Mother Nature Needs Our Help – Let’s Plant Trees

Planting trees is an act of love towards people and the planet.

Imagine if you could do something simple to beautify your community and help keep Earth habitable. Planting a tree is one way to do it.

If you have access to a shovel or even a garden trowel, you can plant a tree seedling in your yard or somewhere else, that needs a tree like a park, community open space, or a forest. You can obtain a tree seedling from a nursery, botanical garden or native plant sale, or a nonprofit organization that grows trees.

Mother Nature does a lot of tree planting ably aided by the wind, rain, and critters, both feathered and furry. However, she would probably appreciate some assistance from us, humans. Mother Nature is unlikely to come knocking on your door asking you to plant trees, but I think she is wily and employs a variety of methods to get the word out. If you are not listening, she may give you a nudge or two. That is what happened to me.

Cambria in the Pines

Before moving to live among Monterey pine trees in the small town of Cambria on the California Central Coast, I had never lived this close to the rest of nature. Our town motto is “Cambria in the Pines.”

My spouse and I share a tiny piece of land with Monterey pine and oak trees, native plants, mule deer, wild turkeys, voles, lizards, and a wide variety of birds. I am acquainted with each tree in our mostly wild yard. Whenever a tree dies, I feel bereft. Then I will notice a new tree seedling in our yard and feel hope.

Our Monterey pine forest is one of the few remaining native stands of Monterey pine trees in the world. It is precious, irreplaceable, and struggling to survive. Drought, rising temperatures, and disease have taken a toll on the forest. Thousands of trees have been lost. Mother Nature and people have planted new tree seedlings, but not enough, not nearly enough. We are in danger of becoming “Cambria in the Pine.”

Over the years, to supplement Mother Nature’s efforts, I have attempted to buy Monterey pine seedlings at our local nursery, but they never have any in stock (I think this is weird). I admit that I did not look elsewhere for seedlings. Perhaps Mother Nature sensed that I needed a nudge to propel me to action so she gave me not one but two gentle nudges.

We Meet a Tree Hugger

Near the end of December, I saw a notice in the local newspaper The Cambrian that the Cambria Forest Committee was hosting a talk by a guy named Rick Hawley from Greenspace, a local nonprofit land trust. The subject was Monterey pine trees. I was interested but what really caught my attention was a sentence that said Greenspace grows Monterey pine seedlings for sale to the public. I thought, “You are kidding me. Why do I not know about this?”

A week or so later, on a cold evening in January, my spouse and I bundled up and walked down to the community room at the Rabobank to hear Rick speak and to find out how we could obtain some tree seedlings.

Rack Holding Tiny Monterey Pine Seedlings at Cambria Forest Committee Meeting on January 9, 2019
A rack holding tiny Monterey pine seedlings at the Cambria Forest Committee meeting – January 9, 2019. This photo and the one below courtesy of the Cambria Forest Committee.

As soon as we entered the room, I saw a rack of tiny Monterey pine seedlings nestled in little plastic sleeves sitting on a table. I coveted them.

Rick gave an impassioned talk about Monterey pine trees and discussed the importance of replacing trees that have been lost due to drought, disease, or age. Planting trees helps forests stay healthy and resilient.

One thing I discovered during the meeting is that I am not quite the law-abiding citizen that I thought I was. Apparently, you are supposed to obtain a permit before removing a tree over a certain size (including dead trees) and are required to plant replacement tree seedlings.

You know assuming is dangerous, right? Well, I had assumed that the tree service we hired from time to time to remove our dead trees had a permit or something so we did not need one. I did know about replacement tree requirements but fortunately, we have had more than enough tree seedlings volunteer in our yard to replace the dead trees (whew). Okay, now I know.

Rick Hawley and Linda Poppenheimer Talking after the Cambria Forest Committee Meeting on January 9, 2019

At the close of the meeting, I approached Rick to thank him for his inspiring talk and to volunteer to grow seedlings. When I asked him where I could obtain seedlings to plant in our yard, he gave me his business card and told me to call to make arrangements.

