inspiration to me for his constancy and faithful work to maintain and improve the Sac State arboretum in the face of limited support," said his longtime friend Warren Roberts, superintendent emeritus of the UC Davis Arboretum. "I love and admire Sac State's arboretum and applaud Dr. Baad's untiring work on its behalf."
Baad still teaches part-time to fund the arboretum. He keeps collecting rare and unusual additions to this living library.
"I wait until they survive two years before I invest in a (plant) ID label," he said. "The labels cost $15 apiece; it adds up. But if (a plant) can make it past two seasons, it usually will survive much longer."
Sacramento State's arboretum may not have as many plants or trees as its counterpart at UC Davis or a worldwide reputation, but the 3-acre oasis is a green gem honed by a devoted plantsman.
"Dr. Baad is the truly passionate advocate for our lovely and fascinating Sacramento State University Arboretum, a hidden horticultural jewel in plain sight," Roberts said. "This small and lovely grove of trees many of them rare and unusual in our area is championed and cared for by Dr. Baad and dedicated gardeners."
Located at the campus' J Street entrance, the Sacramento State arboretum is a haven for students, faculty and staff as well as the surrounding community. Founded in 1959, it's still not well known outside its immediate neighborhood.
Formerly the C.M. Goethe Arboretum, the name was changed without fanfare to University Arboretum in 2005. Also gone are the remains of a $100,000 bequest by controversial Sacramento developer and banker Charles Goethe, who donated millions to community projects but also advocated racism.
Among the original plantings, a stand of mammoth redwoods blocks out noise from busy J Street. Towering eucalyptus trees shade the pathway.
"It used to be a pear orchard and hop ranch," Baad said of the arboretum's site. "These trees have grown pretty well; they must like it here."
If Baad has his way, this "secret" arboretum is about to be discovered by a wider audience. A one-man outreach effort, he's started a personal campaign to gain recognition for the arboretum and its growing assets about 1,200 trees.
"I'm trying to set up a building fund to create an activity center," he explained. "Most of the time, we're just trying to keep up with water and weeds."
The university's maintenance staff keeps the strips of lawn near the arboretum's entrance mowed. Most of the trees get well water through the university's irrigation system.
But otherwise, it's up to Baad and the arboretum's friends to keep their urban forest green.
"Hopefully, our budget will get better," Baad said. "We'll be fine."
Baad wants to solidify the arboretum's future for generations to come.
"We host a lot of classes and student groups of all ages," Baad said. "In addition to college classes, we have elementary school teachers who bring their kids here to learn about trees and nature. That's why I planted so many different trees so students could compare species and learn in one place.
"Any university should have an arboretum just for that purpose," he added. "It truly is a living library. From an educational standpoint, we're always trying to maximize diversity."
There are few other opportunities to see such trees in Northern California. Because of its boron-free well water, University Arboretum can grow things UC Davis can't.
Said Roberts, "Many of the species in the arboretum are not to be found elsewhere in the Central Valley, including the UC Davis Arboretum."
Ranging from a rare Afghan pine to a prickly Taiwania (from Taiwan, of course) to Australia's living fossil Wollemi, the Sacramento State conifer collection is impressive in its scope.
"We have conifers from throughout the world," Baad said. "It works really well as a teaching tool."
Some were collected nearby. For example, a statuesque Digger pine came from Woodland.
"The Digger pine grew incredible fast," Baad said. "It loves the deep soil."
For comparison, groves in the arboretum group similar but different trees and shrubs. The arboretum's "Jurassic Park" shelters primitive flowering plants descended from the age of dinosaurs. A large area is devoted to more than 250 different California natives. A pie-shaped garden is sliced into three regions with similar climates African, Australian and Mediterranean.
"Students call it the Mediterranean pizza; every slice is different," Baad said. "California is attractive to different types of plants that grow in Mediterranean climates. These plants come from all over the world, yet share a lot in common."
That example of what can grow in Sacramento is valuable for the community, too.
"Most of the trees are labeled so that students and community members can learn their names and see firsthand how well they do in Sacramento," Roberts said. "As best he possibly can, Dr. Baad makes sure that the trees and their labels are maintained so that we can learn about them, their research potential, their conservation and heritage values, and their special beauty."
Baad hopes visitors will look around the arboretum and find something they'd like to plant at home.
"People have a tendency to plant what you find at Home Depot," he said. "But there are so many other possibilities. You can choose plants from around the world and see just how it grows in Sacramento."
In late afternoon, the volunteers gather to work in the arboretum's shade. Some come after their work day is over to chip in on garden chores. Others are retired or between jobs.
Larry Hintz, the husband of a university professor, volunteered to help the arboretum after he was laid off from his city park maintenance job in Rocklin.
"Mike told me to cut down some privets," Hintz said. "He got me right there."
Hintz zipped through the unwanted privets, then got to work on other projects. Remove a giant wasp nest from bench? Out of there. Clean up dead vines? Done. Weed the walkways? It's an unending task.
"I love doing this," Hintz said. "I used to work with NASA, testing life support survival technology. But I love being outdoors. I can help out Mike, pruning away dead wood and cleaning up stuff. Next, I'm going to attack the irrigation system."
Jolane Free, 76, comes to the arboretum after a full day of working with children with special needs. She pulls her red wagon along the trail, stooping to grab errant paper or stray dandelions and add to her portable bin.
"What's not to like?" she said of the arboretum. "When you step from the parking lot into here, it's another world. It's a peaceful, serene place."
Free, who has volunteered at the arboretum for five years, gets great joy by helping this garden grow.
"The Mediterranean mounds are my thing," she said. "I just love them. I get a lot of satisfaction seeing things evolve.
"I just enjoy volunteering," she added. "It's so satisfying. And this place "
Free took a deep breath, inhaling the scent of the surrounding pines, then pointed to a grove framing the trail. "Look down a certain (path), see those trees and you discover what's beautiful in the world."