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About 20 acres of our home farm is not farmed at all. The hillsides sloping down to the wetland (Harkins Slough) are protected in a conservation easement from any sort of development or farming. But just leaving this land alone is not enough. Like a high percentage of the natural wetlands in California, this ground has been severely degraded by previous farming and was overrun by invasive weeds when we moved here in 2000. There was little species diversity and few of the native plants that are needed to support a thriving wildlife community.
From 2006 to 2010, restorationist Laura Kummerer battled the weeds and nurtured the native plants in an attempt to restore the balance and diversity of this land. The project was sponsored by Watsonville Wetland Watch and the majority of the funding for the project has come from the Santa Cruz County Resource Conservation District, with supporting funds from the Natural Resource Conservation Service, the Chuck Haugen Conservation Fund and Open Space Alliance. Laura has also been ably assisted by goats, cows, and horses, brought in at various times to help with weed removal or graze the native grasses that coevolved with elk and deer. The transformation has been remarkable. Where there was once only a thick stand of invasive hemlock and thistles, there is now a diversity of plant life, including native bunch grasses and endangered species like the Santa Cruz Sunflower or “Tarplant.”
Although Laura has mostly moved on to raise her young son and tend her own new organic apple orchard, she still spends some time each year helping to direct and maintain the grassland project. Keep an eye on our newsletter for updates and occasional volunteer restoration days, in which we get a bunch of people together to weed out invasives or plant native grasses.
Below are a few of Laura’s articles from her 5-year intensive restoration project at High Ground:
Return of the Sunflowers, August 19, 2009 and The High Ground Organics’ Coastal Prairie Restoration Project, 2009 Update
By Laura Kummerer – As the depth of summer descends on the coastal prairie restoration project at High Ground Organics Farm, the grassland is aglow with blooms of millions of short stature, yellowish orange sunflowers. These blooms are a vibrant indicator of the transformation that is occurring in the grassland in response to our third season of restoration efforts. These cheery sunflowers have been absent from the grassland for almost 15 years. But this summer, they are growing in abundant puddles brightening areas that had been blanketed with layers of invasive weeds when we began the project. On a hot day, the resins on the leaves of these little plants cloak the grassland in a smell of pine sap and fresh green growth. The smell fills me with tangible hope that these pioneer plants are opening the way for the return of a healthy grassland ecosystem.
We have approached the restoration of this grassland in a multi-leveled way. As many of you know, we began a rotational grazing regime out here three years ago with the goal of re-introducing the large animal disturbance that native grasslands evolved with. This winter we also enacted a large scale planting and seeding project which imbued two acres of the grassland with 8,000 seedlings and 25 different species of grasses, sedges, rushes and wildflowers. The re-planting has allowed us to bring back species to the grassland that had been lost over the years of intensive human management. The grazing, on the other hand, is giving us a chance to clear away the weeds so that the land can reveal itself. The grazers’ job has been to eat the proliferation of invasive plants and decrease the deep layers of “thatch” that have built up across the grassland. This thatch was 2 feet deep in some places, forming a blanket so thick that it kept light from reaching the soil surface. This made it impossible for annual wildflowers, such as the little sunflower, to germinate. Each year the grazing regime has decreased the amount of thatch and has left bare areas of soil that have become perfect nurseries for the sunflowers.
The sunflowers abloom on the grassland have their own story to tell. There are three different types of sunflowers shimmering in the restoration area this year. The most prolific is the Coast Tarweed (Hemizonia corymbosa) along with a few smatterings of the Hayfield Tarweed (Hemizonia congesta ssp. luzulifolia), followed by a growing colony of the Santa Cruz Tarplant (Holocarpha macradenia). As their names suggest, all of these sunflowers are in the tarweed tribe named for the sticky resin that exudes from their stems and leaves to minimize water loss in the hot summer and to protect them from predation. If you look closely at an individual flower head of these little blooms, you will see that it is complex. Like the showy garden-variety sunflower, that produces the seeds we eat, the individual flower head is not just one flower, but is composed of a composite of tiny flowers. The inner “face” of the garden sunflower is actually made of hundreds of tiny flowers called disk flowers. The yellow outer “petals” that surround the center “face” are each a flower themselves called the ray flowers.
