Planting seeds during a pandemic: accomplishments of CNPS Yerba Buena

Planting seeds during a pandemic

Yerba Buena Chapter accomplishments 2020

In a year also famous for exacerbated cultural divisions in the U.S., one thing we can all agree on: to say this past year has been a challenge would be a massive understatement!

To be clear, the problems and disruption the pandemic has caused our chapter board members and close advisors has been tiny compared to the tremendous loss of lives, upheaval and disruptions. Thanks to quick reactions of our local leaders and cooperation of the community San Francisco Bay Area has avoided the worst of it so far. We are truly grateful for that.

To those of you who have lost a loved one, become seriously ill to this dreadful virus or suffered from the many other calamities it has caused, our sincere wishes for good health and better days ahead. For all of us, there will never again be “business as usual”.

Early in the year, as it began dawning on us that the pandemic was going to seriously upend our lives, like our greater community, we took the “shelter in place” and “stay local” edicts very seriously.

Suddenly all of our fun “get-togethers” including field trips, speaker programs, the long planned San Bruno Mountain Conference and Spring Garden Tour were in jeopardy.

Yerba Buena programs, the future is now! (Ready or not!)

There was no hope for continuing field trips in a Covid-19 safe manner but, after abruptly cancelling the April speaker program, our parent organization (CNPS) came through with a professional level virtual meeting account for all the chapters to use. We were off to the races to reimagine and reorganize our programs.

First up: a conservation science conference, a speaker program and a spring garden tour.
San Bruno Mountain Conference, April 19, 2020: Yerba Buena board members David Nelson and Doug Allshouse had been planning this physical conference meeting with field trips and exhibitions for many months and now facilities were suddenly closed. They quickly jumped into gear and revamped it as a Virtual Conference. Despite little time to plan, the whole day went off remarkably well with a dozen remote presenters sharing entertaining stories of the fascinating natural and cultural history of this botanical treasure and most intact remnant of the Franciscan Bioregion. We knew it was a winning program when the high participant count stayed consistent for the entire 8 hour program. Hats off and gratitude to all of the presenters!

Another wonderful accomplishment for the Dave and Doug dynamic duo came in July as the full funding of their much anticipated Field Guide to San Bruno Mountain was realized. We’ve seen a sample of the species treatments and readers are going to be blown away by the quality of the content. Gear up the presses!

Chapter Speakers, zooming into the future: Go BIG and stay home!
Next up: The Science of Biodiversity, May 7. We had been so looking forward to Dr. Brent Mishler’s presentation on the Science of Biodiversity for months but our usual hall at the County Fair building was closed until further notice. Brent who had been teaching his classes virtually at UC Berkeley for several weeks saved the show, providing a webinar link that we were able to publicize two weeks before the program. This attracted over 100 registrants, far more people than could squeeze into the hall. Not only that, the program was absolutely stellar, an advanced learning program on Biodiversity in 2 hours!

And ever since we’ve been broadcasting live each month from our various homes and offices, separate but together, bringing our members and guests outstanding programs from award winning photographers and scientists engaged in cutting edge work. From wildfire ecology to the intimate worlds of lichen and mycorrhizae from fascinating botanical trivia to restoration success stories, it’s been one brain tickling and inspiring learning experience after another. Though we absolutely miss being with our friends in the intimacy of the hall this experiment has bloomed in surprising ways. Participant levels have far exceeded expectations. People are signing in from the comfort of home, mostly from the SF Bay Area naturally, but also from surprisingly far flung places like Adelaide, Vancouver and Johannesburg. Silver linings!

Yerba Buena Spring Garden Tour goes virtual, May 10: after a steep online learning curve, the webinar training wheels came off just as we launched an ambitious production which pivoted between a host and 6 discrete locations in the state. Amber Hasselbring got the day off to a lovely start sharing her Gardening for Biodiversity tips; next up, Matt Ritter showcased California’s beautiful and unique floral biodiversity from his office at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo. Back in San Francisco we enjoyed Matt and Joann Zlatunich’s birdacious backyard coastal dune garden creation. Then moved to a delightful Pipevine Swallowtail project by Mike and Terri Belcher. A tour of a Western Addition habitat garden by Bob Hall. Finalizing the adventure with a wonderful tour of Sutro Steward’s native nursery led by Millie Calzado. Whew! We made it through without any major hiccups (except later I learned my new headset microphone was on backwards, which gave an interesting insect-like quality to my voice 

CNPS-Yerba Buena Youtube site launched: one nifty feature of the webinar application is the ability to record the speakers at a click. With minimal editing we’ve been able to add all the performers from the Garden Party plus each of our monthly speakers since.

