Pioneer plants plenty of plugs

Pioneer High School at Yanci Ranch
SLEWS Program | Sacramento Valley | February 28, 2020

Participating School
Pioneer High School

Partners/Landowners
Yolo County Resource Conservation District
Rominger Brothers

Mentors
Dominic Carrillo, Development Associate, Center for Land-Based Learning
Elaine Swiedler, California Farm Academy Apprenticeship Program Coordinator, Center for Land-Based Learning
Gina Radieve, Environmental Scientist, California Department of Water Resources
Jen Metes, Conservation Programs Administrator, The Freshwater Trust

Summary of the Day
This SLEWS season, as you may recall, we had two schools working at the Yanci Ranch project site – Grant Union High School in Sacramento and Pioneer High School in Woodland. Because the ground was too dry to plug plant on Grant Union’s last day, they instead finished planting container plants and shored up the irrigation system so it would be able to moisten the soil for Pioneer students to complete the plug planting portion. Pioneer students arrived to softer soil, and ready to plant these plugs!

After a game of PVC golf, Amy Williams showed students what our restoration work would look like today. The goal will be planting some more native species including sunflower, yarrow, gumplant, goldenrod and milkweed – except this time, instead of planting plants in plastic container pots, these “plug” plants come in a tray, and are so small that planting them just requires poking a hole with a “dibble” and pinching the native soil over the top. At each marked spot, students would plant 4 plug plants, and install a protective tube secured by a stake around each to. To finish, students would apply a thick layer of straw mulch around the tubes to prevent weeds from outcompeting the native species.
Mentor groups divided along the line to conquer this project, working in pairs to plug plant, install tubes, and mulch. As they worked, students noticed several ant nests in the area and even found a tree frog!

After lunch and enjoying SLEWS-themed cupcakes, we hiked up to the top of a nearby hill for 360 degree views of Yanci Ranch. We saw our project site, earlier phases of the project that connect to our piece to create corridors for wildlife, and a beautiful view of the hills and the valley below. After taking the view in, students had time to create a thank you card for someone who made their SLEWS experience possible – be it a teacher, mentor, restoration partner, landowner, funder, or someone else. As students were working, I found an owl pellet and deer skull, both of which I showed to students during closing circle. As we finished the day, we reminisced on past field days and discussed our favorite moments of SLEWS. Many students enjoyed planting, the feeling of teamwork, visiting the earlier phases of the project, and being on top of the hill, but one student encouraged us all to enjoy the current moment with her one word answer, “now”.

Becoming native plant caretakers

Winters High School at Putah Creek Dry Creek Confluence
SLEWS Program | Sacramento Valley | February 21, 2020

Participating School
Winters High School

Partners/Landowners
Yolo County Resource Conservation District
Valerie Whitworth and Michael Barbour

Mentors
Carolyn Kolstad, Biologist, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Josh McCabe, Restoration Coordinator at ACRT Pacific
Karleen Vollherbst, Schoolyard Habitat Program Coordinator, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Lea Pollack, UCD Graduate Student
Marisa Alcorta, Apprenticeship Program Manager, Center for Land-Based Learning

Summary of the Day
Our final day working at the confluence of Putah Creek and Dry Creek in Winters was a hot one, but that didn’t stop us from accomplishing a TON of work.

After mentor groups faced off in a game of PVC golf, we headed down to our planting site to hear from Amy Williams of Yolo County Resource Conservation District about the plans for the day. The main goal was supporting the plants we had planted on our second field day to give them the best possible chance at survival. This was a multi-step process. First, students checked to make sure the emitter was working properly. Then, they installed protective tubes around each plant and drove a bamboo stake into the ground to keep the tube upright. They then cleared weeds around the plant and applied a thick layer of mulch to prevent weed growth around the plant and minimize water loss. There were a few areas in which plants needed to be planted as well, so we planted about 15 native plants in addition to what we had done on our second field day. As we planted, students and mentors noticed many birds around the project site, including yellow-rumped warblers, western bluebirds, and tree swallows.

After a productive morning, we had burritos for lunch and celebrated the last SLEWS day with a cupcake cake. Once lunch was finished, we moved on to mentor interviews. By now, students had been working with their mentors for 3 field days, and this gave them an opportunity to get to know them even better and ask them questions about their education and career paths. As you can see by the diverse job titles above, students were able to hear about several different lines of work and asked great questions, a popular one being, “what is the most surprising thing about your job?”.

To close the day, we shared our favorite experiences of all three SLEWS Field Days. Many students cited visiting Putah Creek on Day 1 and learning about black widow behavior with mentor Lea on Day 2 as their favorite experiences, along with mulching and planting.

Thanks for 3 awesome Field Days!

