"Up and Running by 2002." Photo by Mark Rauzon.
Nestled in the hills of Oakland, the Friends of Sausal Creek Native Plant Nursery has been a beacon of environmental stewardship and community involvement for two decades. This nursery has a rich history deeply rooted in conservation and nurturing the local ecosystem.
Sowing the Seeds
In 1996, a group of neighbors and passionate environmentalists came together with a shared vision to restore and protect the Sausal Creek Watershed. The newly formed Friends of Sausal Creek cultivated relationships with the City of Oakland’s Public Works Department, and started proposing native plantings for a sewer replacement project scheduled to happen under the creek in Dimond Canyon in the late 90s. The Friends were excited to be involved with the restoration, but where were the plants going to come from?
Some of the Friends had nursery experience, knew how to grow plants, and were willing to do it. But the reality was, they needed more plants than could be grown in their own yard. They needed a nursery.
An offer came from Alameda County. Camp Sweeney, a juvenile detention facility located in San Leandro, had a nursery that was not being used, and was an option. It was an interesting place, spread out with multiple buildings and lots of open space. You had to pass through the guard station up front before driving through. Not a conventional setting, but sure, it will do!
The Friends hosted Saturday morning propagation parties off of El Centro Ave. at Dimond Canyon–setting up folding tables, potting mix, and tools. Community members would show up and learn how to plant for a few hours, then one of the FOSC founders, Michael Thilgen, and volunteer Stuart Richardson would drive the newly potted seedlings across town to Camp Sweeney.
One hot week, the Friends arrived at Camp Sweeney to find there had been a break in the plumbing. The County staff had cut off the water above the break, not realizing they had cut off the source for the nursery. Most of the plants were dead. The Friends tried to resuscitate what could be salvaged. Then, a few weeks later, it happened again.
Without dependable water, it was not feasible to keep the nursery at Camp Sweeney.
Transplanted to Joaquin Miller Park
The City of Oakland asked the Friends to come by Joaquin Miller Park to the site of the City’s old nursery and storage space on Sanborn Dr. which had been used for various purposes over time. As Thilgen heard it, some of the debris from the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 was dropped onto this site. Long-time Friend, Karen Paulsell, mentioned that it was also a dumpsite for green waste, accumulating a decade’s worth of yard debris from homeowner cleanups after the 1991 Oakland Hills Firestorm.
Despite the plastic bags of dumped material and stands of invasive French broom, acacia, and eucalyptus, this much more accessible site in the watershed sounded ideal. FOSC put in the labor, the City bought the materials, and the Friends transplanted their operations.
The first nursery structures were built with eucalyptus logs and salvaged materials. Martin Matarrese, the park supervisor at the time, transported the logs and with a large tractor-mounted auger, drilled holes where flags were laid out. With a frontloader and chains, the logs were lifted and arranged in an arc of upright poles about 8 ft. high. Horizontal branches were lashed to the poles, and shade cloth stretched over the top. At the center of the arc was a 20 ft. high pole. A surplus parachute was tied to the pole, and spread out to provide shade for propagation tables. Nancy Jones, long-time Friend and nursery volunteer, reminisced, “ The parachute was shredded by fierce winds every winter and someone would have to shimmy up the pole to trade it out.” Paulsell remembers this too, watching former nursery manager Kristen Hopper climb up to the top of the pole with “miles of slick silk in her arms”.
First nursery structures. Photo by Elliott V. Smith.
In 2001, FOSC partnered again with the City of Oakland on a major project to restore two acres of riparian habitat along a stretch of Sausal Creek in lower Dimond Canyon–removing failing concrete structures and recreating a natural meander to the creek bed. Newly stabilized creek banks would be planted with native riparian vegetation. For this project, FOSC grew about 20,000 native
plants over two years at the new nursery.
Paulsell recalls helping pick up the plants and delivering them to the volunteer crews at 9 a.m. on a cold December morning. At the time, the alder trees fit in the back of her pickup truck with only a slight bend at the top where they hit the camper shell, but now they stand about 27 feet tall over the creek.
