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By Donna Mallen, for Let's Talk Plants! February 2023. All photos by Criselda Yee and used with permission.

Photo Credit: Criselda Yee. (L) Karen England, President, San Diego Horticultural Society, and (R) Bob Lutticken, 2023 SDHS Horticulturist of the Year at the Abraxas Garden, Abraxas High School, Poway, CA.


As he started off excitedly in his new career as a professional baseball catcher, young Bob Lutticken surely did not imagine that decades later he would find himself where he is today.

In his role as the visionary Biology teacher at Abraxas High School in Poway, he has worked with his at-risk and special needs students to create a fantasy-world organic, aquaponic, Tilapia-and-compost-fed, high-yield garden that produces thousands of pounds of top-quality vegetables to share with the community every year. Abraxas donates its bounty to local organizations that feed those in need, relying on grants and donations to its non-profit foundation to maintain and expand the Garden.

The Abraxas Garden originated as a concrete tennis court on the Abraxas High School campus. Today, it holds three large compost bins, long rows of raised vegetable beds - some with traditional compost-enriched soil and some with water coursing through troughs where the plants are being aquaponically grown in water from the 217 Tilapia living in their pond at the end of the garden, where they are raised for their fertilizer out-put, rather than as a food product.

Next on the horizon is an expansion of their small collection of fruit trees into an orchard.

Thanks to a local family’s donation of restaurant-quality stoves and cooking equipment, which have been installed in the garden, the students’ opportunities to learn have already expanded into the field of culinary arts.

All photos by Criselda Yee are used with permission.

After president Karen England explained the history of the Horticulturist of the Year award, reading off all twenty-seven names, starting with Chuck Kline, who was the first in 1996, she also ran through what the award entails; a lifetime membership to the SDHS, Felco pruners, a Ray Brooks wood turned pen, a leather-bound journal and more. The garden itself received a bay tree, Laurus nobilis, and the students, school and library were given a set of Herb of the Year™️ books that included Bay.

Introducing Bob to the audience at our Horticulturist of the Year ceremony, held in the Abraxas Garden, “Farmer Roy” Wilburn, Director of Horticulture at Poway Gardens Senior Living Center, and a SD Hort Soc Board Member, called him a “Life Coach.” The smiles on the faces of the students who were there showed their agreement with that designation, as did the high praise given him by the second guest speaker, Reinhold Mueller, Co-President of the of the Poway Valley Garden Club.

As Bob spoke to the audience, his passion for helping at-risk students change their own futures by developing hands-on expertise and confidence in their transferable job skills was obvious. His pride in their accomplishments was clear as he described how the students have built everything in this garden as it evolved through various iterations to its present status as a locally and nationally recognized model garden.

World-wide, aquaponics is on the cutting edge of agriculture, including in San Diego County, which is still the number one site of small farms in the nation. Bob studied the process on YouTube, and brought the idea to the garden, where the students constructed the unique Abraxas system and keep it functioning.

Photo credit Criselda Yee.

The Abraxas Garden serves as a demonstration garden where people can see how much food a small tennis court-sized plot can yield as our need increases for locally grown food, produced organically and sustainably.

All photos by Criselda Yee and used with permission.

The students who work there not only gain an advanced education beyond what a “normal” high school can teach them, they learn to support others in their community who need the food supply the students are creating. What a great way to start their futures!


Donna Mallen is the Programs Coordinator on the board of the San Diego Horticultural Society. Have you enjoyed a recent SDHS meeting program or programs? You have Donna to thank.


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