Makeover Returns UC Riverside’s Picnic Hill to Former Glory

Eucalytpus trees saved from invasive beetle and new plants beautify the area

sitting in a park

Violet Vargas and Jami Holland of the UCR School of Medicine enjoy lunch on Picnic Hill on a recent afternoon. Photo by Ross French

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Since the campus’ opening 1954, and possibly even dating back to the days of the UC Citrus Experiment Station, Picnic Hill at the University of California, Riverside was a go-to destination for students, staff and faculty, and their families, to spend some quiet time with friends, have a bite to eat, or just taking in the scenery. The hidden gem of green space with picnic tables and a beautiful stone barbeque pit has a great view of the Box Spring Mountains and a lush canopy of shade-producing eucalyptus trees. Located just east of the School of Medicine Research Building, the park was considered by some to be one of the best kept secrets on the campus.

campus map

Picnic Hill is indicated by the red arrow.

“(Former UCR Athletics Director) Frank Lindeburgh would help organize family picnics on ‘Picnic Hill,’ located behind the old Citrus Experiment Station,” recalled Ann Straubinger DeWolf (’67) in an article in the December 2000 issue of the UCR Magazine Fiat Lux. “There would be a big barbecue, games, and lots of ruckus as we kids would scramble over the boulders. My family would also picnic there after church at least once a month.”

Assistant  Vice Chancellor for Housing, Dining and Residential Services Andy Plumley, a 1982 graduate of UCR, said he had many memories of Picnic Hill and called it “a great destination for special barbeques for many hall communities. It’s a nice place to get away without going far.”

But Picnic Hill had suffered a decline in recent years, with several factors, including outdated irrigation and an infestation of Eucalyptus Long-Horned Beetle Borers, combining to turn the once lush space into a mess of “dirt and leaves, with unkempt and old tables,” according to Violet Vargas, a senior analyst with the School of Medicine who was eating lunch with colleague Jami Holland on a recent afternoon and who has been a regular lunchtime visitor to Picnic Hill since 1990.

“The trees had become overgrown and the shrubs and turf were stressed,” explained Raymond Bolles, senior landscape supervisor for UCR Physical Plant’s Grounds Department. “The hill suffered and became a victim of lack of attention and maintenance due to reduction in staff as labor resources were diverted to other high traffic areas of the campus. Not many people frequented the hill. It did not feel like a comfortable space. It was old and tired, needed a kickstart or face lift.”

In September 2013, members of the grounds crew began looking at the hill and working on ways to return the hill to its former beauty. The first challenge was to get rid of the insects that were threatening to kill the 50-plus-year-old eucalyptus trees.  After confirming the species of insect that was attacking the tree with UCR Professor of Entomology Tim Paine, pest control crews began a chemical treatment of the trees. But that was only half of the problem. The irrigation and maintenance of the trees also had to be addressed.

tree stumps and trees

Crews removed dozens of Chinese hackberry trees from the grounds of Picnic Hill, replacing them with a variety of trees that will be more compatible with the old-growth eucalyptus trees. Photo by Ross French

“We examined the understory landscape and irrigation, maintenance tree trimming and labor practices. The entire hill landscape was evaluated and a plan was developed to create a healthy environment for the trees,” Bolles said, adding that three trees were too damaged to survive and had to be removed while others were trimmed back with dead and hanging branches removed.

The grounds crew also removed dozens of Chinese hackberry trees, which had flourished in recent years and were competing with the eucalyptus for water and nutrients. They then cleaned up leaf and branch debris before installing a new automatic irrigation system.

“The hackberry trees created an unsafe condition just through their sheer numbers. The lower, northern portion of the hill was almost impossible to walk and see through, and their canopy covers contained branches and debris from the eucalyptus trees,” Bolles said, adding that the surviving eucalyptus have responded well and are already showing new growth.

Crews replaced the hackberries with 30 assorted trees. The new trees are part of the Green Trees for the Golden State program, funded by a grant from CALFIRE, that will see a total of 400 trees planted across the campus.

Bolles said the final steps were done in January, as crews planted new shrubs and low-water succulents, including some plants moved from campus construction sites. A layer of mulch, made of the chipped tree material, was laid on the hill and rye grass was planted in the picnic areas.

planter

UC Riverside Grounds staff planted a variety of new shrubs and succulents on Picnic Hill. Photo by Ross French

“I love the makeover. It was a nice surprise to see the improvements,” said Holland, an academic affairs analyst in the School of Medicine Division of Clinical Sciences. “They did a great job implementing the natural setting to include the large boulders, succulent plants and the nice green grass. “

With the spring-like weather that has graced the campus in early 2014, many members of the campus community have discovered, or rediscovered Picnic Hill.

“It seems to be attracting more and more people,” Holland said. “Maybe we can get a few more picnic tables?”

“The hill is still a work in progress, and there is much more to be done. But through time and effort we have transformed Picnic Hill back into a place where people can gather for lunch, or take refuge to study in a peaceful, manicured park-type setting,” Bolles said. “Everyone on the Grounds team deserves credit for this.”

Picnic Hill may be reserved by on-campus  organizations for $5 an hour through the Highlander Union Building Events Scheduling portal.

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