On a late January day at Audubon Canyon Ranch’s Bouverie Preserve in Glen Ellen, the sky was blue, the milkmaids were already starting to bloom, and white belly feathers from warring blue jays floated in the air. In an old vineyard, about 30 Sonoma Valley High School students were systematically planting thousands of grass plugs along stringed transect lines. The first student struck the soft earth with a dibble, a long-handled tool with a sharp steel spike, to make the hole. Another followed with a flat of blue wild rye, purple needlegrass, and California melic-grass plugs grown from seeds collected on the property.
These high school volunteers are in a program called Student and Landowner Education and Watershed Stewardship (SLEWS), created by the Center for Land-Based Learning in Dixon. The students are the labor behind Project GROW (Gathering to Restore Oak Woodlands), a five-year effort to restore eight acres of Bouverie’s native woodlands. The students also learn about restoration in class and work with mentors in the field. The project was born when Caltrans, which had to mitigate the removal of 117 oak trees nearby, asked if it could plant trees at Bouverie. Jeanne Wirka, Bouverie’s resident biologist and a member of the California Native Grasslands Association, suggested a holistic woodland restoration instead, for the same cost. “When we talk about habitat restoration, most of us picture big trees,” says Wirka, “but it is the soil and grasses and flowers beneath those trees that support the majority of biodiversity.”
On previous field days, the SLEWS students planted 490 blue, valley, coast live, Oregon, and black oak trees. The 10,000 native grass plugs will eventually provide habitat, knit the soil together, and reduce erosion. Then the students will weed, monitor, and diversify the woodland with toyon and madrone planted among the oaks.
Each year, 3,000 third- and fourth-grade students visit the preserve. The public can visit only for a limited number of guided nature walks and the Backyard Naturalist field seminars. Sign up at egret.org/visitbouverie.