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Feature story: Portola Valley residents welcome native plants and animals

Purple needlegrass is something special in the semi-arid and harsh world of the California native plant community.

It's a bunch grass -- it grows in clumps -- and fields of it, each clump a shower of fine blades out-flung from the center in fireworks-like arcs, present to the observer an ethereal loveliness.

Would that needlegrass could talk. "Oh, that ethereal loveliness," it would say. "That's just something I throw together." Sagebrush, praised for its enchanting scent, would say as much. As would a mountain lion on proclamations of its poetry in motion, or a toyon bush at an appreciation of its red berries at Christmas. Nature wears its beauty lightly.

We, the people, however, are free to call attention to it, and some are in Portola Valley. The Conservation Committee has chosen five residents to receive the town's first Backyard Habitat awards to honor efforts made by residents to encourage and maintain corridors that welcome native plants and animals.

Committee members have seen the sagebrush at the home of Jan and Vic Schachter, and a toyon bush at the home of Danna Breen, where there are also deer carcases, though Ms. Breen said she's yet to see the mountain lions that deposit them.

At the home of John and Sharon Richards, there is an expanse of purple needlegrass. Committee member Marge DeStaebler visited it in the spring. "It was all moving in the breeze and it had waves," she said. "It was stunning, it was so beautiful."

These residents as well as Marianne Plunder and the subdivision of Portola Valley Ranch will receive 3-foot-long, 4-inch-wide post-like plaques of rusted steel engraved with the Backyard Habitat program's name and topped by a silhouette of an oak tree. The plaque can be tacked to a fence post and is meant to encourage passersby to think about creating their own native habitats at home.

"Natural backyard habitats benefit the community as a whole, increasing soil permeability, reducing flood potential, increasing ground water resources, and reducing danger from erosion, landslide and fire," the program's brochure says. "These sanctuaries protect our wildlife and bring untold pleasure to the residents of this beautiful community."

The Conservation Committee had five applicants, and all were chosen as winners of the 2014 award. Woodside has a similar initiative, begun in 2011, and Portola Valley's program is a conscious echo of it. "We're trying to build on that," Ms. DeStaebler said.

One person's lawn

When Jan and Vic Schachter moved to Golden Hills Drive in 1993, their property had "lots of lawn," Ms. Schachter told the Almanac. The lawn did not have a friend in her. "It was, like, 'Not!'" she said.

She couldn't just yank the grass out; it would have disturbed the roots of established trees. Instead, she turned off the irrigation and mulched it. It died right away, she said.

In the back were young redwoods, miles from their coastal habitat. She cut off their irrigation. "They haven't grown at all," she said.

She planted the back slope in sagebrush. "They've just spread and taken over and they're totally happy. They get zero water," Ms. Schachter said.

Native grasses? "The few times I planted them, they haven't done that well. Maybe I don't have the touch," she said. Natives don't do well when hand planted, she added. It's "way better" when, like her sagebrush, they seed themselves, she said.

On the patio are water sources, including a fountain that recycles water. Hummingbirds and bees prefer bubbling water, she said.

The Conservation Committee noted the patio's water resources, and that the Schachters arranged with a neighbor not attuned to habitat issues to remove non-natives from the neighbor's yard, Ms. DeStaebler said. A fence came down. "They really opened their yard," she said. "As you drive along, you see this open expanse. They did that all on their own."

20-foot roots

John and Sharon Richards, while not facing a lawn replacement, did make a long-term commitment to weeding out rye and Italian oat grass to allow their needlegrass to thrive, Ms. DeStaeber said. "They spent a fair amount of time on their knees during those 20 years," she said.

The Richards restored a ravine's watercourse, established a pool where fish eat mosquito larvae, and arranged with a neighbor for a fence to come down, Ms. DeStaebler said.

In establishing the bunch grass, some was plugged in and some grew from seed, Mr. Richards told the Almanac. The ground is clay and hardpan, not conducive to vegetation, but bunch grass roots go down 20 feet, he said.

They watered for the first few years, but not now. "Our goal has been to get (the yard) to where we don't have to do anything," he said. It hasn't been expensive because they did it themselves.

The bunch grass grows near an evolving blue oak forest. "Blue oaks evidently like really crappy soil," he said.

Bluebirds like the place, too, with a couple recently having settled in a bluebird box. "That's the amazing thing," he said. "You buy this box for a bluebird. It has directions on it and you put it up and a week later, there are bluebirds in it. How do they do that?"

A lot of work

"I lost a chicken to a coyote (recently) and that was very traumatic," Ms. Breen told the Almanac from the semi-enclosed yard of her Alpine Road home, "but I am able to keep it in perspective because I honor wildlife."

"You need to embrace where you are in the world. I think that's one of the paradigms for living in this place we share with the animals," she said, noting one species not embraced. "I hope the wildlife goes after ground squirrels," she said. "Send me your gopher snakes."

"This year is a big skunk year and I don't know why. I've had quite a lot of run-ins," she said. "I know people who've had skunks and raccoons killed. I just couldn't do that."

She used to have a beehive. The bees didn't stay, so she has a wooden block drilled with holes -- a bee block -- for bee nests. More butterflies came with more California natives, particularly sages, she said.

What was lawn became meadow, but not on its own. "It's a lot of work. It's not a natural phenomenon," she said. "It's hard. It's hard to keep the non-natives out."

What is it like at night? With the bats, "it's quite rich," she said. "It's actually quite noisy at night. We sleep with everything flung open." One night, she said she was lying in bed and a possum walked in. She said she gathered the mosquito net around her and said, "'Goodnight, possum,' and in the morning, everything was fine."

Information

Go to this link for more information about the Backyard Habitats program. For residents interested in participating, committee members will make themselves available for evaluation and brainstorming.

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