Click on pictures to enlarge and see captions.
By Dave Boyce
Almanac Staff Writer
"Keep the woods in Woodside." A prosaic mission statement, a poetic mission. A group of residents is working to improve and create wildlife corridors on behalf of those who use them but cannot speak for themselves: the town's native plants and wild animals.
The vehicle for this effort is the Backyard Habitat program. This 2010 initiative by the town of Woodside's Open Space Committee celebrated its first awards ceremony on April 13 with the designation of wildlife corridors at 29 households. Thirty-two applied, committee Chair Virginia Dare said.
Each winner received a letter of congratulations and a 3-foot-long, 4-inch-wide plaque of sturdy but rusty steel, engraved with the program's name and topped by a silhouette of a California Quail, also rusty. When tacked to a fence post, it signals to passersby that they're passing a place that lets nature be -- with a little help from its friends.
Wildlife corridors do need friends. Yes, they are undeveloped and natural, but with aggressive invasive species living within and around them, the corridors require nurturing to return to a native condition and stay there. The necessary ingredient: conscientious humans.
On the afternoon of the awards ceremony, the Open Space Committee conducted an invitation-only tour of three households recognized for their wildlife corridors. The Almanac visited two of them.
The Winding Way property of Doug and Leslie Ballinger includes a sun-drenched deep grass meadow bordered by large deciduous trees and intersected by a slow and meandering stream.
The lush native grasses of the meadow are a result of a reseeding in 2010, Ms. Ballinger said. The non-native irises now populating the stream will be replaced with native irises in the coming year, she said.
"It's very important (that streams) are in an open and natural condition," Ms. Dare of the Open Space Committee said. "We put a premium on that."
When the couple arrives home after dark, Ms. Ballinger said, and their headlights swing over the meadow, sets of brown ears pivot in their direction -- deer lying in the long grass.
Within sight of the meadow is a grove of trees through which Mr. Ballinger escorted this reporter and the Almanac photographer. Here and there were trillium, an unassuming native lily that sits low to the ground and blossoms with a maroon flower in the center of three broad leaves.
"They punch out of the ground by January or February and they're usually gone by now. I'm trying to encourage this one," Mr. Ballinger said. "I don't think a lot of people know what it is or care, but to me it's a native California plant."
Mr. Ballinger is self-schooled. Queried as to how he can tell a native plant from a non-native one, he replied: "If you look at it long enough, you can figure out if it's native."
A close study of nature came to him over time as he was fly fishing, he said. "When you fish, you look at everything more closely." And why is that? "Because you have the time to do it," he said.
He said he spends three to four hours on Saturdays pulling non-native plants. "You've got to stay after the (invasive) Scotch broom," he said. "It takes work to get rid of these weeds. The best defense is to get the natives pretty well established."
Mr. Ballinger reached down and yanked out an alien forget-me-not by the roots and held it up. It looked pleasant enough, for a flower. "The native is a lot better," he said.
The couple spent all of March and early April pulling thistles, Ms. Ballinger said. The town cuts roadside thistles, but after they flower, she said. "To get everyone out there pulling thistles," Ms. Ballinger said, "that's my plan in my next life."
Asked about the thistle cutting, Town Manager Susan George said that professionals advise mowing them when 2 percent to 5 percent have begun to flower, usually around the second week of June, to be followed by another mowing six weeks later.
"We attempt to follow this protocol for heavily impacted areas, but of course there are probably stretches where we miss the window(s)," Ms. George said. "We have 45 miles of roads with rights-of-way on either side and over 30 acres of public lands where star thistle is a potential problem and just a three-person crew with many other duties. We do the best we can."
Green, and threatening
Another invasive botanical in Woodside, though not as widespread as the thistle, is slender false brome. In the only known infestation in California, these vigorous green sprays of sword-like grass are concentrated between La Honda and Old La Honda roads and the Thornwood Open Space Preserve, said Ellen Gartside of the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District.
The infested area includes the property of Jeanne and Walter Sedgwick, another Backyard Habitat household. The Sedgwick's wildlife corridor is a redwood forest that, to the uneducated eye, appears untroubled by invasive species.
But there is trouble, down by the stream. Clumps of false brome sit on the bank, looking as if they belong there. "If I left it to its own devices, it would crowd out all the native under-story," Ms. Sedgwick said.
The Sedgwicks do have places on their 17 acres where non-natives are welcome: the formal yard, as is true at the Ballingers. Both lawns are fenced to protect ornamental plants like roses from hungry deer. But fencing of the deer-resistant kind is the exception. "We really want to keep a lot of the open space open," Ms. Sedgwick said. "I think it's great not to fence and gate."
While both the Sedgwicks and the Ballingers have properties larger than an acre, that is not a requirement for a Backyard Habitat award, Ms. Dare said. "We have properties that are postage stamp sized," she said.
Framed by the Sedgwick's deep forest and the unimproved road that leads up into it, Ms. Gartside of the open-space district stood at a card table with brochures and a sample of slender false brome.
"Brome is a highly invasive grass," she said. "It's kind of a big deal." How it came to Woodside is a mystery. Perhaps with hay from Oregon, where it is reportedly rampant, but no one knows for sure, she said.
The open-space district has had an eradication program going since 2009 to reimburse property owners at a rate of $350 an acre cleared. "We're definitely seeing a decrease in the (brome) population," Ms. Gartside said.
The district will survey a property at no cost and treat the brome with a herbicide once or twice, followed by a visit later to verify that it's worked, she said.
The Backyard Habitat program is "the kind of thing that really (illustrates) what's so special about this town and this community," Mayor Ron Romines told an audience of about 20 at a lemonade-and-brownies get-together at Town Hall after the tour. "It's really fantastic that so many people decided to apply for this award."
Connecting open spaces is consistent with the town's values, Mr. Romines said. "It's this kind of program that really encourages people to think about those values and embrace those values."
"It's about building community around this idea," added Ms. Dare. Residents engaged in this program may feel as if they're swimming upstream alone, she said. "You're not alone," she said. "There's a whole group of other people out there, people who feel the same way."
Go to this link to learn more and to begin the process to be considered for a 2011 habitat award. The committee is accepting applications until Monday, June 20.