The seeds produced by these different flower types are integral to the survival of the small sunflowers on the grassland. The disk seeds are very fragile and small. They fall to the ground and if they don’t germinate in the first winter rains, they usually rot away and decay. The ray seeds, on the other hand, are larger and covered with a tough seed coat. They almost never germinate their first year. They sit in the soil for up to 15 years, waiting for the right combination of rain fall and soil disturbance to germinate. It is the ray seeds that have been lying dormant in the ground for 15 years or so that are responsible for the prolific bloom of sunflowers this year on the grassland.
The importance of the unabashed blooms of sunflowers across the grassland is even more striking due to the fact that one of the species of sunflowers, the Santa Cruz Tarplant, is on the verge of extinction. This sunflower species has been severely impacted by development and the proliferation of invasive weeds. It has dwindled to just twelve small colonies that remain in small pocket grasslands in Santa Cruz and Contra Costa Counties. Upon the initiation of this project, it was thought that the colony on our grassland had disappeared completely because it had not been observed since 1990. But in 2006, when we were conducting our plant inventory of the site, we found 115 straggly Santa Cruz Tarplant’s growing in a refuge of thin soils on the far side of the restoration project. This plant needs disturbance and soil compaction to thrive and this year it has responded positively to our restoration efforts. The population has hit its highest number in eighteen years, with over 200 robust plants laden with seed for the future.
As summer comes to an end and all of the species of sunflowers on the grassland go to seed, I know that we are one step closer to reviving the endangered sunflower and in turn bringing back a healthy grassland ecosystem composed of a matrix of annual wildflowers, perennial bunch grasses and a complex web of insects, birds and mammals.
By Laura Kummerer, November 3, 2008 – As I enter into the third year of restoring the damaged grassland on High Ground Organics’ Conservation Easement, I am surrounded by seed. Bags upon bags of native grass and wildflower seed are crowding every empty corner of my living space. Fifty gallon drums of seed stalks are stashed in to any dry, rodent free niche I can find on the farm. I feel like an acorn woodpecker carefully stowing away my precious harvest in a granary tree for lean times. Every time I walk by one of my “granaries”, I am filled ith hope in the transformative power of these bags bulging with the promise of new life.
These seeds are a culmination of two years of work. Small quantities of them were harvested at the beginning of this project from the few remnant native bunch grass and wildflower stands left around the Watsonville Slough system. They were then grown up to seedlings in the greenhouse and planted and tended in farm beds on the edge of the farm. We have harvested from them for the last two years and have turned the handful of seeds we started with into bushels of them. You may wonder why we went to all of this trouble for our seed when native grass seed can be easily purchased in a seed catalogue. Well, just as the CSA provides local produce that is grown in balance with the cycles, nutrients and soils of a local ecosystem, these locally collected native grass seeds have the genetic coding that evolved with the unique ecological processes of the Watsonville Slough system. We want to preserve the seeds of this region since they are uniquely adapted to the cycles of this area rather than buy seed that evolved to live with the cycles of the Central Valley or elsewhere.
I wonder if the acorn woodpecker enjoys harvesting and admiring the beauty of seeds as much as I do. The sensual process of gathering seed by hand is one of the most calming and meditative activities I know. When you collect seed time slows down and you get to know the plant you are collecting from in an intimate way. You get to really see the soft grey fuzz on the underside of the Blue Wild Rye leaves. You get to run your fingers up the tall, towering stalk of this bunch grass and feel the seeds release themselves into your collection basket. Each seed looks, feels and ripens differently. When you harvest you get to recognize these differences in your gut.
