Your Community Parks, Open Spaces, and Gardens Need You

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Picture a place in your community that you visit regularly to relax, walk, play, picnic, or just enjoy being outdoors. Have you ever helped take care of it?

If you answered yes, thank you.

For those of you who answered no (not yet), you are in luck because opportunities abound to do your part in keeping the outdoor spaces in your community beautiful, functional, fun, clean, and safe.

It is easy to talk yourself into believing that someone else will do it, especially when you are feeling overly busy and stressed out (or even when you are not). However, the reality is that public outdoor spaces are chronically underfunded and understaffed. Chances are that the hardworking employees and loyal cadres of volunteers who tend your community parks, gardens, and open spaces would appreciate your help.

Imagine the possibilities if you, me, and everyone else contributed even just one morning or afternoon a year to help care for an outdoor space that we feel is special. The number of trees planted, native plants rescued, playgrounds rehabilitated, walking trails maintained, picnic tables refurbished, weeds pulled, and pieces of litter picked up would be astonishing and wonderful.

Besides the obvious benefits to the community, these kinds of activities are good for your wellbeing, too. They require you to be present and to think about what you are doing not worry about micromanaging bosses, piles of laundry, or bickering family members. Working outside with other like-minded people is fun and gives you a feeling of doing something worthwhile.

Sometimes volunteer activities occur unexpectedly or by chance and turn out to be just the impetus you need to get started. That is what happened to me.

Something Happened on the Way to the Wildflower Show

A few weeks ago, I saw a notice in a newsletter from an environmental nonprofit called ECOSLO with a list of several volunteer opportunities for an event they were calling Seas to Trees Day. After consulting with my spouse, I signed us up in hopes that we would be helping with set up for the Cambria Wildflower Show.

Several days later, I received an enthusiastic email from Erin thanking me for signing up to remove invasive ice plant on the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve. I thought, “Oh no, not ice plant! I have been battling ice plant in our yard for years. Why would I want to volunteer to do it someplace else?” I considered asking for a reassignment or just telling Erin that we had changed our minds about volunteering.

The next day, I was still pondering what to do. “Hmm, we do enjoy walking on Fiscalini Ranch almost every day. This unwanted assignment provides an excellent opportunity for us to give back in a small way.”

We decided to do it.

Before I tell you how the day went, some background about ice plant and the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve might be useful.

Ice Plant

Ice plant is a hardy and fast-growing plant with long-lasting flowers that are quite lovely when it is growing along its native coast in South Africa. It is an unwelcome interloper where I live on the Central California Coast and many other places. Ice plant spreads quickly and has a way of taking over an entire area hogging all the sunlight, water, and soil nutrients for itself. Ice plant chokes out the native plants that are used to playing nicely with their neighbors and do not have a defense against this invader.

When my spouse and I moved to our current home about ten years ago, there were several places in our wild yard that ice plant had completely taken over by stealthily crawling over from neighboring yards. It took me several years with a shovel and a pair of loppers to remove the ice plant from our yard. I have tried explaining to the plants that they should avoid our yard because as soon as they reach over the property line I am going to cut off their new growth, but apparently, we are having a language barrier because they will not stop trying to build a new outpost in our yard.

Our ice plant situation seems insignificant to the enormous incursion at the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve.

Fiscalini Ranch Preserve

The Fiscalini Ranch Preserve encompasses 437 acres in the midst of our small town with trails along the ocean bluffs and through our precious Monterey pine forest. This special place exists because a dedicated group of people worked for years to block development on this land that had been used partly for grazing sheep and cattle. Eventually, they raised enough money to purchase the land and protect it forever.

As I mentioned earlier, my spouse and I walk on the Ranch many times a week, mostly on the bluff trail. During the two-mile round trip, we look for whale spouts, otters, and sea lions, watch a wide variety of local and migratory birds soar and swoop overhead, and observe the landscape as it changes throughout the year.

