By Lisa Micheli, PhD, President & CEO
The other day I was driving the gorgeous route from home to Pepperwood and taking in the views of the Mayacamas Mountains from the floor of the Sonoma Valley. Suddenly, I found my heart overflowing with gratitude-at first for apparently no reason—and then I realized the cause: gratefulness for green! After four long years of drought and parched hillsides, we actually had gotten enough rain to start sprouting grass seeds laying in wait below ground.
A new generation of green finally had the power to push up through the gray thatch of previous seasons’ growth. A deep sense of relaxation and relief was palpable throughout my entire body. How thankful I am that we’ve gotten enough rain to shift our hills from dismal gray to vitally verdant!
As I learn ever more about the terrestrial (land-based) ecosystems of our Mediterranean region, I have a greater and greater appreciation for the regenerative power of our winter rainy season. For some organisms, like showy forest species and plants that bloom, this season is “downtime.”
However, for the practically invisible billions of micro-organisms—including bacteria and fungi—that inhabit just a single gram of soil, the cool wet season is when they get to work breaking down organic matter to turn it into nutrients for our pioneering grass seed sprouts! They are largely the architects of our local soil’s structure and fertility.
One effect of climate change we are realizing may come to pass is shorter and warmer winter wet seasons in our region. Shorter winters could actually reduce the productivity of these subterranean beings and in turn impact the health of our soils.
Meanwhile, ecologists are working above ground at Pepperwood to use the winter season to prepare our grasslands for a growth spurt once the rains get going. One of our goals is to give our perennial native plants an advantage relative to the invasion of European annual grasses brought to feed livestock imported to the “new world.”
One way we try to help native plants is to do our best to remove or at least hinder the spread of annual grasses and invasive weeds. One of the more dramatic techniques is using a “flamer,” a small hand-held torch, to knock back weeds (see photo of Preserve Manager Michael Gillogly using the flamer on a restoration site near our red barn).
Once we have treated a site with a weed removal treatment, in some key locations we actually plant baby native grasses and forbs. We have just increased our capacity to hatch native grass starts thanks to the generosity of the Giles W. and Elise G. Mead Foundation, who sponsored the construction of a greenhouse for this purpose at Pepperwood. Below you can see our Facilities Assistant Sonja Barringer in her element nurturing our latest crop of plan starts, sprouted from seeds carefully collected by our awesome Pepperwood volunteers.
With some timely management, we can help maintain native plant communities and enable the wildlife they support to thrive!