The need to weed!

Woodland High School at the Maples
SLEWS Program | Sacramento Valley | February 19, 2020

Participating School
Woodland High School

Partners/Landowners
Yolo County Resource Conservation District

Mentors
Grace Auringer, Technician, Genomic Variation Lab
Mandi Finger, Associate Director, Genomic Variation Lab
Matt Clement
Matt Young, Fish Biologist, California Water Science Center, USGS

Summary of the Day
As you may recall, our SLEWS project with Woodland High School is actually two projects – two days at the Maples in Woodland, and two days at Capay Open Space Park. This was our third field day after one at the Maples and one at COSP, making it our final day at the Maples.

We had a small crew on this day which made PVC golf trickier than usual (you have to run FAST to get to the front of the group before the golf ball does!) but two groups won the game incredibly quickly. After that, it was time to group up to learn about the restoration work for the day.

Since we planted all the plants on our first field day here, our next task was to make sure these plants are given the best chance at survival. Installing “tubex” tubes around each plant will help protect them from pests, herbicides, and wind and will create a mini greenhouse for the young plants. Before installing the tubes, students checked to make sure the emitter was working properly, and created a soil “berm” on the low side of the plant to prevent all the water from flowing into the basin. But one of the biggest problems for these plants will be competition from weeds! To combat this, we mulched around each plant with a THICK (two “leaves” or “flakes” worth) of straw. This will prevent weeds from growing up around the plant, so they’ll have better access to resources like water and sunlight.

Speaking of weeds – there was already tons of cheeseweed and milkthistle sprouting up in our planting area. After a quick lesson on how to identify these pesky weeds, students set to work attacking each and every one! Students were very inquisitive as they worked – asking what benefit weeding would have for the plants, and asking to be reminded of the species we planted last time and their role in the ecosystem.

After lunch, we donned binoculars and set off to explore nearby Cache Creek. We spotted many different species of birds and took some time to relax and enjoy the view from the levee.

At closing circle, students were asked what they had learned that day. Popular mentions were how to identify milkweed and cheeseweed, how to use binoculars, and the benefits of mulching. As for favorite moments of the day, the clear winner was a surprise – weeding!

A five star day

Grant Union at Yanci Ranch
SLEWS Program | Sacramento Valley |February 13, 2020

Participating School
Grant Union High School

Partners/Landowners
Yolo County Resource Conservation District
Rominger Brothers Farms

Mentors
Kathy Rightmire, Director of Development, Center for Land-Based Learning
Dani Gelardi, UCD Graduate Student
Carolyn Kolstad, Biologist, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
MJ Farruggia, UCD Graduate Student

Summary of the Day
“How did today go?”
“FIVE STARS!”
After each Field Day, I ask this question of our mentors and project partners in order to get feedback and look for ways to improve the SLEWS Program. Never have I been met with such an enthusiastic response! Read on to see what happened on this beautiful, five star day.

We started with a game of PVC golf before heading down to the restoration site to finish our part of the project. On their Field Day two weeks prior, Pioneer High did not have time to finish planting all of the native plants on their irrigation line. Our priority was getting these plants in the ground, so Grant Union students took this on, planting 65 native plants. Another priority was installing emitters along the line so that each plant would receive a consistent water source (especially as it’s been a very dry month!). Once emitters were in, we turned the irrigation system on to make sure it was working properly. Usually when we do this check, we find multiple “geysers” along the line – spots were emitters were not installed properly and pop off due to the water pressure, spraying water everywhere. Shockingly, we found no geysers! Grant Union did a perfect job! We also were able to plant 24 plug plants, but since the ground was too hard to use a dibble, this was done with trowels.

On our very first field day, we noticed a tall hill that looked accessible, so after lunch and a last-field-day celebration of SLEWS-themed cupcakes, we began the trek. The walk was not far but it was steep, and we all had to catch our breath at the top – especially those that chose to literally run and race up the hill!

I figured there would be a decent view from the top, but was absolutely blown away by the stunning panorama that awaited us. The excitement atop the hill was palpable – after taking some time to soak in the view, we passed out supplies for students to design and write a thank you card to someone who made their SLEWS experience possible. Many students wrote to their mentors, and others wrote a general thank you to all who helped plan their field trip.

We had our closing circle at the top of the hill where we shared our favorite memories from all three field days we had shared. Popular answers included hiking to the top of the hill, being out in nature, installing emitters, planting trees, seeing wildlife, teambuilding games, and enjoying the beautiful weather. Michael Felipe of Yolo County Resource Conservation District had come upon many tiny bones at the top of the hill, which we realized came from raptor casts or owl pellets – he shared his finds at closing circle.

