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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Life after Cancer – Gardening

Gardening can help you reconnect with your life.

On the last day of cancer treatment, I think every patient should receive a medal and a garden trowel. The medal is to acknowledge the horrific journey you have just completed and the trowel is to encourage you to get outside and do some gardening.

Cancer treatment can save your life but it is a brutal experience. I know this because I have been through it. I am a breast cancer survivor. At the end of my treatment, I was grateful to be alive! I was also feeling beat up, worn out, and emotionally traumatized. I needed to recover from cancer treatment.

Gardening has been a surprising and vital part of my healing process. I am sharing my story here in hopes that it may help you if you are coping with cancer or another serious illness or you love someone who is.

My Cancer Treatment is Over, Now What?

For those of us fortunate enough to survive cancer treatment, there is life after cancer.

After I completed treatment, I felt as if I had crossed some kind of ephemeral bridge that disappeared into the mist as soon as I stepped off it at the other end. There was no going back to the old me. The only choice was to move forward into uncharted territory.

As far as I know, there is no roadmap, with the destination “you are recovered” marked on it with directions on how to get there. At least I did not receive one. How do you begin recovering from a devastating life-altering experience?

You start by doing something, anything.

I did things like gradually increasing my daily walking and resuming my healthy eating habits. Volunteering gave me a sense of empowerment that helped me get back to my work, which is trying to convince you, me, and everyone else to live more lightly on Earth.

Taking up gardening again both soothed my soul and healed my body.

You may not realize that gardening is good exercise. Almost any kind of gardening requires physical activity like moving around, carrying stuff, and using tools. These activities can help you regain your strength, energy, and stamina.

Gardening has intangible benefits, too. It can refresh your spirit and reconnect you with your life. The act of growing something can remind you that you are part of nature, not separate from it.

Besides reconnecting me with my life, gardening gave me a feeling of doing something worthwhile. By healing myself, I was healing a tiny spot on Earth.

Gardening Helped Me Heal after Cancer Treatment

At its most basic, gardening is about helping something grow with your own hands.

Hanging Basket with Plants and Flowers
Hanging basket with plants and flowers – Photo iStock/Antony Kemp

Close your eyes and picture yourself gardening. What comes to mind? Do you see yourself pruning roses, digging a hole for an oak tree sapling, harvesting bell peppers, taking out your lawn, or _____?

I saw myself spreading mulch on our drought-stricken patch of land in the Monterey pine forest of the California Central Coast.

Moving a Mountain of Mulch

Mulch nourishes the soil and helps it retain moisture, which is especially important if you live in a dry climate with low rainfall as we do.

In our town, tree and landscape maintenance services will deliver mulch consisting of wood chips, leaves, and pine needles free. You then provide the labor to move and spread it out.

In previous years, I had spread literally tons of mulch around our yard.

Gardening in our yard involves a lot of walking up and down sloping ground so a wheelbarrow is not practical. I had purchased a 17-gallon plastic tub with handles (the kind you put ice and beverages in at a party). After shoveling mulch into the tub, I would carry it to a location in the yard and dump it. After I covered some section of land, I spread the mulch out with a rake.

The work was hard and strenuous, but it paid off. More tree seedlings survived each year, native plants established themselves, and the soil was dark and rich where the mulch had biodegraded over the years.

Just before my cancer diagnosis, I had received a truck full of mulch that had been strategically placed in piles around our yard.

I had not made much progress when chemotherapy quickly sapped my strength and energy. There was no way I could move the mulch with a shovel and a tub. I could have asked my spouse or perhaps I could have hired someone to do it but I wanted to do it myself—so the mulch sat, and sat, and sat.

As the end of my treatment came into view, I could not imagine how I would ever have the strength to push a shovel into a pile of mulch with alone carry a tub of it more than a few feet. This was a depressing thought. I felt defeated.

Then one day, I realized that there was another way to move the mountain of mulch. I could do it a little bit at a time with a garden trowel and two small pails I already owned. This seemed like a questionable idea, even to me, but I decided to try it.

Each day that I could walk uphill in our yard, I used my trowel to fill the two pails with mulch, then I walked to an area that was crying out for protection and dumped the pails. On days that I felt especially energetic, I did it twice.

As you can imagine it took me many months to move all that mulch but I did do it and I enjoyed doing it.

Being outside was refreshing. I could feel the breeze and hear the birds twittering in the trees. I was doing something worthwhile by helping this tiny piece of land heal. The simple act of moving the mulch from point A to B was empowering for me. It showed me that I could and would recover.

A mulch mountain project may not appeal to you so let us look at some other gardening activities.

Gardening Can Help You Recover from Cancer Treatment, Too

Everyone’s situation is different. You could be a novice who has never grown anything in your life or a seasoned gardener looking for a way to re-enter gardening.

I hope one of the suggestions below will appeal to you or help you come up with your own gardening idea.

Container Gardening

Not everyone has a yard or wants one. Many homes, condos, and apartments have a patio, terrace, or a balcony. These are good places for experimenting with growing plants, flowers, or food in pots and other containers.

Fresh Parsley, Basil, and Oregano Growing in Pots
Fresh parsley, basil, and oregano growing in pots – Photo Credit iStock/Mkucova

Are you a fan of cooking with fresh herbs? Then try growing a few from seeds or already potted plants. Do you wish you had a rose garden? Then start one on your patio with a few rose bushes that are suitable for containers (ask at your local nursery). Would like some color on our balcony? Try your hand at creating your own planter with small-scale flowers and plants.

You can do a lot of gardening with a garden trowel, a pair of clippers, a bucket, a watering can, and a pair of gloves.

Native Plant Gardening

Native plants and trees are adapted to living in the climate of the regions they originated in and they do not require a lot of extra inputs like pesticides, fertilizers, and extra water.

Are you interested in giving native plants a whirl but not ready to make a big commitment? Ask your local nursery for suggestions and then select a plant or two to try. Are you tired of caring for your turf grass lawn or paying someone else to do it? Consider taking the plunge and removing your grass then growing native plants or seasonal foods. Are you interested in attracting birds, bees, or butterflies to your yard? Ask for native plant ideas at your local nursery, botanical garden, or native plant society and then add some native plants to your garden.

In addition to the equipment listed under container gardening, you will probably need a shovel, a tub for carrying soil, weeds, and plant clippings, a weeding tool, and possibly a rake.

Public Gardening

If you do not have a place to garden at home or even if you do, you might enjoy volunteering at a public garden. This also gives you an opportunity to work and learn alongside other people in your community.

People Planting Vegetables in a Community Garden
People planting vegetables in a community garden – Photo Credit iStock/Rawpixel

Are you interested in growing some of your own food but do not have a place to do it? Look for a community garden in your area where you are either responsible for your own plot or everyone works together collectively. Do you enjoy visiting a botanical garden where you live? Become a volunteer gardener and help with weeding, raking leaves, pruning, watering, and transplanting seedlings. Would you enjoy helping kids learn how to grow their own food? Find an elementary school in your area with a food garden and volunteer.

These are just a few of the ways you can get involved in gardening.

I hope you envision gardening as part of your life after cancer. Gardening is a delightful way to heal yourself and reconnect with your life while contributing to the greater good.

Featured Image at Top: Wood handled garden trowel pushed into soil – Photo Credit iStock/malerapaso

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