What is Happening at the Meadow Now?

Non-native plants like black mustard and cheeseweed dominate the meadow. The tall shrub in the background, called lemonade berry, is the only native plant in this photo.

As of this writing (winter 2016/17) we are controlling the non-native weeds that fill the meadow during the rainy season. As of our last inventory, there are at least 21 weeds that are not native to California growing at the meadow compared to three that are native.

Few people are aware of the problems that non-native plants pose to native animals. Although the plants that come up after the rains at the meadow present an attractive green color, they are mostly non-native European plants (mostly cheeseweed, goosefoot, filaree, and a couple of species of annual grasses). These are pretty while they are green, but these plants provide very low habitat quality for native animals. To be sure, some animals like the weeds, but decades of work by hundreds of agencies have proven that when non-native weeds are replaced by native plants like perennial grasses and shrubs, the variety and number of native animals increases dramatically.

What’s been happening in the last few years is that these weeds have been allowed to grow, and since they are “annuals” they go to seed and then dry out and die in late spring/summer. This has prompted two letters from the Montecito Fire District expressing concern about the fire danger that these dead weeds present. Also, after the weeds die each summer, they are no longer green and attractive. They drop literally millions of seeds that prevent the establishment of native plants. These seeds remain in the ground, and depending on the species, they can continue sprouting when it rains for several years after they first fell off their parent plant. One of our goals is to reduce the number of weeds that will sprout after we begin the job of reestablishing the native plants that once grew at the meadow.

The County Parks Department (who manages the meadow) used mowing machines once a year to try to manage this situation. However, certain members of the Chumash community objected to the machinery driving on the site, and in any case, much of the weeds dropped their seed prior to the mowing. In 2014, the project team held a public meeting where we proposed a plan to restore the vegetation to a state which would be closer to what it would have been when the Chumash occupied the area. We explained that performing weed control to keep the non-natives from dropping seed at the site was essential to making the future restoration project a success. To be clear, controlling weeds is NOT restoration. It’s just a way to mitigate the fire danger and reduce the amount of non-native seeds that are dropped at the site that would complicate the future restoration project. The actual job of restoring the site, including installing native plants, will not begin until the plan is finalized and permits are obtained. Since mowing the site seemed to be an imperfect solution, CIR used brush-cutters (weed whackers with metal blades) to cut the weeds before they went to seed. However, even annual weeds can re-sprout, flower and go to seed even if they are cut very low to the ground. At this time, we cannot do anything that will disturbed the soil, so pulling up the weeds by hand is unfortunately not an option.

So this year we turned to a tried and true technique to keep weed seeds from infesting restoration sites. It’s usually referred to as “grow and kill”. People who use this technique usually allow the weeds to grow for a while and then spray them with a synthetic herbicide such as Round-up. When it rains again, and another crop of weeds grows, they are allowed to grow for a while, and then they are sprayed again. People do these cycles for as long as practical, and then they plant the site with natives. We modified this technique by not using Round Up. Instead, starting in November of 2016, we have used citrus oil that is completely organic (made from orange peels) and is certified to be used in organic farming and around schools. In actuality, what we are spraying is 75% water and 25% of the citrus oil. The advantage of using organic weed killer is that it is non-toxic. The disadvantage is that it will not kill mature plants. Therefore it must be sprayed when the weeds first emerge every time there is significant rain. If we were not spraying the weeds, the meadow would be full of green non-native plants that many people consider pretty, but if we let them grow, we would lose our chance to keep them from dropping seed at the site, which would complicate future restoration.

Unfortunately, the citrus oil causes an odor that can last from a few days to a couple of weeks or so. We also use blue dye in the spray for two Unfortunately, the citrus oil causes an odor that can last from a few days to a couple of weeks or so. We also use blue dye in the spray for two reasons: first, so that the public can see where we have sprayed and not walk through the wet oil. Second, it makes it possible for the person doing the spraying to keep track of what he or she has sprayed. This dye is meant to fade quickly, so it should mostly disappear within days after spraying. Our team will use as little dye as possible so that it will fade more quickly.

In spring 2017 we used a scythe (a manual tool that has been used for millennia to cut grains) to hand cut the grasses and other weeds. It worked remarkably well and we received many compliments about the way the meadow looked and the “clean air and quiet” method. We are likely to use the scythe again next year. In July, we began an experiment, watering part of the meadow to see if we can reduce the seedbank of non-native weeds. If the weeds grow, we’ll cut or treat them before they set seed. This will facilitate future restoration.

The actual restoration will involve growing and planting of native grasses and shrubs. Visitors to the meadow may notice that the lemonade berry on the bluff stays green all year. We ask that the public to please try to imagine that plant, plus many other shrubs that are appropriate to coastal sites growing year round on the perimeter of the meadow, with tall native grasses and wildflower species occupying the rest of the site. We also ask the public to please try to imagine the Myoporum trees on the east end of the meadow replaced with native oak trees and with the plants that naturally grow in our local oak woodlands. This kind of environment inevitably ends up with many more numbers, and numbers of bird species than that are currently present at the meadow. specially when people who are used to a place looking the same way it has for years or even decades. If we could snap our fingers and make the restoration happen overnight, we would. But it’s a time consuming process, and the work is not always pretty (and may in fact be the opposite). We truly understand the concerns of people who are uneasy or annoyed by the work happening at the meadow.

CIR has been working steadily to restore habitat at over 60 sites on the Channel Islands and on the mainland for 16 years, and we have justly gained a very good reputation for our work. We know what works and what does not. That does not mean people always like the techniques that we use, but they do like the results. Our hope is that that those who enjoy the meadow now will have a chance in a few years to stand at the restored meadow, which will look great all year round, and will look more like what the Chumash would have seen when they lived there.