Native Plant Area

Native Plant Area seen from Spinnaker Way Parking Circle

On the west side of the park, a hundred steps north of the parking circle at the end of Spinnaker Way, stands a dense grove of trees and bushes. This is the only forested area in the whole 90 acres. We owe that leafy refuge to a band of native-plant evangelists working under the name DAWN who created it in the early 1980s. At that time, part of the area still operated as a dump. Dozers and graders covered the garbage with clay and the clay with dirt. They pushed the dirt to make hills. The DAWN idea was to create native plant communities on one of those scraped-together hills on the west edge of the park, facing the Golden Gate.

It was a bold ambition. Establishing native plant communities over a municipal dump built atop San Francisco Bay struck many people as a mushroom fantasy. This was not a conventional native plant restoration project. Nothing grew here originally except possibly seaweed. This meant establishing native plants where no dry plants had ever grown. Nobody knew whether it could be done. But the intrepid DAWN crew threw themselves into it. They weren’t only dreamers, they were doers.

David Amme in 1984. Kaplow photo.
David Kaplow in 1984

The sparkplug was David Amme. He was in his early thirties then, and a passionate student of California’s native botanicals. He knew grasses like nobody else, and excelled at collecting grass seeds in the field. He later became a founder of the California Native Grasslands Association, a manager and consultant in regional and state parks, and a prolific author and teacher.

In 1976, six years before they started the hillside project, Amme together with Charlice “Charli” Danielsen and Don R. Cook had formed Design Associates Working with Nature (DAWN), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Charli was an experienced native plant gardener and nursery manager who knew her way around the Berkeley political scene. She ran the DAWN nursery and with her husband John later founded the Native Here nursery still going strong in Tilden Park. Amme recruited David Kaplow straight out of graduate school at UC Berkeley. Kaplow had the drive to use not only his mind but also his hands to improve the earth.

Article Kaplow wrote for the Berkeley Independent and Gazette in mid-1982
Photo by David Amme in Grasslands Winter 2011

DAWN originally relied on volunteers to gather and cultivate seeds. The group established a “Living Laboratory” nursery with a small City grant near the southeast edge of the park. There they grew native plants adapted to coastal climates and not available in the nursery trade. Their purpose was mainly research and experimentation to see what would grow under local conditions. They donated their successful stock to the City on request and to several other public agencies to encourage native planting. They made some money by working for East Bay MUD doing thistle removal.

Despite having no money to pay wages, DAWN grew in numbers. Among others who worked with the group at one time or another were Erik van Lennep, a landscape consultant, greenhouse operator, and lecturer, Dennis Rogers/Martinez, a landscape designer and contractor, and Jan Strahan, a PhD. in wildland ecology and lecturer in landscape architecture and student of Prof. Joe R. McBride. Other participants were Tom Reid, Bert Johnson, Larry Korn, Michael Crofoot, Jeff Caldwell, Barbara Pitschel, Roland Pitschel, Herbert Baker, and Paul Reeberg. Bernard Witkin, the noted legal authority, was a benefactor. Kaplow’s organizing, writing and leadership skills, on top of his energy and savvy as a gardener and nursery steward, soon made him secretary and then president of the nonprofit.

Kaplow is the last member of the DAWN company still active and working locally. For 30 years he ran Pacific Open Space, a native plant landscaping contractor in Petaluma. He now runs Eco-Management, a natural area consulting firm also in Petaluma. On July 10, 2021, Kaplow spoke to an audience of two dozen park enthusiasts in an outdoor event organized in Berkeley by the Chavez Park Conservancy. A 9-minute excerpt from his 90-minute talk is up on YouTube, see below.

By 1982 DAWN already had a track record for native plant reproduction, and it had a leased half acre of land on the east side of the park, with a City grant, for its “Living Laboratory” nursery. Getting the money for the larger western hillside planting project required many months of paperwork and advocacy. They had a lot of support. The Berkeley City Council favored native plants. The city’s Parks and Waterfront commissions (then separate) unanimously backed the idea. Assembly member Tom Bates wrote a letter of support, as did the California Native Plant Society, the Sierra Club, the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, and the East Bay Shoreline Advisory Committee, among others. Out of all that came a City grant of $9,400, which is a bit more than $25,000 in current dollars.

