Landscape Construction Renovates Leaning Pine Arboretum Garden

By Simeon Johnson

Learn by Doing is a crucial principle behind everything taught at Cal Poly's College of Architecture and Environmental Design. From studying the conceptual and theoretical basis for design to preparing construction details at the end of a project, every student participates in a hands-on learning experience. 

During the spring quarter of 2022, Advanced Landscape Construction faculty member Joseph Ragsdale took this philosophy a step further, tasking his class to design and construct a renovation for Leaning Pine Arboretum's formal garden. 

“In the original garden, seating-oriented visitors had their back to the fountain and faced away into the garden,” Ragsdale explained. “The new plan moved the path in and created seating focusing on the fountain.”

Fourth-year landscape architecture students Emerson Goo and Jon Ngai cut concrete blocks for the retaining wall at the CAED shop

While most landscape architecture professionals are not directly responsible for the construction of their designs, exposure to this design-build project is a valuable opportunity for students to learn about client reviews, budgeting, material selection, sustainability considerations, design documentation, construction techniques, and time management. By transforming their ideas from drawings to tangible landscape elements, students better understand related career opportunities outside the design studio, such as horticulture and construction management. 

“We had to take on leadership roles and create clear deadlines in order to stay on track to finish,” said fourth-year landscape architecture student John Ty.


1. Fourth-year landscape architecture student John Ty plants marigolds at the fountain's base 2. Students assemble the entrance arbor

The class of 17 fourth- and fifth-year students were divided into four teams to complete the renovations for the arboretum. The students had to decide on appropriate elements to develop, working from a program and design ideas provided by the client, Arboretum Director Christopher Wassenberg. 

Students worked four hours a day twice weekly to construct the garden improvements. The teams created an entrance arbor, rebuilt a low wooden retaining wall, and added custom benches, a mosaic and some additional planting around the fountain's base. By the end of the spring quarter, the project was complete, and the garden was open for arboretum visitors. 

Despite its success, student design-build projects face a recurring issue, a need for more funding. Due to the nature of these large-scale projects, students cannot cover construction costs independently, and applying for grants can be lengthy and require significant assistance from faculty. 

This project was made possible thanks to the student's hard work, Ragsdale's leadership, assistance from Taylor Boyle and Michael Voigt, and funding from Kathleen and Gerald Finken's $1 million Upgrades and Improved Programming Gift to the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Science for the Leaning Pine Arboretum.


1. Students add aggregate as a footing for the retaining wall 2. Advanced Landscape Construction (LA 350) team poses in front of completed renovations

“This class would not be possible without the funding we got, and it granted us the truest form of Cal Poly's Learn by Doing motto,” Ty said. “To this day, it is one of the most enriching courses I've taken, and I hope it continues so other students can experience the same.” With continued support, the CAED can provide opportunities for future designers.

If you would like to help our students Learn by Doing and lead through practice, please consider donating by clicking here.

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