San Francisco Public Library webinar presentations go Biodiverse: Yerba Buena Outreach Chair Susan Karasoff has been hitting ‘em out of the park with a series on native gardening hosted by the SF Public Library. So far, Susan has presented four enthusiastically attended events with more planned for 2021. Link to past programs through our speaker program page.

Yerba Buena Fall Gardening Webaganza!
Folks brought up or gardening the SF Bay Area for a while know about our “Mediterranean” type climate. We typically experience a wet season (November through April) and a dry season (May through October). To take advantage of the hoped-for rains planting season here is fall and winter. Still, for newcomers to the Bay Area, this is a novelty and takes some getting used to. Despite this very cool uniqueness about our regional climate you still may hear gardening departments in major chain stores advertise “spring planting season”. And they will sell a homogenized choice of bulbs, seeds and starts more typical of the American mid-west or south…just like everyplace else. With enough irrigation and nutrients and maybe a few herbicides that’ll work too for many of the plants from other parts.

Local native species however have evolved to love a “sense of place”. They most appreciate being in the soil type, climate zone and rain regime typical to where their ancestors evolved. Most don’t have much attitude about it and will have a wide latitude of tolerance but tend to especially thrive in their preferred niche. A few of the special ones, like San Francisco Lessingia (Lessingia germanorum) are very particular about their placement and treatment – and it’s often these particularly persnickety ones that sometimes wink out unless someone is paying attention and does something about it.

After our conservation oriented (but fun!) SF Biodiversity Vision program in the fall of 2019 we decided for the fall of 2020 to offer up a heaping helping of timely fall gardening tips.
Six outstanding presenters provided us the what, why, how and when of everything from container gardening to aesthetic pruning, from gardening for birds and butterflies to propagating delicious edible natives. And you can still check them all out on our video link: CNPS Yerba Buena Fall Gardening Webaganza

SF significant plant list, reanimated: San Francisco biologist Mike Woods researched over 20 years cataloging and vetting “The Locally Significant Plant List for San Francisco County”. It is a marvel of the amazing 461 known native plant species indigenous to tiny San Francisco. Mike’s lists also include information on the many non-native introductions including invasiveness ranking. He has been working on the third edition of this living document and is hoping to have it complete in early 2021 – significant indeed, thanks Mike!

Planning a Habitat Revolution: plan, plant, test, plant more. Perhaps our most exciting new programs involve collaborations with the Department of Public Works, the Dogpatch/Potrero Hill Green Benefit District (GBD), Landscape Architects at The Field Collective and Climate Action Now! (CAN!). With these groups, we are experimenting with native plant test areas to develop winning strategies for larger biodiversity revitalization projects in our future.

Restoration in place – Volunteer social-distanced work parties: The Yerba Buena chapter has a very long history of support for the SFRPD natural resources department including an every Wednesday afternoon event going back decades led by our Sage of native plants and Conservation Chair Jake Sigg. Naturally, the program was temporarily put on hiatus when the shelter in place order was placed by Mayor London Breed. Carefully and gradually in orchestration with Christopher Campbell (Chief Natural Resource Specialist) and our Volunteer Chair Beth Cataldo, a socially distanced restoration program was conceived and experimented with over the summer. It took some adaptation but we are all so pleased how it has come together. Happy to report that the strong core of long time volunteers has now been joined by other community members are making positive changes in our parks and open space ecosystems. Most recently a solid crew of 6 to 12 volunteers are out every Wednesday at various natural areas in SF. Impressive progress is being made re-nativizing areas formally crowded with aggressive invasive plants that were monoculting, choking out trees and other plants in the areas.

Social media and volunteer outreach:
Of course all of this extra volunteer work requires extra volunteers! Not only that, many of these volunteers need to be willing to work under pandemic conditions. Social distancing is not normal for humans, especially for many of the outgoing people who care about the environment and our community enough to step up to volunteer service work. Huge thanks to Bob Hall and intern Layla Lee for expanding the reach through social media.

Join us! If working in a small group of motivated nature loving people sounds like fun to you (and it really is!) we are expanding our volunteer programs and welcome anyone who feels like they can get out and help us weed, pick up litter, dig a little, seed and plant. We have programs in most San Francisco districts and will begin working with the San Mateo County Parks Department in 2021. Until general population immunity is reached, naturally we will be working under specific Covid-19 protocols including social distancing, masking, etc. We’re working in the great outdoors however so risks are lower than indoor activities and it’s not especially difficult once you are used to it.