The Meadow Barley seed for example doesn’t ripen all at once. It ripens from the top down. So when you harvest you must make many passes. Sometimes it takes a month or more for every seed on the plant to be ready to be pinched off and put in your collection basket. The beautiful Purple Needle grass is the opposite. It can go from immature to fully ripe and falling off its stem within three days if there is a heat spell. Although the timing of harvest is tricky, the seed you do catch is quite beautiful. It is covered with the softest coat of velvety hairs which help to keep it from desiccating in the hot, California sun. If I was a microscopic insect I would pick the plush Purple Needle Grass seed to bed down on over any other. The California Oat Grass seed has another strategy for sending its smooth and delicate seed into the world. It folds its most viable seed between its stem and its leaf blade. In early summer the stems fall off the plant, but the seed is not released until the winter rains. You harvest the seed from this mounding bunch grass by raking up the dried stems that have fallen.
As I write this article the first rains of the season are falling outside. The rains are the call that the land is ripe to receive the beautiful array of seed that I have stashed away in my “granaries”. In a few days this seed will be thrown back out into the wild, where hundreds of years ago it thrived. Although I make it sound haphazard, we are not quite just throwing the seed to the winds. These seeds will be sown into the land that we have been clearing of weeds and thatch over the past two years with our rotational grazing and hand weeding program. The weeds that inevitably will come as the winter rains continue will be mowed and kept short for the next two years to give the slower growing native grass seedlings the time to take up their space once again.
This winter I hope these wild seeds will find fertile soil and flourish in their new/old home. Along with sowing seeds, we will be planting 7,000 sedges, grasses, rushes and wildflowers that were grown from tiny seeds in our greenhouse. It will take a multitude of hands to bring this planting to life during the nourishing rains of winter.
Destruction, Rebirth and Renewal: Reflections on our 2nd Season of Grassland Restoration at High Ground
by Laura Kummerer, June 2008 – Last week as I witnessed the powerful fire raging in the Santa Cruz Mountains, I began to reflect on the phenomena of destruction and renewal. As an ecologist I think of fire as integral to the rebirth and diversity of the landscape. It clears out the old and creates space for the new. But being human I dread the loss incurred by such rampant change; the loss of home, the loss of the familiar.
In our work to restore the damaged grassland on the Conservation Easement of High Ground Organics Farm to a thriving ecosystem, we are working with a force of destruction akin to fire. We are in our second season of re-introducing the disturbance of grazing back to this grassland. Our goal is to use thoughtfully timed livestock grazing and replanting to transform the weed tangled hillside to its historic vibrant diversity of bunch grasses, wildflowers and a myriad of birds and insects that evolved with this endangered ecosystem.
Historically California grasslands were healthy and diverse only in the presence of fire and/or grazing. The plants of the grassland community evolved mechanisms such as fire retardant seeds and protected plant organs to endure cyclical destruction and even thrive in its presence. About 12,000 years ago the native people of California recognized the essential role of fire in rejuvenating grassland ecosystems. They set fire to grasslands on almost a yearly basis. Grazing as well has a long history in California grasslands dating back to millions of years ago when Mastodon and Bison roamed California, to more recent times when large herds of Pronghorn Antelope, Tule Elk and Grizzly Bear lived off the grasses to the present herds of domesticated livestock.
It was these forces of destruction that deposited essential nutrients back in to the soil and cleared away the decayed vegetation of previous years’ plant growth, removing the thick blanket of decayed material that often smothers out seedlings trying to germinate. In the absence of fire and grazing, this blanket of thatch, as it is called, has grown up so thick that the rainbow of approximately 250 species of wildflowers that used to paint the California coastal grasslands with color in early spring are rarely seen anymore. Some of these species have been lost forever, but some species like the lupines and clovers of the pea family with thick protective seed coats still remain dormant in the soil just waiting for the removal of the thick blanket so they can bloom once again.
