Rooted in History

Greenhouses and propagation house, circa 1908.
Photograph by Frank Aston.


By Laura Sorvetti | University Archives

Since Cal Poly opened to students in the fall of 1903, horticulture has been an important part of the curriculum. These photo postcards, highlighting campus facilities and student work, show the horticultural unit circa 1908. At the time of the photographs, Cal Poly had greenhouses, a propagation house, and lath house available to students in agriculture and household arts courses. The unit was originally located at the center of campus, approximately where Via Carta runs between the Baker Center for Science and Mathematics and the Alan A. Erhart Agriculture building today.

Students from a variety of programs used these spaces to learn elementary plant propagation and practical botany. Floriculture students grew cut flowers for the local community and for faculty offices. Students in household arts gathered experience with ornamental plants, and horticulture students practiced cross-pollination methods for tomatoes. Practical experience in the greenhouses was combined with tours to local commercial facilities to prepare students for a range of professions, from orchard managers to commercial landscape architects.

For the next three decades the horticulture unit continued with these facilities. When Howard C. Brown, who once served as head of the Ornamental Horticulture Department, arrived at Cal Poly as a landscape gardening student in 1939, he recalled that there were 25 students in the program, and Wilbur B. Howes, first department head, was the only faculty member. Brown recalls, “Each greenhouse was heated with a gas-fired Reznor-type heater made by Cal Poly’s air conditioning department. When it got cold enough in the fall for heat, we wadded up newspaper balls soaked in gasoline, turned on the gas, and threw the lit paper balls toward the heater. It was important to duck because the flame shot out like an army flamethrower.”

Eventually, the needs of the department outgrew the space, and in 1956 the Horticulture Unit moved to a new 18,000-square-foot facility at Grand Avenue, approximately where the Yosemite Residence Halls stand today, humorously referred to as “Aphid Acres.” As the campus and department continued to grow, the unit moved once more in 1969 to the present site at the north end of campus at the current Environmental Horticulture Unit. Today, students continue practical and research horticulture, honoring a longstanding commitment to Learn by Doing at Cal Poly.

Horticulture student tending ornamental plants in the greenhouse, circa 1908.
Photograph by Frank Aston.


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