Employee Q&A: Tanya Quist, Director of the Campus Arboretum

Employee Q&A: Tanya Quist, Director of the Campus Arboretum

By Amanda BallardUniversity Relations - Communications
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Name: Tanya Quist
Position: Director of the Campus Arboretum
Number of years at the UA: 4
Favorite thing about working at the UA: The students. I feel very privileged to know so many extraordinary young people and to have such an intimate, engaging interaction with them. They are the future stewards of our land and I want them to have the skills and knowledge to make a difference when they leave here.
Why is sustainable landscaping on campus important? As a land-grant school, it's our responsibility to be ahead of the curve. I think of our campus landscape as our best marketing tool since every square inch of our campus can potentially reflect our expertise. The campus should represent best practices that promote social, economic and environmental sustainability. It's our opportunity to implement best practices and provide an example that others can follow.


Tanya Quist, director of the UA Campus Arboretum, says it takes more than a green thumb to create a healthy landscape.

Quist, who is also a faculty member in the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences' School of Plant Sciences, has extensively researched plant stress, an important topic for plants in the desert Southwest that constantly face drought and other environmental challenges.

Originally from Nova Scotia, Canada, Quist came to the UA for the opportunity to share her passion for plants as director of the UA Campus Arboretum, which is dedicated to promoting sustainable landscape practices and serves as a "living tree laboratory" for research, education and outreach. The UA is the oldest continually maintained public green space in Arizona, and recently earned its fifth Tree Campus USA Designation. (Read more about the UA's Tree Campus USA Designation in this UANews article.)

"The fact that we have trees here at all is really pretty extraordinary," Quist said. "This job was perfect for me because it gave me an opportunity to communicate to others some of the passion, curiosity and respect I have for these trees."

With more than 550 tree species on campus, keeping track of them all is a job in itself. However, Quist also helps with plant selection, provides talk and workshops on tree science, answers questions from people throughout Arizona about plant care, and coordinates scheduled and custom tours of the Campus Arboretum along with public outreach events promoting sustainable landscaping.

"I am totally addicted to plants," she said. "I'm doing a lot of garden installations for class and with Facilities Management this semester, and sometimes I'll go to bed at night and wake up in the morning still thinking where a plant is going to go. It's an incredible challenge to match the best plant for a location."

In honor of the UA's EarthWeek this week, and Earth Day on April 22, Lo Que Pasa recently talked with Quist about her career.

What motivated you to learn about plant sciences?

I was born and raised in Nova Scotia, Canada. My dad was a geologist and my mom was a nurse by profession, but was an avid naturalist. We spent a lot of time outside. The outdoors were a really important part in my life. So, I don't know that I had a choice except to study plants. I believe we need to understand more about plant biology so we can better understand how our actions in urban settings affect their ability to thrive and continue to provide us with the ecological services that sustain life.

What was your first job?

I've had a varied job history before settling on plant science. I was nanny, I worked in a pizza restaurant, I worked in a women's dress shop and I worked at a herbarium. My first day on campus as an undergrad I went up to the herbarium curator and said, "I'd like to work here." They hired me right off the bat. I think they were shocked I was so assertive, but again, I knew this is what I wanted to do.

Describe what you do.

Most of my position is instruction. I teach a variety of plant sciences courses. I also do academic advising for the plant science and sustainable plant systems majors and minors. That's a lot of time, but is also very rewarding working with students. On top of these responsibilities, I also serve as director of the Campus Arboretum. A big part of this job is consulting, providing training and talking with people on and off campus who have concerns about plant selection and health care. My responsibility on campus also allows me to work with Facilities Management Grounds Services to make sure that we have accurate inventory, and keep records of landscape management. All the trees on campus are accessioned since the first step in taking care of something is knowing where it's at and how it's doing. I also work with campus planners to make sure we're constantly introducing new plants and that plants are being selected and sited properly so they have the greatest chance of surviving and doing well in the landscape. ... In addition to that, we have a lot of interest in campus and community outreach. We do a lot of tours with classes on campus and support many other formal courses that use the Campus Arboretum as their "living laboratory." In addition to that, we've invested a lot of time in the last two years developing community outreach tours to help interpret the historic, artistic and scientific value of the landscape.

How are campus produce harvest efforts going?

Dr. Melanie Lenart in SWES (soil, water and environmental science), led Project LEAF – Linking Edible Arizona Forests – in organizing campus harvesting of olives from trees last fall and now, citrus this spring. I think of the produce generated by a tree as a sort of natural capital. Harvesting is a way to capitalize on our landscape management effort and see greater return on our investment. These activities not only promote sustainable landscapes but also build community and bring people together. I'm really hopeful that those programs will gain some momentum not just on campus, but off campus as well. People are really interested. They want to learn more and participate.

What tips do you have for choosing trees to plant in Tucson landscapes?

I think it's really important to think outside the box and customize tree choice to the site conditions. Use native plants wherever possible, but also recognize that you can expand landscape diversity by choosing some exotic or regionally adapted plants. This is the strategy followed throughout the Campus Arboretum's history that makes our landscape unique. We have some 120 years of experience and expertise with desert horticulture and plants from arid regions throughout the world.

What are some of the most interesting trees on campus?

The olive trees are among the oldest. They were planted by Robert Forbes, who was the first Agriculture Experiment Station director. He was an interesting character. He lived to be more than 100 years old and was active on campus throughout his whole life. He was trained as a chemist at Harvard and was hired in 1891, the first year the UA doors opened. We have records by 1895 of him planting his second batch of olive trees along North Rogers Way. That means sometime in the first couple of years he was able to travel around the world, select different varieties of olive and plant them along what we now call Park Avenue as his first research test to determine which of those cultivars would be best for Tucson. For olive trees, they're relatively young. Olive trees can live a thousand years, so our 100-year-old olive trees are not really significantly old, but they're among the oldest on campus.

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