As I rotate the small herd of goats, visiting from Mariquita farm, through the grassland paddocks, I try to mimic the cyclical nature of the historic free roaming grazers. Last season as I witnessed the beautiful native California Oat grass nibbled down to the height of a pancake by the goats, I struggled to have faith that the destruction created by grazing would ultimately rejuvenate this landscape. It was my human tendency is to put protective fences around every native bunch grass clump, tender wildflower and blanket of native morning glories. I had to remind myself that many vulnerable wildflowers will only bloom in the bare soil left by grazing and that the deep rooted bunch grasses have endured endless cycles of destruction in their 200 year life span. I still am working to surrender to the forces of destruction. At the same time I am learning to make sure that I don’t hit native species at the time of their life cycle when they are most vulnerable. But even with doubts, I continue on. When I step back, I can see that in just two seasons this grassland has moved from a hillside of 6 foot tall weeds to a neatly clipped hillside of grass. In two more seasons I hope to see a myriad of native wildflowers and bunch grasses where the invasive Poison Hemlock and Wild Radish once stood.
This spring small glimmers of affirmation that rebirth follows destruction have been found across the grassland. The California Oat grasses, that looked so bedraggled after the first round of grazing, woke up robustly after this year’s winter rain and now cover the grassland in dense mounds. Although their size is reduced from their ungrazed counterparts, they are in denser clumps because whole meshes of seedlings were able to germinate. A small lupine bloomed its purple brilliance in an area that had been hit hardest by the goats last year. Although lupines are a relatively common plant, there have not been any lupines recorded on this property since we began observing it five years ago. Lupine seeds can live for 50 years in the soil just waiting for the right conditions to germinate. It is a treat to see that conditions were right this year for this beautiful flower. A handful of annual tarweed species are appearing all across the grassland. The sighting of these miniature sunflowers brings me great hope because they require the same conditions of bare soil and diminished annual grass competition for survival as their relative, the endangered Santa Cruz Tarplant that struggles to hold its ground on the property. The native morning glory is more prolific than ever, winding through the grassland in a great mass of fuzzy leaves. And the wondrously cheery blooms of the California Sun cups brightened up the grassland with a density of flowers that I have not witnessed before. There has also been a shift in the bird species spending time on the grassland. This winter the grassland was covered with a community of Western Meadowlarks that had not been able to forage here in previous years due to the height of the weeds. Another set of grassland dependent birds, Western Kingbirds, have been foraging for insects all spring. And although a Burrowing Owl did not nest out on the grassland as I had hoped this winter, more and more ground squirrel burrows are popping up. This gives me hope that soon these shy owls will find a safe place to nest in Watsonville once again.
These changes on the grassland seem small, but they indicate that damaged land can heal especially in conjunction with the re-planting, re-seeding and weeding we are doing out here. They also remind me of the importance of surrendering to the forces of destruction and rebirth. As my favorite poet, Mary Oliver, so beautifully articulates “…And therefore, let the immeasurable come. Let the unknowable touch the buckle of my spine. Let the wind turn in the trees, and the mystery hidden in dirt swing through the air… ” I hope to be less timid about the forces of destruction in the years to come so I can be taken in to the “mystery hidden in dirt.” You can come to visit the grassland and see for yourselves the vibrant life that pulses on the land and the vibrant life that is yet to be born hidden beneath the soil.
by Laura Kummerer, August 2007 – As the grassland at High Ground Organics Farm hunkers down into the brown and gold colors of summer dormancy, I begin to reflect on our first year of restoring this grassland through rotational grazing. From a distance the impact of the rotation of cows and goats across this land is striking. The tangle of six foot tall radish, thistle and invasive grasses that engulfed the grassland last year have now been transformed in to a field of neatly clipped weeds interspersed with an abundant spray of California Poppies and the fuzzy leaves of the native Hill Morning Glory. The weeds still dominate the landscape, however, and the bunch grasses and wildflowers are only very slowly showing signs of rebirth. But as I peer out at the grassland with hope, I am reminded how deep change on a landscape is one of subtle shifts. In order to observe this change on a yearly basis, we are required to train our eyes to look very closely to catch the shifts amidst the vastness.
I realize that grasslands themselves are entities that most of us only see from a distance. But if we step in to this backdrop of grass, we would see that grasslands, like anything else in life looked at closely, are composed of an infinite intricacy of interactions between roots and bacteria and soil and insects and an incredible myriad of plant and animal species. I would like to introduce you to a few of the grasses and wildflowers that I have watched change this year so you can “see” the intricacies of our grassland and take stock with me in the subtle shifts that are occurring in the restoring of a landscape.