Mother Nature Throws down the Gauntlet

Two weeks later, Rick’s business card was still sitting on my desk.

Then, one day my spouse walked into our home office and said, “A Monterey pine tree just threw a seed at me.” This had occurred outside of our kitchen when a pinecone made a loud cracking noise as it burst open and then a single papery-winged seed drifted down onto the deck. I had never seen a Monterey pine seed.

I took this as a sign from Mother Nature.

After locating Rick’s card, I called and left a message that I was interested in buying some Monterey pine seedlings.

We are still in the rainy season so I thought the seedlings would have a good chance of settling in before the dry summer and fall months. I figured I could probably keep track of and care for twenty seedlings. This means keeping the wild grasses from overrunning them and carrying water to their locations if needed.

Rick called back and said he would bring the seedlings to the Greenspace office for me to pick up.

When I arrived at the office, Rick introduced me to Mary Webb, the current president of the board of directors. The three of us had a delightful conversation about Greenspace and Monterey pine trees. Greenspace began as a land trust in 1988 and has been instrumental in preserving natural areas, restoring the Santa Rosa Creek watershed, caring for the Monterey pine forest, leading educational forest excursions for middle school students, and advocating for local environmental issues.

Mary Webb and Rick Hawley Holding Greenspace 2001 Arbor Day Foundation Award and Two Monterey Pine Seedlings
Mary Webb and Rick Hawley standing outside the Greenspace office in Cambria, CA holding Greenspace’s 2001 Arbor Day Foundation award and two Monterey pine seedlings that would soon find a home in my yard – January 24, 2019.

Greenspace sells Monterey pine seedlings in one-gallon pots for $10 each. I think this is a good deal. If everyone in town invested just $10 for one tree seedling for their own yard or for a community open space, we could plant about 6,000 trees.

Planting Monterey Pine Tree Seedlings

When I got home, my spouse helped me unload the seedlings from my car and we lined them up on the edge of the driveway so I could take a group photo before we dispersed the trees to their planting locations (top phot0).

We decided to plant the seedlings that weekend before the next rainstorm.

Linda Poppenheimer Holding a Monterey Pine Seedling with Shovel, Bucket, and Watering Can
This is me decked out in a California Native Plant Society t-shirt, jeans, boots, gloves, and a hat ready to plant some Monterey pine seedlings.

In addition to typical tree planting concerns like not planting too close to the house and avoiding locations beneath power lines, we also needed to consider deer trails and vole highways. Deer cruising through the yard could easily crush a 12” seedling and voles tunneling underground dig up anything in their path and toss it aside.

We decided to plant the seedlings in groups spaced far enough apart so that they can grow into mature trees but close enough that they would have buddies nearby. In some cases, we planted the seedlings near decaying tree stumps in hopes that this will protect them from trampling by deer or even wild turkeys.

One thing I realized almost immediately is that I will need to put some kind of marker near the tree groupings because as soon as the grasses grow to more than a foot tall, it will be hard for me to locate them so I can check on their progress. In the past week, we have had several inches of rain and the tree seedlings seem happy, so far so good.

I am looking forward to Rick’s class on propagating Monterey pine seedlings from seeds. I have a spot picked out next to my pots of native plant seeds.

You Can Plant Trees, Too

Planting trees is an act of love towards people and the planet.

Even though it is winter, there are many places where planting trees now make sense. If you live in one of these milder climates, please consider taking action by planting a tree seedling or several seedlings. If you are hunkering down in a cold and snowy place, perhaps you could select the type of tree you would like to plant in the spring and put a photo of it on your refrigerator.

If you do not have a yard or do not want to plant a tree in your yard that is okay, there are plenty of other places that need trees such as playgrounds, parks, common areas, city streets, community open spaces, and forests. Find a tree planting opportunity in your area and go plant some trees.

You can still help even if you are not able to plant a tree or do not want to do it. Consider making a financial donation to a tree related nonprofit, offer to help organize a tree-planting event, or volunteer to bake a batch of chocolate chip cookies for the people planting trees.

