Over the past 13 years, my husband and I have been engaged in an ecosystem restoration project, on the 1/3-acre parcel of land we live on, in the foothills of the coastal mountains of California, just a wee bit south of San Francisco.
The project began as my husband and I considered our distressed 1/3-acre of land, overgrown with rat-infested juniper bushes, 32 drought-stressed and dangerously beetle-infested Monterey pines in decline (which routinely dropped dangerous, heavy limbs into the yard), and invasive weeds and non-native grasses that were doing a fair job of smothering the few remaining native seedlings — which had primarily been planted, haphazardly, by squirrels. Mother Earth was crying out for help.
I decided to return Her to Her former glory — as soon as I could figure out what that glory might have been. Once upon a time, before the coming of humans, Mother Earth had planted this place with flora of Her choosing. Plants that did not require irrigation, fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides. Plants that were well suited to the local climate, and weather patterns, which thrived in the local soils, which created habitat for native wildlife, and thus created and supported their own, interdependent ecosystem. I was determined to find out what they were.
As the land was cleared of dying trees, we bribed friends with pizza and beer, and started the grueling work of clearing the 1/3-acre of weeds, and laying down a 6” layer of (native hardwood) mulch. The only plants that were allowed to stay were a sickly, 60-year-old pink pepper tree, which we felt we could rescue, and fifteen native, coast live oak tree seedlings, which had been planted by squirrels, and had so far (barely) survived burial by weeds.
While this was going on, I spent my days researching native plants, local geology, soil science, weather and climate patterns (which are significantly different on our property than they are even four houses down the street), mychorrizal relationships, ecological relationships between native flora and fauna, you name it. Gradually, I identified an array of plants, shrubs, and trees, which were native to our particular microclimate and soils, and which when established should work together to provide canopy cover, food & shelter for wildlife, soil retention on slopes, wind breaks for delicate plants and animals, and to help to restore the proper soil ecology, to enable the land to become self-sustaining. But of course, this was all theory. Experimentation was soon to follow.
Once the weeds were cleared, and the thick layer of native mulch laid down, our oaks exploded into new and vigorous growth. As they grew, we gradually planted well over one hundred, one-gallon seedlings of native plants, trees, and shrubs. Reasearch had shown that starting small takes longer, but that the survival rates of restoration plantings were much higher when the baby root structures were allowed time to build the symbiotic relationship with the mychorrizae in the soil, slowly, so as to survive the annual summer dry spell that lasts from May through October. The planting process, and continued hand weeding (which would be required until we achieved 80% canopy cover), took us just about 5 years.
The results were magnificent. Over that time, we saw the need for active human intervention steadily decline as the plants grew, and wildlife moved in. The number of bird species observed in our yard grew from about five species of migrants (some robbins, a few crows, etc.), to several dozen native species, including nesting, mated-pairs of: Bewick wrens, California towhees, spotted towhees, California quail, mourning doves, oak titmice, juncos, Anna hummingbirds, scrub jays, mockingbirds, house finches, gold finches, and others. We now have rabbits breeding in a salvia patch, great horned owls hunting, red-tailed hawks hunting. A mama raccoon with babies. Skunk families (on occasion). As well as the occasional rat, gopher, or mole. And thriving honey bees and diverse native pollinators, by the thousand.
We still have some space to fill in with perennials and herbacious native plants, but the essential framework of a healthy California mixed-evergreen woodland is now evident.