One of my favorite grasses growing in the grassland is the unassuming California Oat Grass (Danthonia californica). The best way to get to know this beautiful bunch grass is with your bare feet. Your toes can feel the tenacious substance in these grassy mounds that have persevered for possibly a thousand years. These grasses are lush and beautiful in mid spring, but my favorite part of them are the cute little tufts of hair that they have on their leaf blades. It is in early summer during seed production that these plants reveal their true uniqueness. Not only do they create seed at the top of their flower heads like all other grasses, but they hide a neat line of seed away in a tight roll between their leaf and their stem. These hidden away seeds may be left unnoticed by the myriads of animals that love the sweet taste of the oat grass. It may very well be this hidden away seed that has allowed this plant to keep birthing itself against all odds in the small spaces of soil cleared away by the grazers this year.
Another plant that resides in the grassland and was in abundance this year in response to the grazing is a flower in the Evening Primrose family called Sun Cups (Camissonia ovata). It is a joy to walk out on the grassland when the sun cups are in full bloom. They create puddles of yellow all around that look as if the sun is glowing on the earth instead of up in the sky. This plant grows low to the ground and is one of the first flowers to peak out in the early spring. When it emerges during the winter rains it first sends out large leaves tinged with magenta to smash down the annual grasses near by, giving it the sunlight it needs to produce its cheery yellow flowers. These abundant leaves are not only integral to the plant but were gathered extensively by the Ohlone Indians of the coast for salad greens. In late summer the flowers and leaves of this plant dry up and fade away so it takes a practiced eye to find the seed the sun cups form deep down almost below the soil level. Although it is always hard for me to find the seed, I rest assured knowing that the native ants who play the primary role dispersing sun cup seed are more astute than I in locating this bounty.
The final and most special symbol of change for me this year out on the grassland was the first appearance of a bulb plant in the Lily family called Brodiaea elegans. In mid July it caught me by surprise poking its vibrant blue flower above ground in an area that had been recently grazed. The plant does not have a common name in our language but had a myriad of names given to it by indigenous groups throughout California. The Yokut Indians called one special gathering place of these bulbs “kawachu” meaning “place of the grassnuts.” It is reported that these gathering areas grew as thick as grasses, creating the appearance of blue lakes covering the grassland. The bulb of this plant was a staple protein source for California Indian Tribes. Maybe the reason we don’t have a common name for this regal plant in our language is that this bulb along with a whole line of other bulb species were the first to disappear or decline in response to the plowing and other intensive land management practices introduced by the Europeans in the 1700s. The bulbs that still remain today are now sparsely scattered throughout grasslands and often are choked out by weeds.
The fact that these three plants were able to gain ground this year give me hope that the continued use of rotational grazing coupled with other management strategies will allow us to uncover more and more of the richness that lies buried beneath the weeds and years of neglect on this land. Hopefully, in the years to come our eyes will be able to witness stands of bunch grasses, lupines, clovers bulbs and tarweeds gain a stronger foothold, slowly adding to the complexity of the grassland ecosystem.
by Laura Kummerer, April 2007 – On a cool January night, High Ground Organics was visited by a rarely seen, short bodied, large eyed and feathery migrant, a Burrowing Owl. Records from the Santa Cruz Bird Club show that up until the early 1990s this owl regularly visited and even nested in the uplands of the Watsonville Slough System, which is home to High Ground Farm. Unfortunately, current sightings of these owls in Watsonville have dwindled to almost none. Their decline in Watsonville is mirrored by a decline in the Western Hemisphere, placing the Burrowing Owl on the list of “National Birds of Conservation Concern.” With a boon of housing developments in the few remaining grassland areas in Watsonville and across the country, the habitat that these owls depend upon for forage and nesting has shrunk down to a few small parcels of land. High Ground Organics is a steward to one of these parcels. This parcel is located on a slope that connects the farm to the wetland. Last year we began an ambitious project to restore the ten acres of grassland under our care from a weed choked field to the thriving coastal prairie grassland it once was just 200 years ago. Our restoration methods are not quite conventional. We are re-introducing cattle and goat grazing to the grassland to mimic the herbivory of elk and deer that grasslands evolved with. Researchers studying grasslands in coastal California have shown that with a carefully managed rotation of animals, the native species that once thrived can return again.