DAWN then applied to the California Coastal Conservancy for a larger grant, asking for just shy of $50,000. After much back-and-forth with the multiple bureaucracies claiming a stake in coastal ecosystems, the Conservancy could do no better than match the City’s award. It was the smallest of the 12 grants the Conservancy approved in 1983. Private philanthropy contributed small supplements. Native plant restoration was a new field. DAWN and a few other groups were basically inventing it as they went along.

Planting site on west side, “Living Laboratory” on east side, ongoing dump operation to the north, in 1982

When the DAWN team started work, streams of dump trucks still roared past the plant nursery on their way to unload in the northern parts of what was then called North Waterfront Park. Landfill dumping had begun in the 1960s starting in the southern parts of the area and gradually moving north.

Members of the Rainbow Village, an early homeless encampment sanctioned by the City, jumped over the nursery fence to see whether DAWN was growing marijuana (they weren’t).

Exposed, disturbed soil was the rule in the park. It attracted every kind of opportunist weed. It was a heaven for ruderals, plants that quickly colonize disturbed soil. An early survey found 180 species of plants growing in the park, very few of them planted deliberately and even fewer native.

The new planting site was located in “Phase I,” the first and oldest of the dump pits. Above the clay seal in Phase I sat somewhere between ten and 50 feet of dirt.

Weeds and invasive grasses covered the hillside site as DAWN found it. The remains of an earlier, now abandoned City planting effort cluttered the slope. Most of the earlier plantings lay dead or dying. A few native Monterey Cypress and Ceanothus, but also Australian ngaio trees (Myoporum), survived. A maze of shallow buried tubes left over from a nonfunctioning drip irrigation system hampered DAWN’s soil amendment work. They had major cleanup tasks just to get started.

In those days you could buy few if any native seeds or plants in the nursery trade. From May to September, DAWN members scoured the coast up as far as Fort Bragg and down as far as Southern California to collect wild native plant seeds and cuttings. They never uprooted a native plant in the field. They grew their collections in thousands of containers ranging from two-inch liner tubes to gallon pots. They found they could plant 50-100 tube-size seedlings per hour, 20-50 four-inch containers, and 10 to 20 gallon-size cans per hour. But the larger sizes survived better. Altogether, DAWN members planted more than 150 varieties of native plants in the 3-acre site. About 70 species, according to Amme, thrived and spread.

“Living Laboratory” plant nursery on east side of park, 1983. Kaplow photo.

These were not the native soils of the California coast, where native plants thrive if undisturbed. The soil was a random mix of excavated dirt from local construction sites. Soil was not inspected, subject to quality control, or deposited in any planful way. Most of it was dense with clay, low in organic matter, pressed down hard by heavy machinery, soggy in winter, parched in summer.

The weather featured summer drought, frequent fog, storms with salt spray in winter, occasional flooding and storm wash, and an almost constant wind. Gophers gobbled up certain seedlings, particularly the lupines. (Kaplow saw no ground squirrels at the time.) Irrigation proved difficult. Tenacious weeds from the surrounding parkland invaded repeatedly. Hardly ideal conditions! But the DAWN pioneers persisted. Kaplow recalls that he and some others worked from daybreak to nightfall, and earned less than the minimum wage. This was a work of passion and conviction.

Inside the greenhouse where DAWN members cultivated native seeds they collected from up and down the coast, Kaplow photo.

DAWN envisioned not just the establishment of individual native plants, as a gardener might do, but the creation of sustainable native plant communities. This was a new concept at the time. They identified four types of native coastal plant groupings occurring in nature: coastal strand, coastal prairie, northern coastal scrub, and coastal woodland. Each of these natural plant constellations formed a self-perpetuating biological system, and they integrated productively with one another. DAWN members did their best to establish all of them in this difficult setting with its diverse microclimates.

Soil, weeds, and climate were not the only problems. The group had internal disagreements. Danielsen’s definition of “native” encompassed only what grew in the East Bay. Kaplow and Amme preferred to have all of California’s coastal regions represented. Kaplow wanted a mostly low profile coastal prairieland. Amme, although a grass specialist, wanted big trees, particularly Torrey pines. They compromised, and they conceded that on the whole, the local natives did best.

