Guest Blog | Beyond my own backyard

Sophia Markoulakis is a frequent contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Weekender Editions, and other regional and national media outlets. She has been a resident of the San Francisco peninsula for 25 years.

Volunteer planting
Photo credit: Vivian Reed

As a home and garden journalist, I have spent the majority of the last 10 years writing about topics related to the gardening world. Profiling people who cultivate a better world for others, be it by artistic pursuits or activist-led initiatives, are my favorite types of stories.

So when Save the Bay’s Editorial and Public Affairs Manager Vanessa Barrington contacted me last fall about an upcoming nursery event, inquiring if I would be interested in attending (and possibly finding placement with one of my media outlets), I was intrigued.

Before her friendly email I had never heard of Save the Bay, its work, or for that matter, understood the bay’s history and function. For 25 years I have driven up and down the 101 and watched the evolution and erosion of our wetlands without even comprehending what was happening to our special place.

Once Vanessa and I began communicating, I became more invested in the idea of spreading the word about the organization and its mission. After I secured placement, Vanessa and I determined that covering the drought and its affects on the organization’s shoreline restoration efforts was the perfect angle.

On a recent warm sunny Saturday morning I headed to a trailhead in East Palo Alto that I had never heard of and got up close to a stretch of land that I had only seen from the highway. As the morning wore on and I spoke with volunteers and Save the Bay staffers, I couldn’t wait to do some planting myself. I left Faber Tract feeling fully informed on the project and invigorated to become a part of something larger than my story.

As I filed my piece I knew my relationship with Save the Bay wouldn’t end.

I just returned from another wetland restoration planting event, this time accompanied by my husband. We planted Creeping Wild Rye, Salt Marsh Baccharis, and Goldenrod and said a little prayer that the rains will come, and that by next year they’ll be mature plants, providing a sanctuary for the area’s habitat and a buffer for rising waters.

Donna Ball, Habitat Restoration Director, declared our planting event a success and reported that we planted over 600 seedlings with 50 volunteers, many representing the region’s middle and high schools. As we all went our separate ways, Donna thanked us and reminded us that restoration equals activism.

I cherish my newfound activism and look forward to the next time that I can again contribute to our collective gardening efforts, helping to restore an area that I will never look at the same way again.

– Sophia Markoulakis

Notes from the Field: People and Plants Braving Cold Temperatures in the Bay

winter planting
Last week was cold! Our plants were dormant, but our volunteers braved the weather.

Brrrrrrrrrrrr. Has anyone out there in the Bay Area been feeling a bit chilly? The temperatures are starting to rise, but last week was cold! While my friends on the East Coast may laugh at the West Coast’s weakness to cold weather, temperatures in the Bay Area have been chillier than they have in years. San Jose broke a record low set 82 years ago when it recently dipped to 30 degrees, while cities such as Oakland, Mountain View, and Napa also reached lower temperatures than they have in almost a decade.

But while we blast our heaters, bundle up, and drink hot chocolate what are our plants doing?

At many of our restoration sites, our plants are going through a dormant phase to resist injury from freezing night time temperatures. When plants are exposed to low temperatures their cells can freeze, limiting water and nutrient exchange. This causes the plant’s leaves and shoots to become limp and blackened. Soils may also freeze, limiting the uptake of water through the roots. When the morning sun begins to defrost plants, the sudden change in temperature causes more damage as the cell walls rupture.

But rest assured volunteers — your efforts planting our native California plants are not lost because our native plants are very hardy and adapted to surviving cold conditions. Some native perennial plants will go dormant in colder temperatures to reduce metabolic activity and therefore save energy.

There are two types of dormancy — predictive and consequential. Predictive dormancy is when the plant prepares for the cold as temperatures drop or water is limited. The plant will shed its leaves and halt active growth to store energy until conditions are more optimal. Consequential dormancy is when the plant reacts to cold temperatures after they have been reached. This is more common with unpredictable weather patterns that can vary at a rapid rate.

Our vegetable gardens at home are at greater risk than the shoreline plants. The first frosts have damaged my hopes of overwintering my bell peppers and eggplants in south Berkeley. Normally California is lucky to have great growing conditions throughout the year, allowing even some summer crops to survive the winter and blossom again the following year. However, unexpected temperatures this year may mean I’ll have to stick to my usual winter leafy greens.