Fortunately, you do not need to wait for Mother Nature to toss a seed at you to get your attention. If you are reading this, she already has your attention so go plant a tree.

Featured Image at Top: Twenty Monterey pine tree seedlings in pots lined up on the curb of our driveway awaiting planting.

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Growing Native Plants from Seeds is Fun

Wow, I can grow native plants and you can, too.

Growing your own native plants from seeds is rewarding and fun. Try it yourself and you will see what I mean.

My spouse and I have been living on the California Central Coast in the midst of a native Monterey pine forest for just over a decade. When we arrived here during a hot dry summer, the soil was parched and invasive plants were encroaching on all sides.

For years, our focus was mostly on performing remedial tasks like spreading tons of wood chips to rejuvenate the soil and filling up our green waste container umpteen times with invasive plants like Italian thistle, Ice plant, and French broom.

During that time, we bought a few native plants to try in our yard but I did not know much about them. Trying to grow my own plants from seeds did not even occur to me.

About a year ago, I realized that I was at the point where I wanted and needed to learn more about the plants, trees, and grasses that are native to where I live.

3 Arroyo Lupine, 1 Tidy Tips, 1 Purple Needlegrass Plants Grown from Seeds
Arroyo Lupine, Tidy Tips, and Purple Needlegrass that I grew with seeds from the California Native Plant Society San Luis Obispo chapter seed exchange in 2017.

The San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden seemed like a good place to learn about native plants so my spouse and I visited the Garden. At the Chumash Kitchen events that we attended, I was delighted to have an opportunity to learn about native plants from Chumash people whose ancestors have been living here for thousands of years.

For a native plant novice like me, joining the California Native Plant Society seemed like a good idea so I became a member of the San Luis Obispo chapter. My spouse and I attended our first meeting a year ago last October. That is where I met Marti and the real fun began.

Native Plant Seed Exchange

When we arrived at the San Luis Obispo Veterans Hall for the meeting, there were several folding tables set up containing bowls, cups, and bags filled with native plant seeds. I spotted a box with little brown envelopes and another with tiny pencils. Some people were pouring small amounts of seeds into envelopes and writing on them.

We did not have any seeds to share so we were standing there not sure what to do when Marti approached me. Marti, the seed exchange organizer, assured me that it was not necessary to bring seeds to participate and she encouraged us to select some seeds to try growing for our yard.

Approaching one of the tables, I realized that we might have some difficulty identifying the seeds because the containers were labeled with botanical names. Sigh.

Arroyo Lupine (Lupinus succulentus)Scanning the table, my spouse noticed one that said Lupinus succulentus. Aha, surely that must be a lupine. Every year, I admire the small bluish-purple flowered lupines that grow on the surrounding hillsides and I was excited by the prospect of growing some myself.

We asked someone and learned that yes, the seeds were Arroyo lupine. We carefully put some seeds in an envelope and labeled it.

Moving on, I found Marti’s seed stash. I was pleased to see that she had attached pictures to her seed packets and included their common names. I recognized the photo of the tidy tips (Layia platyglossa) a lovely white-rimmed yellow wildflower that grows by the thousands on the Carrizo Plain during the spring. We carefully poured some itty-bitty seeds into another envelope.

With help, we identified three more species of seeds to try including California buckwheat, coffeeberry, and purple needlegrass.

Growing Native Plants from Seeds

You can sow native plants seeds directly in the soil. However, I could not imagine how I would ever identify seedlings from the seeds I got at the seed exchange among the thousands of other seedlings that appear in our yard each spring. I decided to use pots that I had saved from previous native plant purchases. My spouse made plant markers for me using materials left over from another project.

Why I waited until January to sow the seeds remains a mystery. I placed the pots on the deck outside of our dining room so I would remember to water them periodically.

After weeks and weeks of checking the pots every few days and watering them when they seemed dry, nothing was going on (at least that I could see).

2 Arroyo Lupine, 1 California Buckwheat, 0 Coffeeberry Seedlings Grown from Seeds
Arroyo Lupine and California Buckwheat seedlings that I grew with seeds from the California Native Plant Society San Luis Obispo chapter seed exchange in 2017. The Coffeeberry did not germinate.