Biodiversity Vision 2020: November 2019 the Yerba Buenos invited and gathered together over 60 people from 33 public agencies, conservation and science organizations at the SF Biodiversity Vision 2020. My favorite part was the group Brainstorm Session led by Susan Karasoff and Beth Cataldo: so many inspiring and cool ideas! A suggestion that more than one participant came up with was a group forum dedicated to sharing new science, best practices, events and educational opportunities about the unique biodiversity in the SF area. It’s open to everyone, subscribe from the linked pages.

Yerba Buena Meetup Group: with so many social media options it can be surprisingly difficult for an all-volunteer group to get word out about our programs and volunteer works days. One cool application that has been working well is CNPS Yerba Buena Meetup Group. We warmly welcome you to join in the fun and stay in the know.

Yerba Buena Instagram: Chapter treasurer (and “get the word out” champion) Bob Hall has been a catalyst for many of the modern day chapter programs. One avenue that gets lots of eyeballs on it is our Chapter Instagram account which is nearing 1500 followers. And naturally so: who doesn’t love to gaze at the many marvels of native plant nature in our area? This year volunteer Layla Lee has joined in to help share the beautiful imagery and prose.

Yerba Buena Facebook: Thanks to volunteer Corinne Gibson an aspiring environmental law practitioner who is all in on getting people activated on behalf of improving biodiversity in California. Corrine has generously volunteered to help us with publicity and managing our Facebook presence too.

Biodiversity resources: the creative spirit has been shining through as the chapter greatly increased its production of high quality plant community lists, digital and print brochures in 2020. Special thanks to Susan Karasoff, Bob Hall and Libby Ingalls for producing these gems and to Jake Sigg and Jeffry Caldwell for sharing botanical and biological research. Also to volunteer graphical artist Tina Cai who generously stepped in at the perfect time to add graceful balance to several of our brochures. Many have been updated and, as new information becomes available, are regularly added to our Biodiversity Resources page.

Nature of the news: One Covid19 related business closure that hit us hard was that of our long time newsletter printer and friends at Speedway Printing. A family run business who always provided prompt and excellent customer service at a very good price they closed after many years in business in April of 2020. After much hand wringing we switched to an online version only of the newsletter for at least the time being. The upside is that we are now able to produce the news in living color with additional content. Our Newsletter Chair Libby Ingalls has done a masterful job of evolving the newsletter this year and with much gratitude to news veterans Linda Shaffer and Kipp McMichael.

Reaching further, online: another big change for us has been the way we communicate with public agencies, committees and community groups. Initially most of the groups we have been working with had to focus on reinventing their own workforces and ways of doing business. For us, gone were the days of showing up at public meetings to advocate on behalf of nature. Quite quickly however we all have learned new ways to communicate using a variety of social meeting platforms (each with their own personalities) and now, seldom a day goes by where we aren’t zooming here or virtual meeting there. Mos’ def’ we’ve all learned new term like “webinar”, “zoom-fatigue” and “meeting-bomber”. While meeting online is not as good as being in the community, getting to be with people, laugh with them; a silver lining is no longer needing to transport to the meetings. A climate action plus! In fact we can join these meetings with our pajama bottoms on if we want to or maybe with a beverage or snack in the evening.

Filmmaker Julian Kim, a graduate of SF State, connected with us in the spring and has been working as a volunteer with V.P. elect Paul Bouscal documenting chapter activities and helping us express our chapter’s mission and vision for improving the biodiversity on the SF peninsula

Looking ahead to 2021: Despite a year of environmental, health and political turmoil our motivated chapter team of volunteers has built some major momentum for spring boarding into 2021. We look forward to seeing what the upcoming rains promise, to enjoying the beauty of the wildflowers meadows seeded and perennials planted this fall. Meanwhile this winter we’ll still be cooking new things up. Here is a glimpse of some longer term recipes on the solar chapter stove right now:

Yes, it’s been quite a year, one helluva year even! One fraught with a large boatload of worry and fatigues. But, when I think about the tribe of naturalists I get to work with and especially the folks at the Yerba Buena chapter I’m inspired at their incredible resilience and perseverance. Our already bodacious and talented Yerba Buena team has become even more charged up with Paul Bouscal (V.P.), Sophie Constantinou (Secretary) and Elliot Goliger (Horticulture) joining forces with us.

Plus, people are digging into and noticing nature in much greater detail, oh my. They are looking at plants and insects and birds in their backyards like never before. The numbers are sort of staggering in the most popular parks: more hikers, nature photographers, plant lovers and way more birders. Yay for that and when we do get back to our better normal I’m convinced most everyone will have a greater appreciation than ever before about nature, local biodiversity and why we need to preserve and celebrate it. 2021? Bring it!