At some time in the distant past, someone must have planted ice plant on the Ranch. It probably seemed like a good idea at the time, however, it has now spread down over a huge swath of the bluff cliffs and it is continually marching towards the nearby path. In some places, native plants are struggling to survive in the middle of large patches of ice plant or taking a stand along the edges. In other areas, the ice plant has completely taken over.

The nonprofit Friends of the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve and other diligent volunteers have been successful at keeping the ice plant from crossing the path and moving onto the rest of the Ranch. They have also embarked on a massive and probably decades-long project to clear the ice plant growing between the path and the cliff edge. Native plants are making a comeback in the cleared areas.

Occasionally I have had a fleeting thought that I should help with the ice plant removal on the Ranch but I never actually did it, until the Seas and Trees Day event.

Seas and Trees Day Event

When Saturday, April 28 rolled around, I slathered on sunscreen and donned my California Native Plant Society t-shirt and a pair of gauntlet type gloves that I always wear to do yard work because I do not like creepy crawlies. I filled up my reusable water bottle and grabbed a pair of clippers my spouse had thoughtfully gotten out of the garage.

A group of cheerful people including several Cal Poly San Luis Obispo students greeted us at the designated meeting location. After signing waiver forms, we headed down the path a short distance to the day’s ice plant removal spot. Holly, who manages projects on the Ranch, gave us a plastic tarp and explained that the mission was to get rid of the ice plant without damaging the native plants. Clearly, this was going to be a finesse job that did not involve shovels or loppers—a new experience for me.

Ice plant stems are about the thickness of a highlighter marker and attach themselves to the ground with tenacious roots every few inches. Every part of the plant stores water so it is heavy. If you are lucky, you can grab a trailing end and pull up a piece that is three or four feet long. However, most of the work that day required using clippers to cut stems around the native plants and then pull up small pieces. I was surprised at how many itty-bitty native plant seedlings were gamely trying to make a go of it under the ice plant. Freed from a dense and almost impenetrable mat of ice plant they now have a better chance of becoming adult plants.

We tossed pieces of ice plant on the tarp until it looked like it might be getting too heavy to move. Then two people picked up the corners and carefully tried to tiptoe through the native plants and dump it onto one of two piles we were creating at the edge of the cliff. Holly and other regular volunteers had their own one-person sized tarps.

Bending over clipping ice plants stems, standing up and yanking out longer pieces, and hauling a tarp full of ice plant is physically demanding so I was ready to be done when our 2-hour stint was up.

Our work made a tiny dent in the ice plant, but we did meet some delightful people and made a small contribution to the wellbeing of the Ranch. I also gained a greater appreciation for the people who take care of the Ranch day after day, week after week.

Part of the Volunteer Group in Front of One of the Piles of Ice Plant Removed at Fiscalini Ranch on April 28, 2018
Part of the Volunteer Group in Front of One of the Piles of Ice Plant Removed at Fiscalini Ranch on April 28, 2018 – Photo Credit Holly Sletteland (also the 3 above photos)

An hour or so later, wearing the same clothes, my spouse and I enjoyed the wildflower show and I savored a delicious homemade lemon bar I bought at the refreshment stand.

Holly has my name and email address now, so chances are, on some future morning, my spouse and I will find ourselves standing in the midst of another patch of ice plant on the Ranch with clippers at the ready.

Call to Action

Certainly, if an unexpected volunteer opportunity falls in your lap, accept it. However, you can take a more active approach. Choose a garden, park, or open space in your community and find out what volunteer activities are available. Then pick one and do it.

If you do not want to or are not able to contribute your physical labor, there are sure to be other ways you can help.

Do you have an artistic flair? Volunteer to design a flyer for a volunteer day. Are you good at organizing information? Offer to keep track of volunteer responses and forms. Do you know your way around social media? Volunteer to do postings and engage with people on social media. Do you like writing? Offer to write a piece for a website, newsletter, or newspaper. Do you enjoy meeting and talking with new people? Sign up to be a docent or to staff a booth at an event.

