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Take a short jaunt in Mariposa to see a treasure of California native plants

A path along Mariposa Creek where UC ANR Master Gardeners have planted native species.
A half-block from the highway that brings thousands of tourists to Yosemite National Park each year, the UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) Master Gardeners landscaped a short and scenic hiking path that provides the perfect break on a long drive.

The quarter-mile-long Mariposa Creek Parkway runs parallel to State Route 140 (Main Street in downtown Mariposa) on Stroming Road between Eighth and Sixth streets. Along the path, the Master Gardeners created the California Native Plant Demonstration Garden, which includes dozens of beautiful, drought-tolerant plants labeled for easy identification.

The path, which follows a short stretch of Mariposa Creek, was designed to increase appreciation for native flora and encourage Californians to consider “going native” in their own landscapes, said Kris Randal, coordinator of the Master Gardener program for UC ANR Cooperative Extension in Mariposa and Merced counties. Water shortages associated with the ongoing California drought are also driving interest in landscaping with native plants.

“Many natives are drought-tolerant, adapted to local soils, and rarely need fertilizers or pesticide treatments,” Randal said. “With some care and irrigation to get them started, they create a beautiful natural setting that brings pollinators and wildlife into your backyard.”

Randal was an advocate for native plants even before joining UC ANR. As a community educator for the Resource Conservation District in Mariposa County, she coordinated the transformation of a weedy parking lot around the district's building on the Mariposa Fairgrounds into a beautiful display of plants and wildflowers that occur naturally in the surroundings.

UC ANR Master Gardener coordinator Kris Randal with the welcome sign on the Mariposa Creek Parkway.
She did the same thing in her own Mariposa yard, bringing in and nursing the plants that flourish in natural areas.

“After I planted native brush and wildflowers, it was a joy for me to watch diversity come into my yard. Plant it, and they will come,” Randal said.

Randal suggests growing California native plants, even over native plants from other parts of the world with Mediterranean climates – such as Australia, Chile and South Africa – which also are often recommended because of their low water needs.

The California natives, she said, support local wildlife and pollinators, have historical and cultural importance, and save time and expense while adding beauty and ecological health to the environment. Native plants attract native bees, butterflies and hummingbirds and provide seeds, nuts and fruits for other native birds and wildlife. Native plants promote soil health by supporting flora and fauna that flourish underground.

“There's all kinds of magic going on under the soil,” Randal said.

As a first step toward converting to native landscaping, Randal suggests finding a natural area close to home and visiting it every few weeks to see what is growing, and what is blooming. Take notes and consult a plant guide or the Internet to identify the plants.

“It sounds like a lot of work, but it's not,” Randal said. “It's fun.”

This task is particularly convenient for Mariposa County residents, where the UC ANR Master Gardeners planted a wide array of beautiful native plants in one place.

Bush lupin casts a shadow on a bolder along the Mariposa Creek Parkway.
Under the auspices of UC ANR Cooperative Extension, Master Gardeners are trained by UC ANR academics in research-based and sustainable gardening and landscaping practices. They become volunteer educators for non-commercial gardeners. In Mariposa County, a significant amount of volunteer time goes into tending the native plant garden.

In early spring, one of the first deciduous shrubs to leaf-out on the pathway is California buckeye. The leathery, pear-shaped fruits contain seeds that are easily sprouted, or they can be used in dried flower arrangements.

Along the trail, visitors will find California fuchsia, known by many as a natural hummingbird feeder. Blue elderberry, columbine and manzanita also attract hummingbirds to the demonstration garden.

Randal points out soap root, which looks like a grouping of long spindly leaves growing from the ground. Native Americans used pulp from the bulb to make a soapy lather, and they used the fibrous and hairy husks of the bulb to make small brushes to whisk out acorn shell debris from grinding holes.

One of Randal's favorite natives, she said, is a low creeping sage. The fragrant plant forms a low mat as big as 10 feet across with blue-violet flowers May to June. “This is great in a pine forest where it will get afternoon shade,” Randal said.

A lovely shrub known as Ceanothus blue jeans produces profuse powder-blue clustered flowers. The tall evergreen provides a colorful show of flowers with no care or irrigation. Western redbud explodes with magenta blossoms in the spring. Native Americans used the branches for basket weaving and made a red dye from the bark. Red Twig dogwood produces beautiful white blooms in early summer, and its bright red branches are a unique display in the winter.

