Environment & Science

Irvine Ranch Conservancy creates native plant farm

The Irvine Ranch Conservancy's native farm will provide seed for habitat restoration.
The Irvine Ranch Conservancy's native farm will provide seed for habitat restoration.
Susan Valot/KPCC

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When conservationists try to restore areas where non-native plants have taken over, they may have to help the native plants along. And they sometimes turn to native seeds to do the job. That’s why last month, the Irvine Ranch Conservancy created its first “native farm.”

At the edge of Irvine, neatly manicured neighborhoods give way to avocado groves and hilly open space. Tucked in between some of those groves is a stretch of freshly plowed dirt. Newly installed sprinklers gurgle around the edges.

Irvine Ranch Conservancy workers and volunteers have just finished planting seedlings that are no taller than your hand.

"This plot here is planted with coast goldenbush. That’s Isocoma menziesii. It’s a little shrub that occurs in coastal sage scrub and grassland habitats," says Irvine Ranch Conservancy ecologist Jutta Burger as she points out different plants lined in neat rows.

Burger is overseeing this project. It's eight acres now. Burger hopes to eventually expand it to 20 acres. She says the new native farm will provide seed for habitat restoration.

"Just removing weeds isn’t enough," says Burger. "If you remove a weed, another weed is just going to come in. So you need to plant seed."

Burger says they can get seeds now through a handful of commercial growers. But she says it’s tough to get the right species and it can be expensive. And the plants may not have been grown in the area, which means they might not adapt as well to growing here.

The conservancy already harvests native seeds in Orange County’s open space.

"But you can never count on how much you’re going to get," says Burger. "It might be a bad year. That plant might not set good seed. And you might need that seed in the fall. Second thing is, those plants are scattered across the reserve, so it’s an inefficient way of collecting seed.

"The third problem is that whenever you’re taking something out, you’re removing it from the system. So if you have a great patch of California poppy and you want to collect seed out of it – think of it, you’re harvesting a bunch of seed from it. You might be impacting that nice wildflower patch."

Burger says a native plant garden is a more sustainable approach.

"If we really want to scale up our restoration, we’re going to need to secure a seed source and a good, local seed source," Burger says. "So it is a critical component to being able to scale up restoration."

They’re starting with blue wild rye, white sage, black sage and wildflowers like popcorn flower and the California poppy.

"This is another one of our plots that will be housing deerweed, but deerweed is a very tasty plant for a lot of wildlife," says Burger with a laugh, "so we had to put a fence around it."

It will cost about $100,000 to plant and take care of the natives over the first year. The conservancy will pay for it.

It’s cheaper than it could have been. A local grower let the conservancy use the land – burnt to a crisp a couple of years ago in the Santiago Fire. The Orange County Fire Authority did some of the heavy tractor work. And volunteers, like Laguna Beach landscape architect Tom Sabin, have helped with the layout and planting.

"It’s rewarding," says Sabin after spending a couple of hours planting seedlings. "It’s rewarding in a sense that you can come back in three or four years and really see the impact that you’ve made."

In the coming weeks, the Irvine Ranch Conservancy will finish up the first round of planting. Workers will hit the dirt again in January for round two. They hope to have their first batch of seeds by the end of the year.