If one is prepared, there are several measures you can take to prevent the cold weather from damaging your plants:

  • In the fall, position plants more susceptible to low temperatures close to walls of you house, under trees, or near large rocks to protect the plant
  • Mulch with a thick layer of straw around the plant to protect and warm the soil
  • Continue to feed plants compost or a balanced organic fertilizer to give plants a boost through the winter months
  • Before frosts, water the soil thoroughly. Wet soils will heat up better than dry soil, which will protect the plants roots and warm air near the soil surface.
  • Use a permeable cloth such as bed sheets or drop cloths to cover the plants at night for insulation. Avoid the cloth being in contact with the plant by propping it up with stakes. Remove the cloths during the day, once the sun has warmed temperatures for some time.
  • Cluster potted plants close together or near a wall for protection and warmth
  • Leave wilted/damaged vegetation until the spring time. Removing leaves or dying stems adds stress to the plant in an already susceptible state. In the spring time cut back the frosted growth to allow new shoots and buds to emerge.
  • Near the end of dormancy is the best time to prune trees and shrubs. The plant already contains stored energy from its dormancy which will reduce shock and help wounds caused by pruning to heal faster as it enters active growth.

Unfortunately us humans can’t afford to go dormant for the winter (though it sounds great to lay in bed nice and warm all day) and the restoration department at Save The Bay isn’t slowing down. Big thanks to all our volunteers for braving the cold and helping to restore the Bay’s shoreline. We’ve successfully installed over 11,000 plants at our sites so far, and have a lot more to go. So bundle up and come plant with us this planting season!

Our full schedule of restoration programs can be found at

Notes from the Field: Why Native Plants Are Good for the Bay

Native plants
Native plants are good for the Bay and all of its inhabitants.
Photo by Rick Lewis

As I was commuting from Berkeley to our native plant nursery at the MLK Jr. Shoreline in Oakland, I had to use my windshield wipers on a perfectly sunny day.  A number of automated sprinklers were watering the grassy median strip, the road, and my car. This scene reminded of why I continue to advocate for the use of native plants in our landscapes throughout the Bay Area.  It’s just a little excess water, right?  What’s the big deal? And what does have to do with native plants and the San Francisco Bay?

According to the Save Our Water campaign, nearly 50% of California’s residential water usage is dedicated to watering lawns and ornamental landscapes.  Furthermore, over-watering is one of the most common gardening mistakes causing plant stress and other problems in your landscape. One broken sprinkler isn’t much in the great scheme, but excessive water usage adds up to a tremendous loss of California’s most precious resource.

Nearly 40% of the state drains into the Bay and this freshwater source provides critical habitat for many aquatic and wetland species. Many terrestrial species, such as birds, insects, and mammals, depend on native habitat and native flora that is usually removed in urban and suburban developments and replaced with lawns and non-native ornamental plant species. Although they may be aesthetically beautiful, many non-native plant species do not provide the same habitat values as native species.

Native Plants are good for the Bay for the following reasons:

  • Native plants use less water. They are adapted to our cool, wet winters and dry summers. There are many different species that thrive in all the various microclimates throughout the bay area region. Select the right communities of species for the right areas, and your landscape will thrive without supplemental watering, once the plants are established. This allows us to conserve water without damaging our gardens.
  • Native plants don’t require additional fertilizers.  Native plants are adapted to local soil conditions and can thrive without the addition of supplemental nutrient supplies.  Excess application of fertilizers leads to eutrophication- where excess nutrients flow into bodies of water and create excessive plant growth of both native and non-native, sub-aquatic vegetation as well as change delicate chemical balance in water bodies for fish and other organisms.
  • Native plants don’t need herbicides and pesticides to thrive.  Native flora have evolved to compete with other plants and animals in their communities. Planting at the right density, using mulch to control weeds, and a little hand pulling can quickly replace the use of herbicides.  Actually, less than 1% of insects are considered to be pests in your garden. The vast majority are considered to be beneficial insects, also called natural enemies — dragonflies, ladybugs, praying mantids, just to name a few — and beneficial insects help control pest populations. Furthermore, studies have shown many of the pesticides on the market, persist in the environment and end up in our streams, flowing directly into the bay. Many are known to be harmful to wildlife and aquatic species, but worse, there is much that unknown at the long term effects of these chemicals in our environment. Play it safe, try non-toxic alternatives in your landscape, support wildlife diversity, and protect the bay starting at your garden.
  • Native plants provide a sense of place and connect us to the Bay area. These plants are the authentic landscape of our region. Planting these species in your garden instead of choosing something native to other parts of the world, creates a deeper connection to where you live and helps make this region even more special and unique.

To learn more about native plants and how to protect San Francisco Bay,  join us at our native plant nurseries the first and second Wednesdays of each month.

Hope to grow with you soon!

– Doug Serrill, Nursery Manager