“Growing native plants help you appreciate your surroundings and feel more connected to the natural world,” Randal said. “It attracts more life and that's why many of us garden.”

An initiative to maintain and enhance healthy families and communities is part of the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources Strategic Vision 2025.

Author: Jeannette Warnert

Posted on Tuesday, March 31, 2015 at 8:44 AM

Groundwater records should be public, says UC ANR expert

Because of a 64-year-old law in California, groundwater information (like groundwater) is out of sight.
Thomas Harter, a groundwater hydrologist with UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) has called for a change in California law that will make information about the state's dwindling underground stores of water available to the public.

Harter, a UC ANR specialist based at UC Davis, and co-author Laurel Firestone, shared their thoughts in an op-ed penned for The Guardian. Firestone is co-executive director of the Community Water Center in California, which helps disadvantaged communities gain access to clean, affordable water. 

The authors wrote that state records with information needed to characterize groundwater aquifers are kept confidential under a 64-year-old law that considers them proprietary to well drillers. The well logs contain data that is public in every other state in the West and include details such as where wells are located, their depth, potential pumping rates, diameter and descriptions of the sediments and rocks the wells go through.

"The lack of information is a major impediment to stewardship of the resource," the op-ed says.

California State Senator Fran Pavley introduced Senate Bill 20 in December, which if passed will make well log data publicly available in California.

"Perhaps as more community and farm wells dry up this summer, the legislature will extend its enthusiasm for transparency to the critical information needed for more equitable and sustainable management of our groundwater," Garter and Firestone conclude.

Posted on Monday, March 30, 2015 at 1:18 PM

6 ways local officials can encourage urban farming

City Slicker Farms' community market farm in Oakland
We know that eating plenty of fruits and vegetables is key to a healthful diet, but not everyone has ready access to a grocery store or can afford to buy fresh produce. One approach to the problem is to bring the farm closer to people's homes by making it easier to grow food in backyards and on vacant urban land.

To find out how to help people who want to grow food in their communities in California, Rachel Surls, a UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Cooperative Extension advisor, and several UC ANR colleagues interviewed urban farmers as part of a statewide study of urban agriculture needs.

Surls, who specializes in sustainable food systems in Los Angeles County, and her colleagues identified several common challenges that UC ANR and local governments could address to cultivate a more urban agriculture-friendly environment.

In an op-ed published March 24 in the Sacramento Bee, Surls listed the following six things that local officials could do to encourage urban farming:

  1. Rob Bennaton, UC Cooperative Extension advisor, helps urban farmers test soil in Alameda County.
    Make zoning and regulatory information accessible
  2. Develop a transparent process for use of city-owned land
  3. Create an urban agriculture incentive zone
  4. Update zoning to make it urban-ag friendly
  5. Make water accessible while promoting efficient use
  6. Provide guidance and support for soil testing and remediation.

There seems to be growing interest in cities encouraging urban farming. For example, last year Oakland updated its city codes to allow planting of community gardens in most zones of the city without obtaining a special permit. San Diego has made it easier for residents to keep chickens and bees in their backyards. The Sacramento City Council recently voted to allow residents to farm on urban lots and sell produce they grow at farm stands. And now, Santa Clara County is considering tax breaks for property owners who allow crops to be planted on their unused parcels. 

Urban farmers told the researchers that UC ANR could help by providing educational materials on topics such as pest management, water management, design of community urban agriculture projects and soil testing and remediation.

To begin providing the public with information about urban agriculture, UC ANR has created a website at http://ucanr.edu/urbanag. Visitors to the website will find science-based information on raising crops and livestock, selling farm products and links to policies for farming in a backyard, at a school or a community garden.

“Many urban farmers are beginning farmers so the website offers basic information on planting, pests and irrigation, and on navigating local laws and regulations that impact farming,” said Surls. “But the website is also intended to be a resource for policymakers who are making decisions that impact local farming in their cities.”

For the latest information about urban farming, visit http://ucanr.edu/urbanag and follow @UCurbanag on Twitter.

Cities can allow residents to farm on city-owned vacant lots and entice property owners to lease their land for gardens in exchange for reduced property taxes.

 

The University of California Global Food Initiative aims to put the world on a path to sustainably and nutritiously feed itself. By building on existing efforts and creating new collaborations among UC's 10 campuses, affiliated national laboratories and the Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, the initiative will develop and export solutions for food security, health and sustainability throughout California, the United States and the world.

