University Avenue gardeners go native

By Rob Browning

On a recent Sunday morning about 30 people gathered on the University Avenue median strip in front of the West Berkeley Public Library and spent two hours pulling weeds. When they were finished they left behind an island of Berkeley’s native landscape. The California poppies and native grasses that were planted there last year around the young coast live oaks, wild lilacs, and California sycamores are now free to fling their seeds and spread their roots in one block of what has been called "The most significant urban planting of native trees in the region."

One of the first results of our University Avenue Strategic Plan was the planting in 1995 of the avenue’s medians between Sixth Street on the west and MLK Way on the east with seven species of trees native to our region, a total of 202 trees. A grant from the Small Business Administration paid for the trees and their planting. The City Council allocated funds to amend the densely compacted soil of the former roadbed to ensure the trees’ healthy development. The trees replaced a labor- and water-intensive strip of manicured grass.

Landscape Architecture magazine admires our University Avenue garden as a model for other cities, especially for its potential to encourage city-dwellers to recognize their connections to their regional ecosystems. These are the trees we walk among while hiking the natural areas of our region.

The dominant species is the magnificent coast live oak. Planted 50 feet apart the full length of the avenue, they should be 20 feet high in just three or four years because the soil was so well prepared for them. Other trees intersperse these evergreen oaks in a loose pattern that enhances the informality of the native species. Between Sixth Street and San Pablo Avenue are the lovely little California buckeye, loaded in spring with huge, creamy, fragrant plumes of blossom, and the coast silktassels, evergreen and graced in winter with the delicate, pendant strands of yellowish flowers that give them their name. From San Pablo Avenue to Sacramento Street are the California sycamores, their smooth, pale, gracefully twisted branches bare in the winter, and the ceanothus, or wild lilac, evergreen and filled with foamy, sky-blue flowers in the spring. Between Sacramento Street and MLK Way, are the noble big leaf maples, their huge leaves pale gold in the fall, and the redbud, whose leafless branches are thick with brilliant pink blossoms in the early spring. If these trees continue to flourish as they have in their first two years, they’ll be providing a fascinating year-round display in just a very short time. As with other species, their adolescence is a time when the rest of us must practice patience: they won’t remain spindly, awkward upstarts forever.

Last year residents planted the median in front of the West Berkeley Public Library with a drift of feathery native grasses, and all of the medians were seeded last fall with what the Oakland Tribune this spring called a "living stream of sun-streaked California poppies."

The roots are literally in place for an extraordinary public garden on Berkeley’s most prominent street. As it grows, it has the potential for softening and humanizing a sometimes brutal streetscape, for enhancing our neighborhoods, for reminding both residents and visitors of the seasonal beauties of our native landscape. Our mile-and-a-half long midtown native garden has the potential to become one of those distinctions that make Berkeley Berkeley.

Over time plantings of companion native shrubs and flowers will be developed to surround the trees. A drip system now irrigates the young trees as needed. The city tank truck will water the full medians regularly, but not excessively, through the dry season. With minimal water this year’s poppy plants should continue to thrive and their seeds to germinate, with some continuing to flower until winter. There may even be another general flowering in the fall, though we’ll have to wait till next year for another display as dazzling as this spring

Some of the care of this garden, especially in its early years, will be up to Berkeley’s residents. For this garden to succeed it will need attentive weeding until the natives get established over the whole area. That means learning to recognize the little California poppy plant from the moment it thrusts its tiny curled leaves up and removing its competitors, especially the non-native grasses and broad-leaved weeds, before they make seed. That means adopting a block near our homes and encouraging our neighbors to join us for a little weeding, especially early weekend mornings when the traffic is light.

This fall we’ll spread a broad spectrum of native wildflower seeds that will germinate over the winter. Next year our work should be lighter, as more species will bloom longer and fill in the spaces where the poppies aren’t.

The University Avenue Gardeners will meet Saturday morning, May 17, from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. at Venezia, 1799 University Avenue (corner of Grant), to plan our work on Berkeley’s developing native garden. Everyone is urged to join in. Call 849-2103 for information or to get in touch with other University Avenue Gardeners in your area. In the meantime, get out there and enjoy yourselves pulling a few weeds!