Everyone has something to offer and it is up to each one of us to do our part to take care of the community parks, open spaces, and gardens we love.

Featured Image at Top: Bluff Trail at Fiscalini Ranch Preserve in Cambria, CA, May 2018 (notice the ice plant on the left side of the trail) – Photo Credit Green Groundswell.

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Adopt a Native Plant

Native plants make good neighbors.

I did not always appreciate the beauty of native plants and how integral they are to the wellbeing of the communities in which they reside, but I do now.

A native plant is a plant or tree that is adapted to live in the soil and climate of a particular region (small or large) and that can co-exist with neighboring plants and animals without being killed off or taking over. Native plants are good for the environment because they do not require extra inputs like water, synthetic fertilizers, or pesticides. They help nourish the soil, prevent erosion, maintain biodiversity, and provide habit and food for local wildlife and people.

It was not as if I woke up one morning thinking “Wow, native plants are beautiful. I need to learn more about them.” The appreciation for native plants just sort of crept up on me after several years of living in the Monterey pine forest of the California Central Coast.

I am originally from Southern California where my spouse and I doggedly defied the hot dry climate by maintaining not one, but two turf grass lawns. We also tended two dozen rose bushes, a few hydrangeas, and a bed of azaleas. The venerable old oak tree in the corner of the backyard might have been the only native plant on the property.

As you can imagine, moving from a manicured yard to a wild one took some getting used to. What you might call a weed, we call grass. Plant and tree seedlings volunteer to live wherever the wind blows their seeds or an animal deposits them. Birds visit daily to avail themselves of our birdbaths and deer cruise through in search of food and sometimes to hang out.

By observing the land surrounding our house and nearby open spaces, I saw that some plants seemed to flourish growing with a variety of different plants, while other plants seemed to be trying to hog a whole area just for themselves. I realized that I did not know much about native and invasive plants and that even our tiny piece of land might need a hand to be at its best.

I set out to educate myself by reading, joining the California Native Plant Society, and participating in events that provide me with opportunities to learn about native plants.

In October, my spouse and I attended the fall session of the Chumash Kitchen series being held at the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden. The Chumash people have lived in this area for thousands of years so what could be better than learning about native plants from Violet and Jeanette, two Chumash women who live here now. That day it was all about oaks and acorns. I came away informed and inspired to write Thanksgiving – We are All Connected.

We pick up the thread of the Chumash Kitchen story on a cool February morning that quickly turned into a hot day.

The Chumash Kitchen

The winter session of the Chumash Kitchen began with the group gathering outside and forming a rough circle so that Violet could give us a rundown of the morning including a few hints about the native foods we would be enjoying at breakfast and lunch.

I had left my sweater inside and was feeling a bit chilled but there was no way I was going to break the circle to go get it. I forgot I was cold after Violet introduced her father, Fred, and he began telling stories about growing up in this area. Fred is a good storyteller and I think he could have entertained us indefinitely, but Violet gave him a gentle sign that he needed to wrap things up so we could all go eat breakfast.

Breakfast consisted of tasty rice, egg, and mushroom dishes made with locally harvested and foraged ingredients. I bypassed the coffee urn to try some tea made with cedar and Yerba Buena. The tea was both warm and refreshing with a slightly minty taste and a cedar fragrance.

We Meet a Toyon

After breakfast, the group set out across the grass of the adjacent park to a nearby campground to meet a plant commonly known as Toyon and called Qwe’ by the Chumash people. In the midst of winter, this 12-foot tall Toyon was glorious with evergreen leaves and branches laden with tiny ripe red berries.

Chumash Kitchen Group Photo in Front of a Toyon
Chumash Kitchen Group Photo in Front of a Toyon at El Chorro Regional Campground in San Luis Obispo, CA – Photo Courtesy of San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden

Easily passing the conversation back and forth, Jeanette and Violet shared information about Toyons, which are native to California and especially enjoy growing with oak trees. Besides being beautiful, we learned that Toyons provide habitat and food for a wide variety of wildlife as well as food, medicine, tools, and fuel for people.