 

Posted on Monday, March 30, 2015 at 10:52 AM

Urban farms can help feed the hungry

(The Sacramento Bee published an op-ed by Rachel Surls, UC ANR urban agriculture advisor for Cooperative Extension in Los Angeles County, in its editorial pages today. The op-ed is reprinted below.)

A potential solution to hunger and food insecurity is growing vegetables in backyards and vacant lots, says Rachel Surls, UC ANR urban agriculture advisor.
Urban agriculture is in the local spotlight as the Sacramento City Council is expected to vote Tuesday night on allowing farming on city lots and making it easier for residents to sell produce they have grown.

In similar discussions around the state on the desire of residents to raise their own food with fewer restrictions, there is a core issue that should be front and center. In California, where we grow half of the country's fruits and vegetables, our own citizens too often go hungry.

Fifteen percent of households – roughly 5.5 million Californians – are “food insecure,” according to a 2013 federal report, meaning they do not have “consistent access throughout the year to adequate food for healthy active living.” Families with children are even more likely to run short on food.

We know that eating plenty of fruits and vegetables is key to a healthy diet, but not everyone has ready access to a grocery store, or can afford to buy fresh produce. One potential solution is to make it easier to grow food in backyards and on vacant land.

The University of California's Global Food Initiative aims to help the world sustainably and nutritiously feed itself. One way that UC Agriculture and Natural Resources is working toward that goal is by providing information for urban farmers and decision-makers interested in urban agriculture to improve food security in their communities. While hunger and food security are complex issues, urban farming can be used with other strategies to help ensure access to affordable, nutritious food.

And the idea seems to resonate with Californians. Interest in urban food production can be seen around California. Following strong advocacy efforts at the grassroots level, Assembly Bill 551 was passed in 2013, allowing local governments to designate urban agriculture incentive zones. San Francisco has enacted the state's first one.

Several other cities have developed local policies to promote urban agriculture. San Diego, for example, has made it easier for residents to keep chickens and bees in their backyards, and to establish farmers markets, produce stands, community gardens and small urban farms. Oakland updated its city code in 2014 to allow community gardens in most of the city without a special permit.

But obstacles to urban agriculture remain in many cities, including land use restrictions, difficulty accessing water, soil contamination and a lack of information on local regulations. After conducting a statewide study, my colleagues and I found a number of common challenges and came up with six steps that local officials can take to break down common barriers.

They are: Make zoning and regulatory information accessible; develop a transparent process for using city-owned land; create an urban agriculture incentive zone; update zoning to make it urban-ag-friendly; make water accessible while promoting efficient use; and provide guidance and support for soil testing and remediation.

An easy way to let urban farmers know what is allowed is to post information on a website, as San Francisco has done. Through AB 551, cities can entice property owners to lease their land for gardens and farms in exchange for reduced property taxes. Cities can also partner with urban farmers and local food policy councils to identify concerns and ways to address them.

In addition to health benefits, urban gardens beautify the community and provide common ground for people of different ages and cultures to work together. They can also create jobs, learning opportunities and economic savings on food. Given the numerous potential benefits, local officials can better serve their communities by making it easier to cultivate food locally.

Posted on Tuesday, March 24, 2015 at 8:57 AM

Strawberry season opens in the San Joaquin Valley

San Joaquin Valley strawberry season is about two weeks early.
Strawberries in the central San Joaquin Valley are ripening about two weeks earlier than normal in 2015, reported Robert Rodriguez in the Fresno Bee. The story was localized and also used in the Merced Sun-Star and Modesto Bee.

Normally strawberry season starts in early April, but in the Fresno area Rodriguez found a dozen roadside stands already selling the springtime favorite.

Rodriguez spoke to Michael Yang, an agricultural assistant with UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Cooperative Extension in Fresno County. Despite warmer temperatures and a shortage of water for some growers, the overall quality of the crop looks good, Yang said.

“You may see that on some farms where the growers have had trouble getting enough water,” Yang says. “The fruit may not size up, but that sweet taste will still be there.”

Most of the region's growers produce Chandler or Albion strawberries, two cultivars that were developed by University of California researchers.

Merced Sun-Star reporter Ana Ibarra interviewed UC ANR advisor David Doll, who said the strawberry industry in Merced is small but important. According to Doll, the success of this year's strawberry season will be mainly dependent on the heat. Just as the heat accelerated the season, it also can be cut short if the high temperatures continue, he said.

Posted on Monday, March 23, 2015 at 1:29 PM

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