The day I spotted the first tiny lupine seedling poking its head through the soil, I was almost giddy with excitement. Other seedlings soon joined it. Watching the plants grow, develop buds, and then unfurl their flowers was fascinating.

There is something magical about growing a native plant with your own two hands. Perhaps it is because it connects us to a time when people lived in harmony with the rest of nature.

Collecting the seeds proved to be more challenging than I had anticipated.

Lupine seeds grow in pods that turn from green to brown as they ripen and then the pods burst open flinging their seeds away from the plant. The trick was to harvest the pods before that happened (I was mostly successful). The tiny tidy tips seeds were hard to discern from dead flower bits.

Only one of the California buckwheat seeds germinated. It grew into a small plant that seemed ready to graduate to the yard this fall. I am not sure how deer feel about eating buckwheat so I was nervous about planting it in the yard. In the end, I planted the buckwheat in a small fenced-in section of our yard (a former owner had a dog).

California Buckwheat Plant I Grew from a Seed Planted in the Yard
This small California Buckwheat is the first native plant that I grew from a seed and then planted in my yard.

Expanding My Native Plant Horizons

Last summer, I did some research and made a list of native plants that might like our yard meaning they are drought and deer resistant.

When the California Native Plant Society San Luis Obispo chapter newsletter arrived in my email inbox in September, I was pleased to see that Marti was again orchestrating a seed exchange for the October meeting.

That night when I saw Marti, I thanked her for organizing the seed exchanges and told her how much fun I had growing native plants from seeds. Maybe someday I will have some seeds of my own to share.

This time I knew what to do. I have learned a few botanical names but I am still baffled by most of them. Fortunately, Marti had included photos with her seed packets again and several people were helpful in deciphering labels. I selected seeds for several of the species on my list.

Native Plant Seed Packets, Plant Markers, and Seed Propagation Book
Getting ready to plant my first five pots with native plant seeds from the 2018 California Native Plant Society San Luis Obispo chapter seed exchange.

I am committed to getting my seeds planted before the rainy season (I hope we have one). So far, I have planted the first five pots and labeled them by washing off the markers from last year and writing new names on them. This year I am planting some seeds in my yard and marking their locations. I want to find out if I can recognize the seedlings and to observe how they fare in the wild.

Growing your own native plants from seeds is fun and rewarding but it does take time and attention. If you do not want to wait for seeds to grow, then purchase established plants. You can still have fun watching them grow and enjoy observing the bees, butterflies, birds and other critters they will attract to your yard.

Do not assume that plants on display in the front of your local nursery or home improvement store garden section are native to your area. In my experience, the native plants are usually stuck in the back somewhere so ask for them. Search on the Internet for native plant nurseries that sell to the public or have certain days when they are open to the public. Keep an eye out for notices about native plant society and botanical garden plant sales.

Good luck with your native plants. I can hear Earth smiling.

Reader Note: Most of the resource links and books below relate to California native plants. To find resources for other states type “native plants and your state” in your Internet search window.

Featured Image at Top: 8-Month Old California Buckwheat that I Grew from a Seed.

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Books

  • Chumash Ethnobotany: Plant Knowledge Among the Chumash People of Southern California – by Jan Timbrook, Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, 2007
  • Gardening with a Wild Heart: Restoring California’s Native Landscapes at Home – by Judith Larner Lowry, University of California Press, 1999 (read my Goodreads book review)
  • Growing California Native Plants: Second Edition – by Marjorie G. Schmidt and Katherine L. Greenberg, University of California Press, 2012
  • Native Treasures: Gardening with the Plants of California – by M. Nevin Smith, University of California Press, 2006
  • Reimagining the California Lawn – by Carol Bornstein, David Fross, and Bart O’Brien, Cachuma Press, 2011
  • Seed Propagation of Native California Plants – by Dara E. Emery, Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, 1988
  • Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources – by M. Kat Anderson, University of California Press, 2005 (read my Goodreads book review)