Then there was Berkeley politics. Although the elected bodies (council and commissions) strongly favored the native planting approach, the then Parks director, Bill Montgomery, and the City’s landscape architect, were dead set against it. Then as now, the City’s democratic institutions made policies but staff made decisions. Although natives had thrived in California for tens of thousands of years, many landscape professionals considered native plants a radical and risky novelty. The architect insisted on the ngaio trees, widely used as street trees at the time. The parks boss favored commercial landscape darlings like acacia, popular for freeway medians. He controlled the money. Thanks to him, these fast-growing, aggressive Australian imports thrive among the natives, like botanical foxes in a henhouse. He also blocked the expansion of native plantings on Phase II, the next hill to the east.

Acacia, a fast-growing Australian import (yellow), overarches and stifles native Ceanothus (blue). Photo early 2021.

DAWN’s contract for the project ran for just two years, a ridiculously short span given the circumstances. When it was done in December 1984, they had begun to establish a base of native perennial grasses that outcompeted exotic weeds. The area was weed free when DAWN turned it over to the City. Most of the plants, including the shrubs, were about knee-high or less. They had also successfully started a mix of new trees, none of them yet big enough for a person to rest in their shade.

It was now up to the City to do the maintenance required for the new plantings to reach maturity. DAWN held 12 hours of training sessions for City gardening staff, with mixed results. City staff did not have the evangelistic dedication that fueled the DAWN members’ intensive labors. The hose-based irrigation system that DAWN had assembled broke down the following summer and was not repaired, with the loss of many plants. The City added other plants, some native, some not. Turnover brought new staff who had no clue of the project’s history or intent.

The few City gardeners who were dedicated to the project and worked hands-on in the DAWN-made area found themselves short-handed and frustrated. Two of them, Nikki Wright and Jazz Duberman, submitted a report in January 1990, eight years after the DAWN project began. They wrote “Many citizens and civic groups exclaim to us privately and in public gatherings their excitement and enjoyment at having access to such an environment.” But, they point out, because of the bad soil, “intensive labor is still needed.” The soil, they complained, is “similar to mine spoils.” Some efforts were made to introduce compost, but the extensive network of trenches and pits dug for the establishment of the landfill gas extraction system in 1988 caused widespread soil disturbance leading to a surge in Kikuyu grass and other weeds. One and three quarter gardeners were charged with all aspects of the maintenance workload year round. The goal of achieving a self-sustaining habitat, they concluded, was still some years off.

The historical record since 1990 is sparse. But given the shrinkage of municipal budgets and cutbacks in park funding during much of that period, it is probable that maintenance declined. In 2011, Amme revisited the site and wrote, “We didn’t exactly succeed in this transformation. Today much of the area is dominated by Kikuyu grass.” A set of Google Earth aerial photos suggests that maintenance probably ceased altogether after 2011. The views in 1993 and 2003 show three north-south passages. The 2011 view shows the first (westernmost) north-south passage narrowed but still distinctly visible. In the same shot in 2018, that path is gone, totally overgrown. A walker on the ground faced an impenetrable barrier of shrubbery after a few steps from either end.

Four Google Earth views of site, showing disappearance of leftmost north-south path between 2011 and 2018. Exhibit courtesy of Prof. Joe McBride.

In 2019, the Chavez Park Conservancy was formed in part for the purpose of restoring the DAWN project. The area had grown and flourished probably beyond its founders’ expectations. Tall mature pines, spruce, cypress and other trees dominated the skyline. Dense thickets of shrubs enclosed visitors like walls. A riot of blooms greeted each spring. The area provided a welcome oasis of leafy greenery and shade in the otherwise mostly treeless park.

But there were serious problems. Major tree limbs had broken and hung suspended in midair, waiting to crash down on visitors. Fallen logs blocked paths. Runaway shrubs, mostly acacia, had joined together at the crown and throttled trails. Inaccessible thickets created a jungle atmosphere that attracted overnight campers and frightened park visitors. Kikuyu grass had choked the base of numerous shrubs and provided cover for human garbage. Some of the native plants, notably the showy ceanothus, had reached the end of their normal life spans.