Jeanette talked about how the Chumash and other indigenous people have been tending wild native plants and trees for thousands of years by gathering seeds, planting, weeding, pruning, transplanting, harvesting, and sometimes burning. When pruning a plant or harvesting from it, Chumash people give an offering of some sort, which could be a drink of water, a pinch of tobacco, a prayer, or even a piece of hair.

The Three Yerba Sisters

With the sun now bright and hot, we walked back to a cool shady area on the botanical garden grounds to learn about three California native medicinal plants and then go meet them. As Jeanette and Violet talked about the healing properties of Yerba Buena, Yerba Mansa, and Yerba Santa, they stressed that using plants for medicinal purposes is not like taking pills.

Pharmaceutical pills usually address a narrow range of ailments, have specific dosages, and are uniform in size, color, and ingredients. A plant may have many medicinal uses as well as be a source of food for people and wildlife and it is a living being so each plant in the family will have similar traits but none will be exactly alike. It is important to get to know the plant and to help care for it, after all, it is giving a part of itself for your benefit.

Yerba Santa Plant Growing at San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden
Yerba Santa Growing at the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden

After learning about the Yerba sisters, Lindsey from the botanical garden led us on a joyful walk through the garden to meet the plants.

She also gave us some background about the botanical garden, which showcases plants and trees from five Mediterranean climates like our own.

We headed back to the event center for a sumptuous lunch prepared by Violet and a talented group of volunteers.

Bountiful Lunch

The day before the event, a hardworking group of volunteers had done some of the meal prep work, which included removing two itsy bitsy seeds from each Toyon berry that had previously been picked and dried.

Chumash Kitchen Lunch Plate Full of Delicious Food
Chumash Kitchen Plate Full of Delicious Food – Photo Credit charmainecoimbra.com

After the food was blessed, our plates were filled with delicious looking and smelling food. A creamy gravy with ground bison was poured over rice. This was accompanied by sautéed greens and roasted root vegetables with a Toyon vinaigrette.

Chumash Kitchen Chocolate Crepe with Toyon Berries
Chumash Kitchen Chocolate Crepe with Toyon Berries – Photo Courtesy of San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden

For dessert, we were treated to a chocolate crepe topped with rose hip infused whipped cream and a lovely handcrafted chocolate rosette.

A sweet syrup made with Toyon berries was dotted around the plate and drizzled over the top.

The dessert looked almost too good to eat, but we did eat it and it was scrumptious.

Full of information and replete with delicious food, we were sent off with a tiny Yerba Buena seedling of our own to get to know and tend.

Yerba Buena Seedling from San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden
Yerba Buena Seedling from San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden

Get to Know a Native Plant

Meeting the Toyon was an auspicious occasion for me.

Even though I have seen hundreds of Toyons while living on the Central Coast, I had not met one until last December during my first native plant walk with the California Native Plant Society. Toyon was the very first plant pointed out on the trail. Later in the month, my spouse and I planted two Toyon seedlings in our yard as part of our tradition of planting two trees each year during the Christmas season.

I felt blessed to have had the opportunity to meet a grown-up Toyon that had been living at its location for many years and was obviously thriving. Better yet, was learning about Toyons from two Chumash women whose ancestors have been living with Toyons for centuries.

Over the past couple of months, I have developed a special affinity for Toyons that I cannot explain. When we got home, I filled up a watering can and gave the two small Toyons growing in your yard a drink and a few words of encouragement.

You can help native plants flourish in your community by adopting a native plant or two.

Learn about native plants at your local botanical garden, native plant society, or nursery. Select a native plant that appeals to you. Locate a suitable place for the plant to live in your yard. Get to know your native plant and tend it. Alternately, introduce yourself to a plant or tree living in the wild and adopt it.

Featured Image at Top: Toyon with Ripe Red Berries at El Chorro Regional Park Campground in San Luis Obispo, CA

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