Gathering and Growing
Seeds were collected from May through October by FOSC staff and volunteers. They would go on prospecting hikes to get to know the park and where the plant communities were. “One of the big excitements of native plants is getting to see them bloom, but we discovered the beauty of the dry season, walking the trails to spot mature fruiting bodies getting ready to drop seed,” Thilgen reflects.
Seeds were harvested into paper bags, cataloged back at the nursery, and stored until it was time to get them germinating.
Early in GPS and GIS technology, Paulsell started documenting trails in Joaquin Miller Park, Dimond Canyon, and Shepherd Canyon, recording plants and drawing more accurate maps of the trails. The 600+ data points she collected, and ongoing collection from FOSC staff, are now mapped in CalFlora.
Countless folks contributed to the success and progress of the nursery over the years–FOSC staff and leaders, board members, city and county employees, creekside neighbors, teachers, and volunteers with various backgrounds.
“It was so fortuitous,” Thilgen reflects, “The people who came together with this shared sense of commitment and the skills that came together. It was like we had everything we needed. We knew right away that education was part of what we wanted to do. Public school elementary teachers started bringing their classes out, showing students what’s going on in the creek, working out ways to incorporate
the creek and the land in their lesson plans.”
Sue Morgan, an OUSD teacher who got the FOSC education program going, demonstrates seedling transplanting to a class at the nursery. Photo by Elliott V. Smith.
Roots and Resilience
The Friends knew going in that the eucalyptus poles would only be good for eight to ten years. Sure enough, the fungal fruiting bodies eventually started popping out of the poles. “We were growing a beautiful array of turkey tails, with these poles being watered three times a day,” Paulsell laughs. Concerned the structure may rot and fall, the shade house was replaced and a more sophisticated irrigation system was installed by 2011.
"Nursery upgrade complete." Photo by Mark Rauzon.
Today, this latest iteration of the nursery still stands–housing about 8,000 native plants grown each year, hosting volunteer crews year-round for propagation workdays and hundreds of students on school field trips and summer programs. Many of the storage structures and planting surfaces have been constructed or repaired over the years by collaborating with youth groups like Piedmont Community Service Crew and Eagle Scouts.
Left: Eagle Scout candidate Adrian Owczarz and Oakland Troop 202 replace nursery bench tops in early 2022. Right: Nursery volunteer Tylor Kingsbury (middle right) leads Team Oakland in transplanting seedlings during a six-week summer program in 2023.
The FOSC nursery has weathered literal storms over the decades, as well as the heartbreaking setback of vandalism just earlier this year when tables and benches were overturned, the pot washing station plumbing was destroyed, and approximately 3,500 plants were thrown to the ground. But much like the native plants we nurture here, the nursery and the Friends are resilient. In response to the outpouring of volunteer and donor support following the vandalism, current restoration and nursery manager, Ella Matsuda, expressed, “That’s one of my favorite things about this organization. We just have such an incredible community that is here to pick us back up anytime.”
Nursery volunteers help with vandalism recovery and lifting spirits in early 2023.
As we look ahead, our commitment to engaging this watershed community, restoring Oakland’s ecosystems, and promoting native plant ecology is as strong as ever. Our heartfelt gratitude goes out to the visionary founders of FOSC, whose tireless dedication and pioneering spirit are the foundation of the nursery and the organization. Their involvement, past and ongoing, has led to remarkable achievements and lasting positive influence. We also recognize the vital role that new members play in shaping the future of FOSC. Fresh perspectives, diverse experiences, and innovative ideas propel us toward greater heights of success and meaningful collective action in the watershed.
Join us at our 18th (!!) annual Native Plant Sale and Open House on October 29, 2023 to celebrate the growth and greenery that is nurtured by the Friends of Sausal Creek here at the nursery, leaving a lasting imprint on the landscape and community.
–Kate Berlin with interviews of Michael Thilgen, Nancy Jones, and Karen Paulsell