As many of you know, we spent most of last year laying the foundation for the restoration project. We pulled upon the expertise of local range land managers and ecologists, collected baseline vegetation and soils data, gathered and grew up seed from nearby native grasses and built a fence to contain a herd of goats and cows. This winter, as the first rains began to fall, we put our idealistic plans for the project into practice.
At the end of November we began our rotational grazing with a herd of goats and now have mixed the herd with cows. We have been carefully moving the herd through one acre paddocks to control the proliferation of weeds that are choking out the islands of native grasses, rushes, sedges and wildflowers. In just a short time the animals have transformed the landscape. Early in the season, they ate down the 6 foot stalks of old thistle and radish, clearing space for the germination of new seedlings. Now, they are devouring the invasive grasses that have been crowding out the native California Oat Grass (Danthonia californica) and shading out the endangered Santa Cruz Sunflower (Holocarpha macradenia).
Like all processes of transformation, the grazing has its downsides. Although the animals are doing a great job of removing the weeds, they have also had some negative impacts on the native plants we are working to restore. In the early winter before the annual grasses had gained their stature, the goats devoured the native California Oat grass like it was an ice cream treat. With thoughtful cross fencing and continually reminding ourselves that native grasses have thrived for thousands of years with grazing, we continue on.
In conjunction with the rotational grazing program, we are working to replenish a local stock of native grass and wildflower seed, by creating permanent seed harvest beds on the farm. This past spring, we collected seed from the four main grassland species growing in small pockets throughout the Watsonville Sloughs. We grew this seed up in the greenhouse through the winter and planted seedlings in to the permanent beds. The well tended beds are in their full glory right now, adorned with fresh and wispy flower heads. In about a month we hope to collect about 20 pounds of seed from these beautiful plants. This seed will then be infused into degraded parts of the grassland on a yearly basis. As the years unfold, we plan to maintain our seed beds and augment them with rhizome producing grass species and a myriad of annual wildflower species. In time, the re-introduction of large quantities of seed into the degraded grassland coupled with the grazing for weed control will create a healthy and diverse grassland community. My deepest hope is that this grassland will not only provide habitat for the Burrowing Owl, but for a diverse array of rare and endangered plants and animals that depend on open grassland for their very survival.
As you can see, this project is a long term endeavor. It has come to life with a whole lot of community support and will require the patience and commitment of many hands and hearts now and into the future. In closing, I’d like to recognize the incredible effort that has carried the project this far. We have received funds from the Natural Resource Conservation Service, The Santa Cruz County Resource Conservation District, and the Open Space Alliance. The perimeter fence for the grazing was raised with the good humor, creative minds and strong backs of Noe Reyes, Edilberto Cruz, Uriel Toledo, Aurelio Lopez, Ken Moore, Jerry and Patrick Thomas, Tom Schroeder, Freddy Menge and Ellen Baker. Billy and Laura Noblin have been lending a hand with whatever detail needs tending from seed collection to electric fence maintenance. Mariquita Farm has once again formed an integral partnership with us, by providing a well cared for and sweet herd of goats to work their magic. Rochelle and Marcel Beerli, the landowners of Mariquita’s Hollister farm, have generously lent us their horse trailer giving us the ability to move goats whenever we need to.
In the months to come we will need many more hands to assist with weeding, collecting seed, tending goats, working in the greenhouse, monitoring and just enjoying the grassland. I will put announcements in the newsletter for Saturday volunteer events. I can also use help during the week for regular grassland maintenance projects.
by Laura Kummerer, May 2006 – If you stray to the right off of the High Ground Organics entrance road, and you meander beyond the carefully spaced rows of potatoes, artichokes and lettuce, and continue past the hedgerow laden with flowers and insects you’ll arrive at the edge. This is the place where the tended farm field melds with the “wild,” in this case 16 acres of mature coast live oak woodland and meadowland adjacent to freshwater wetland. This wild edge was placed into a conservation easement by Open Space Alliance in 1999. In purchasing the land that houses High Ground Organics Farm, Steve Pedersen and Jeanne Byrne heartily agreed to the responsibility of not only being stewards to the farm land that supports the CSA, but to the wild land at its edge that supports a web of life more complex than we’ll ever grasp.
