CNR Nursery Nurtures Natives

May 09, 2011

By Steven Finacom

UC students, faculty, and staff gathered at the lunch hour on Berkeley’s warmest day of the year so far to inaugurate a green seedling–a new “Strawberry Creek Native Plant Nursery and Garden” on the campus. They dined on watermelon and strawberries, planted a few symbolic natives, and basked in the accomplishment of a small but significant environmental milestone for the campus.

Adjacent to Giannini Hall and within the College of Natural Resources complex, the modest wooden structure roofed with shade cloth is intended to nurture native plants to be used along the Strawberry Creek watershed on campus and also serve as a locus for teaching about natives and ecological restoration. A plot of ground adjacent to the structure has also been prepared as a demonstration garden for native plants.

“This is a very auspicious occasion,” said Tim Pine from the Environmental Health and Safety program (EH&S) on the campus who emceed the event. “There’s been a very vibrant and passionate movement to preserve and restore Strawberry Creek on campus.”

Except for two small stretches, Strawberry Creek is above ground and lined with riparian plantings as its two branches wind through the approximately 200 acre campus. It’s the longest stretch of Berkeley’s most prominent creek above ground within the City limits.

The campus stretch of the Creek was originally lined with native, riparian, landscape, later replaced in many areas with imported ornamentals and non-native plantings of California coastal redwoods.

Pine traced the origins of the modern effort to restore the Creek to the 1980s work of Robert Charbonneau, then a Cal graduate student. He prepared a Strawberry Creek Management Plan which “focused on water quality and preventing discharge” into the Creek..

“He saw a creek in decline and in need of some TLC,” said Pine. “We’ve got Creek water quality to a pretty good spot right now.” “We started realizing we had a little time to focus on the habitat, the riparian corridors.”

In and after the middle of the 20th century ivy, a popular landscaping material, was planted, then spread, becoming the primary ground cover along much of the Creek. EH&S staff, including Karl Hans, started organizing volunteer parties to pull ivy from the Creek banks, an effort joined by many student volunteers.

Once the ivy was pulled, however, the question was what would be put there? “Now what do you do?” said Pine. “Heal the ills of the last century as quickly as possible. We thought we could grow plants.” “We decided we needed a more formal effort to bring these areas back,” said Pine.

Initially plants to put along the Creek were grown by individuals, in their home gardens and even on their office windowsills, said Pine.

Those efforts led to the current project, funded in part by the a grant from the Green Initiative Fund (TGIF) on campus. The Fund was established by a vote of students in the 2006-07 year, taxing themselves five dollars per semester to pay for innovative campus programs focused on sustainability and the environment.

The funds helped pay for the lathe house structure and demonstration garden area which, Pine emphasized, needed to be on the central campus to attract the time and interest of busy undergraduate students. The structure was constructed primarily with volunteer labor. It took nearly three years “to the day” Pine said from the project proposal to completion of the facility.

Pine gave credit to two past students from a campus group called Engineers for a Sustainable World for helping to get the project underway. “Engineers. They wanted to write the grant with me. Take that, biologists!” said Pine, to laughter.

According to the grant, “This project is driven by four purposes: to maintain a seed stock for restoring the creek's riparian zone with native plants, to preserve species endemic to Strawberry Creek whose existence are threatened by the spread of invasive species, to provide ecosystem services to the campus landscape, and to serve as an effective site for environmental education.”

Pine also credited faculty from the College of Natural Resources, campus staff from Facilities Services including Campus Landscape Architect Jim Horner and head inspector Joel Wishnoff and grounds supervisor Theron Klos, and several students for their key roles in planning the new facility, getting it approved, and constructing it.

Pine especially acknowledged Greg Haet, head of EH&S, for “instilling in our group that achieving mere compliance isn’t doing the job for us,” and for encouraging the campus to “go beyond the stuff we have to do simply because it’s the law.” In this case, the philosophy led to an active program to restore the riparian landscape, rather than just cleaning up and monitoring the water quality.

“This structure was just a glimmer in our eyes for a long time,” added Karl Hans from EH&S who worked on the construction of the facility. “Nothing like this is going to happen without a champion like Tim.”

When it was time to open the structure, Pine called on one of the student participants to cut the “ribbon” holding the doors closed, explaining that in his family there is a tradition that the youngest person takes the lead in any ceremonial occasion–since they’re likely to be alive the longest to remember it.

After the opening, student David Pon led a group of volunteers in planting natives in the demonstration plot nearby.

The trend of facilities like this–which might be thought of as a micro or hyper-local nursery movement–focuses on growing native plants from a very specific geographical and biotic area to use in replanting that same territory.

For more information on the TGIF fund:

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