Sally Kilburg, Michael Thilgen, and I are walking briskly down a road in Oakland's Joaquin Miller Park when suddenly we come to a stop. Thilgen points to a cluster of plants by the side of the pavement and peers closely at the narrow green leaves and delicate flowers blooming brightly in the afternoon sun. It's blue-eyed grass, a species that might have been growing in this same spot two hundred years ago. He leans down and gently touches one of the flowers. In a few months, he tells us, "We'll come up here and gather a few hundred blue-eyed grass seeds."
Normally, harvesting plant seeds from the parks would be illegal, but Thilgen has special permission from local officials; he's already obtained starter material from dozens of the area's native species. Thilgen and Kilburg are part of Friends of Sausal Creek, a group that hopes to establish a new native plant nursery just a few yards from where we're standing. The blue-eyed grass seeds, along with some twenty thousand others grown at the new facility, will be used for a major creek restoration in East Oakland as well as for other similar projects throughout the city and nearby communities.
The Friends of Sausal Creek (FOSC) is one of the city's oldest and most active restoration groups. Its volunteers have built a demonstration garden in Dimond Park, and restored one section of Sausal Creek. Now the group is asking the City Council to budget $75,000 for a new nursery where indigenous plants can be propagated.
The future nursery will occupy a relatively flat area, enclosed by a chain-link fence, not far from the Woodminster Amphitheater. Right now, the bowl-shaped field is choked with head-high weeds and assorted detritus, including a stack of redwood logs that have been dumped helter-skelter in one corner. Just outside the fence is a row of tall redwood trees, beyond which we can see the spires of the Mormon Temple.
Altogether, the new nursery will occupy about six thousand square feet. A lath-covered structure will be constructed, where shade-loving species can grow, along with a potting shed, storage building, and greenhouse. One part of the nursery will be left open for plants that need lots of sun. The group also wants to make the area attractive to visitors, with pathways to wander among the plants, and a circular seating area for school groups and seminars. "I envision it to be something like the Berkeley Rose Garden," Thilgen says. "Having the fence already in place [the site most recently served as a city tree nursery] is an advantage. We already have protection against deer and two-legged creatures."
FOSC plans to grow nearly fifty species of native plants. Some, such as monkeyflower, coast live oak, and coffeeberry, are found in commercial nurseries, but others, like creek parsley, cow parsnip, and hedge nettle are difficult to find. At least in the beginning, the group will focus on species indigenous to the Sausal Creek watershed itself, propagated from seeds and shoots gathered along its banks. Later it may begin growing other species for restoration efforts in different watersheds, though it doesn't have any plans to sell plants directly to the public.
The group hopes to become a resource for similar efforts--in addition to actually growing plants for other groups, FOSC will be keeping careful track of what works and what doesn't with regard to propagating natives. "We'll be learning how to grow species that haven't been commercially grown before," Thilgen says. He says that the nursery will grow native oaks, and could become an important source for new trees in case Sudden Oak Death Syndrome, which has devastated trees in nearby counties, reaches Oakland.
FOSC has been operating a smaller nursery for the past two years, located at the county's Camp Sweeney Juvenile Detention Center in San Leandro. The group had been hoping to establish a cooperative arrangement with the center, but the idea never really got off the ground. Moving to Joaquin Miller Park will allow for expansion of the nursery and save volunteers a twenty-mile round trip each time they need to fetch plants. It will also let the group host school visitors and do volunteer training. The volunteers hope that having visibility in a city park will encourage people's curiosity about native gardening. It's an interest that's already growing, Kilburg says. In Oakland alone, there are native plant projects either planned or underway in Arroyo Viejo Park, Glen Echo Creek, Peralta Hacienda, and at the Woodminster Cascades. "The good news is that these projects are happening," she says. "The bad news is that there aren't enough plants to go around."
The nursery was recently granted a conditional use permit by the city, and Thilgen hopes to quickly begin the weeding, grading, and irrigation work needed to get things started. If the council approves its $75,000 funding request, FOSC will begin raising an equal amount from private donors to cover the full construction costs. At first, the horticultural duties will be handled by volunteers, but in the not-too-distant future, the group wants to hire a supervisor and an education director, along with summer interns from local schools. He thinks that the fund-raising will go quickly. "This is a popular project. People tend to like what we're doing," he says. "It's kind of mom and apple pie and ecology."
Most of the plants FOSC grows will be returned to Dimond Canyon, just a mile or so from the new nursery. Next month, a contractor hired by the city will begin clearing a six-hundred-foot reach of Sausal Creek upstream from the Dimond Park recreation center, in preparation for a $700,000 restoration of the waterway and its riparian environment.