Many other natives, such as the sages, were struggling to survive under the overarching pressure of neighboring acacias. Important acreage had fallen to the onslaught of the aggressive ngaio trees with their poisonous cherry-like fruit and their diseased thrip-infested foliage. Poison hemlock thrived in patches next to pathways, and a Himalayan blackberry offered few fruits but many thorns to rake the arms of passersby. Many plants known only to their original planters were gone without a trace. Deferred maintenance had turned the area, in Kaplow’s words after a visit in early 2020, into a safety trap and a fire hazard.

Here are some images of how the area looked in 2018-2019:

Map of Native Plant Area prepared by Chavez Park Conservancy showing location of different plant species in early 2020

Chavez Park Conservancy members in early 2020 put together an application to the UC Berkeley Chancellor’s Fund for a grant to pay for the first stage of restoration. The idea was to hire restoration experts to do a study of the Native Plant Area and prepare a plan for its renovation. The actual restoration work would require a separate round of funding in the future. Emeritus Professor Joe R. McBride, who was familiar with the DAWN project from its inception, signed on as project sponsor. He has an international reputation for restoration of urban forestry. We recruited licensed landscape architect Chris Kent of the local PGADesign firm to bid on the study. Kaplow, the only DAWN figure still active in the field, agreed to bid on a maintenance plan. We had letters of support from the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, the Native Plant Society, Berkeley Partners for Parks, and others. Representatives of the Berkeley Mayor’s Office, Jacquelyn McCormick, and of the City Manager’s office, Shallon Allen, sat on the UC Chancellor’s Fund committee that unanimously approved our grant application.  It looked like the restoration train was moving at last.

However, the UC grant required the approval of the City’s Parks department, and that was not happening. Although the study project required no City money nor city staff time, Parks director Frederick “Scott” Ferris claimed that his department did not have the resources to supervise it. That killed the restoration study.

This was a setback. But Chavez Park Conservancy members have moved beyond paperwork. Like the young Kaplow, we are using our hands as well as our brains to improve the area. On a number of Saturdays, the Conservancy has recruited a team of volunteers to go into the Native Plant Area and work to clean it up. We have pulled a small mountain of Kikuyu grass. We have done some strategic trimming and pruning to give native plants more sun, air, and soil. We have removed stacks of moldering human garbage. City landscape gardening crew members have been totally helpful in removing the debris of our work. In the process we learned the area and its needs in much greater detail. Here are some snapshots of volunteer park stewards at work. A list of our volunteer work days is below.

Our advocacy and our hands-on stewardship motivated the City to step in, finally, and perform a long-deferred basic cleanup of the area. In November 2020, a contractor crew with trucks and power tools spent almost a week in the area and left it transformed. This was not an enlightened rehab job that distinguished between native and introduced shrubbery. The contractors felled a rare Sitka spruce, several Manzanitas, California fuchsias and other natives. But they pruned the broken tree branches, opened up the blocked north-south passage and lightened the jungle thickets. The area is now safer, more inviting, less liable to abuse. The work that still needs to be done is now much easier to see.

David Kaplow speaking July 10 2021

After walking through the area with Chavez Park Conservancy members, Kaplow had some words of advice. He warned against trying to impose an overarching master concept or design. Let it grow naturally, he advised. Take your time. Work on it a little at a time, observe the plant behavior, and watch how it unfolds. Figure out how to make it function like a natural native plant community. That’s DAWN’s basic concept, he said.

It’s helpful that the existing plants over the years have greatly loosened up and enriched the formerly compacted clayey soil. Even the otherwise obnoxious acacia, a legume, contributes nitrogen to the soil and makes it more fertile. Plants put in the ground now have a better chance of survival than many items that DAWN planted in 1984.

It will take time, but the Native Plant Area will thrive again.

One of the key purposes of DAWN, and a condition of the City and Coastal Conservancy grants, was educational. The first paragraph of DAWN’s mission statement held, “We educate the general public on the ecological and recreational value of natural eco-systems and the evolutionary process of land regeneration.” But the project budget left no room for an organized and ambitious public education effort. Signage that identifies individual plants, a basic element of botanical gardens as well as commercial nurseries, remained on the to-do list, as did outreach to teachers, an essential move to promote public education. The obligation and the opportunity to educate the public about California’s botanical heritage belongs to Chavez Park Conservancy volunteers of the future.

Further Readings:

Chavez Park Conservancy Volunteer Steward Work Days in the Native Plant Area through November 2023

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