This story appears in the Spring 2015 edition of Our Big Backyard, a quarterly magazine about parks and nature. Read more stories, plan an outing with a field guide, and find out more about fun nature events and classes.
They call it “the cooler.”
Tucked inside a nondescript warehouse in Industrial Northwest Portland, this large, 35-degree refrigerator served as the clearinghouse for a half million native plants that went into the ground at regional parks and natural areas this winter.
Coordinating such a large-scale operation takes years of planning and last-minute juggling. But the effort is more than worth it. Native plants occupy a crucial link in Metro’s efforts to restore wetlands, oak woodlands and other habitats, which in turn attract native fish and wildlife.
This year's planting season is the largest ever at Metro. Voters made it possible thanks to their support for the 2013 parks and natural areas levy.
Smith and Bybee Wetlands Natural Area in North Portland received 105,000 native plants, including Pacific willows, ninebark and red-stemmed dogwood. The site also saw 42,000 Oregon ash trees, which are adapted to spring flooding along the Columbia River and wait until summer to leaf out and grow.
“They’ll help suppress invasive reed canarygrass and provide habitat for a wide variety of wildlife,” said Jeff Merrill, a natural resources scientist at Metro who coordinated the Smith and Bybee plantings. “It adds to the overall health and diversity of the ecosystem.”
The work begins early. Planting contractor Diego Franco and one of his employees arrive at the cooler at 6:30 a.m. on a January morning to pick up 30,000 plants, enough for about two days for his 17-member crew.
It’s still dark when the truck meets the rest of the crew at Smith and Bybee at 7:30 a.m. A morning’s worth of plants is loaded onto a trailer that an ATV hauls to the planting site.
The crew members don their muddy boots and gear. A steady stream of white construction hardhats bob up and down as the men weave through the terrain on foot to meet the ATV. Once there, the crew divides up the plants, dipping the roots in water before stuffing them in the planter bags slung around their waists.
Three men fan out ahead and use scalpers to clear away grass and create patches of bare dirt. A wave of planters follows. Each one stops at a bare patch, digs a shovel into the dirt, reaches into his bag for a plant, then hunches over to stick the roots in the ground and pile the dirt back on top.
“I love it,” said Franco, whose crews first cleared invasive reed canarygrass and blackberry at the site about two years ago. “I love seeing the change from invasives to natives.”
Each member of the crew plants about 1,000 shrubs and trees by the end of each eight-hour day.
In some cases, it takes years for a plant to even make it into the ground at a natural area.
Some rare plants, such as camas, are first collected as seeds from Metro natural areas. Then, staff at Metro’s Native Plant Center or a contracted nursery spends a couple of years nurturing the seeds into bulbs, transplanting them into ever-larger beds. Only when they grow big enough do the bulbs or plants get transplanted into their permanent homes.
For instance, the 42,000 ash trees that crews planted at Smith and Bybee grew out of seeds collected in summer 2013. Scholls Valley Native Nursery nurtured them for two years before harvesting them in December in preparation for planting.
The wide variety of plants is needed because of the diversity of the habitats Metro works to restore.
At Clear Creek Natural Area near Carver in February, crews planted Oregon white oak trees, Oregon grapes, snowberries and other native vegetation.
“We’re filling in an understory of shrubs to create an oak woodland area,” said Simon Apostol, a field representative at Ash Creek Forest Management, the planting contractor working at the site. “Just preserving and protecting natural spaces is good but not enough. You have to manage the land as well. It’s a key component of environmental restoration.”