Native plant nursery awaits high school students
When students return to Casa Grande High School in the fall, they will find a recently restored native plant nursery in full operation, thanks to a joint effort of the school and Point Blue Conservation Science, a Petaluma-based wildlife conservation and research organization.
“We have 39 students signed up so far,” said Melissa Witte, who will teach an elective course designed to introduce students to the nursery. Called Gardening and Nursery Management, the class was created two years ago but canceled last year due to lack of enrollment. “It’s a basic, hands-on class where students learn such things as plant propagation, soil amendment and irrigation.”
Casa Grande is among a handful of Bay Area high schools — including similar projects at San Lorenzo High School, Oceana High School in San Francisco — that operate student-involved nurseries for the propagation of native plants. The local school also has a large garden composed of 42 raised beds.
“Most of the plants here in the nursery are assigned to a project,” said Josh Nuzzo, a Point Blue employee who manages the nursery as well as the native plant nursery at the San Pablo National Wildlife Refuge. For example, during the recent restoration season, which typically runs from October through March, approximately 1,500 native plants were grown for ecological restorations around the Bay Area. Many of the plants are now thriving at Shollenberger Park, along the south levee.
The nursery is especially valuable in Sonoma County because of the ongoing threat of sudden oak death, a disease caused by the pathogen phytophthora. It kills oak and other trees and has had devastating effects on the oak populations in California and Oregon. In addition to cultivating trees to replace dying ones, the nursery has imposed stringent sanitary standards to keep all seedlings free of the pathogen.
The nursery was created 14 years ago as part of an earth science program developed by science teacher John Shribbs with a fellow teacher, Sten Mander. The program included a native plant nursery built on an abandoned baseball diamond at the school, with a re-purposed batting cage as the greenhouse. Now retired from teaching, Shribbs serves as board president of the Petaluma Wetlands Alliance.
“STRAW needed a place to grow its own seedlings,” said Zach Warnow, director of communications for Point Blue. “We needed a closed loop.”
With a range of community support, the nursery was remodeled to maintain a high level of pathogen control. For example, anyone entering the greenhouse or grow room must first spray the soles of their shoes with alcohol.
Among other improvements, the nursery required a new floor, adequate drainage, and tables high enough to protect the seedlings from anything splashing up from the floor.
“I kept a sanitary nursery,” Shribbs recalled, speaking of his years as a teacher at Casa Grande, “but now the sanitation standards there are much higher.” He says the attendant costs are also much higher.
The remodeled nursery also reflects a slight shift in seedlings, from riparian native plants that alleviate stream-bed degradation to plants and trees that support wetlands restoration.
With the campus closed, students currently have no access to the nursery. Most of the work is done by Nuzzo, who welcomes volunteer help.
“We have a small group of volunteers who meet here on Friday mornings,” he said, “and we can use more help.”
One of the advantages of a native plant nursery is the ability to return young plants to the geographic origin of their seeds. Pointing to a table of soaproot seedlings generated by seeds taken from Taylor Mountain, Nuzzo said the plants will go back to the mountain.
“When we collect seeds from the Petaluma watershed, those plants will be returned there,” he said.
Exposure to a native plant nursery is valuable to all students, according to Witte, not just those with career aspirations in farming, viticulture or ecology.
“Gardening is a great hobby,” Witte said. “The nursery provides students with the chance to become comfortable with plants. I’m really looking forward to the students coming back.”
When they do, the nursery stands ready to connect those students with the natural world directly, allowing them a higher level of engagement with nature.
“They learn to love nature,” said Shribbs, “and with that love comes a stronger motivation to protect our world.”