When you look out from the farm edge at the six foot towering thistle plants engulfing the conservation easement, you may find it hard to believe that three hundred years ago this piece of land was home to a coastal prairie ecosystem which contained the richest plant diversity of any grassland in North America (22.6 species per square meter). It is believed that the network of coastal prairie grasslands that spanned the fog belt of coastal California encompassed 22 million acres (1/5 the land mass of California). These grasslands co-evolved and flourished with the regular burning regimes of the native people’s along with the herbivory of large mammals such as elk and bear. Unfortunately by the early 1900’s this land, along with eleven million acres of land across California, had lost its botanical species richness due to the intensive land cultivation and grazing practices introduced by the Spanish missionaries and fortune seekers. The native plants that weren’t eliminated by constant tillage alone were soon choked out by the proliferation of exotic species that came from Europe embedded in livestock fur and feed.
But don’t let the weeds obscure your view. Despite its intensive land use history, this little conservation easement still retains a patchwork of its historic species diversity. If you plow through the prickles of the thistle and get down on your hands and knees you will see for yourself the vibrant life that still pulses on this land. If you look closely you will notice that one of the 13 remaining colonies of the endangered Santa Cruz sunflower (Holocarpha macradenia) is valiantly holding its ground on a small corner of the property. You will also see a mix of four different species of native bunch grasses poking their heads out of the weeds. The seeds from these grasses once provided the source for pinole, a seed meal ball that was an essential protein source for the Mutsun people of the Watsonville wetlands. If you traverse over towards the canopy of the oak trees, you will spot the lush, wave-y leaves of the soap plant bulb along with numerous species of sedges and rushes that provided food, shelter and basket making materials for animals and humans. The diversity of the grassland and woodland in turn supports the richest mammalian prey base for wintering and migratory raptors in Santa Cruz County. The ecotone created by the joining of this grassland with the 800 acre Watsonville sloughs wetland complex, provides essential forage, nesting and nutrient cycling for thousands of migrating and local birds including 27 of the 73 declining birds listed in California as “species of special concern.”
Now, about one hundred years after this land was first cultivated and grazed, High Ground Organics has brought a group of conservationists together to heal some of the scars of the past land use history and bring the once vibrant ecosystem back to health. With funds from the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Resource Conservation District, we are collecting baseline vegetation, soils, seed bank, site history and residual dry matter data to gain a clearer understanding of where we are starting from and where we are heading to in the process of restoration. At the end of the summer we will reintroduce grazing back on to the conservation easement to mimic the historic herbivory that kept grasslands vibrant. Our hope is that a carefully timed rotational grazing regime with a mixed species of goats and cows will clear away the thatch that is inhibiting seedling growth of native annual plants. It will recycle nitrogen back into the soil. It will decrease the amount of invasive plants that set seed. Hoof imprints will create havens for seedlings to sprout up. And some of the bunch grasses that still remain on the site will be stimulated by grazing. In the long run, it will transform the structure of the grassland, re-creating habitat for grassland dependent birds species such as the Burrowing Owl and Savannah Sparrow that once dominated the Watsonville slough uplands and now have almost completely disappeared. Along with the grazing regime we will address the issue of how few native plant seeds still remain here, by collecting seed from native plant species throughout pockets of the sloughs and growing them up in permanent seed beds on the farm to create an expanding supply of genetically local coastal prairie seed. This seed will be used to revegetate and diversify parts of the conservation easement that don’t come back to health with the removal of weeds.
Edges are rich places, both ecologically and philosophically. With this project, we are working to more clearly understand the wildland so that we can responsibly help it renew itself.
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