It was amazing to close out the day with a view of not only our project, but also earlier phases of the restoration efforts at the site – we could clearly see how our piece connected to the rest of the wildlife corridor.

Planting through the fog

Davis Senior High School at Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area
SLEWS Program | Sacramento Valley | January 7, 2020

Participating School
Davis Senior High School

Partners
Yolo County Resource Conservation District
Yolo Basin Foundation

Mentors
Aaron Haiman, Environmental Scientist and Tribal Liaison, Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy
Brian Keegan, Sacramento State Graduate Student
Randy Wittorp
Xerónimo Castañeda, Conservation Project Associate, Audubon CA

Summary of the Day
Drier weather made access easier for our second day at the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area, but it was still a bit difficult to find the site as the bypass was blanketed in a thick layer of fog all day! Students were troopers in the foggy, cold weather – it didn’t get above the mid 40s all day, and the sun never did come out.

We played “Where the Wind Blows” during our opening circle, an activity where students, mentors, and partners identify commonalities within the group. After this, we divided into mentor groups so each group could learn to identify mugwort, wild rose, California blackberry, coyotebrush, quailbush, and deergrass in preparation for the “Steal the Native Plant” game. Students raced to be the first to correctly identify each plant and earn points for their mentor group. This came in handy later – students were able to recall the names and ecological value of the plants as they planted them!

Alex Tremblay of Yolo County Resource Conservation District demonstrated proper planting technique before mentor groups headed out to tackle their trestles. You might recall that on this project we are helping to vegetate 4 former railway trestles, and each mentor group is adopting one! It requires a bit more flexibility than a typical SLEWS planting plan, as each trestle presents different challenges and obstacles. One group experienced extremely rocky soil, another had to avoid planting next to larger rocks. By the end of the morning, students had planted 350 container plants of native shrubs and forbs, and 80 deergrass plugs as “companion” plants!

After lunch, educator Sabreena Britt of the Yolo Basin Foundation led students in a water quality testing activity. After explaining the what’s and why’s of water quality testing, she had students rotate through 8 stations where they tested water turbidity, dissolved oxygen, salinity, conductivity, temperature, pH, total dissolved solids, and oxidation reduction potential. The data students collected was uploaded to Earth Echo International as citizen science data that can be used by real scientists! Check it out here: http://www.monitorwater.org/.

SLEWS returns to Yanci Ranch!

Grant Union High School at Yanci Ranch
SLEWS Program | Sacramento Valley | December 12, 2019

Participating School
Grant Union High School

Partners/Landowners
Yolo County Resource Conservation District
Rominger Brothers Farms

Mentors
Kathy Rightmire, Director of Development, Center for Land-Based Learning
Dani Gelardi, UCD Graduate Student
Carolyn Kolstad, Biologist, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
MJ Farruggia

Summary of the Day
Yanci Ranch, a cattle ranch about 7 miles north of Winters, has hosted three SLEWS projects in the past – and this year, the project is large enough that we will have two schools adopting the site! Grant Union High kicked us off with the first field day, two years after their classmates completed a project on the same property.

A foggy morning obscured the beauty of the site, which includes a picturesque pond and views of the hills (though that made for a fun surprise when the fog cleared later that morning!). We began our day as we always do, in an opening circle. Landowner Bruce Rominger introduced the site to the students and Amy Williams of Yolo County Resource Conservation District shared the project details before we broke the ice with a game of group juggle.

After gathering our supplies and putting on mud boots, we walked down to the project site. Bruce had used a slip plow to pre-bury a line of irrigation, so our first steps would be to measure along the line and place flags every 10 feet. One mentor group tackled this, while the others followed and installed emitters and spaghetti line at each flag. This was harder than it sounds as the line was buried – to access the line, students had to first dig down to it! Grant Union student’s keen eyes noticed many signs of wildlife throughout the morning, from deer on the way in to millipedes, centipedes, and frogs along the planting area. We even found some cow bones – this is a cattle ranch, after all! After installing emitters (!), Bruce was kind enough to give students a demonstration of how the slip plow works. He showed students how the spool of irrigation tubing fits on the back, and as he drives the tractor, the line is buried under the soil.

One irrigation was complete, students plug planted sedges and rushes in an area susceptible to erosion. These plants will help alleviate this problem while also contributing to the quality of habitat.

After a well-deserved burrito lunch, students got a chance to talk with each mentor about their education and career paths. Since they will see these mentors at each field day, it was also a great opportunity to get more comfortable with our Yanci Ranch team!

Milkweed for Monarchs at the Maples

Woodland High School at the Maples
SLEWS Program | Sacramento Valley | December 11, 2019

Participating School
Woodland High School

Partners/Landowners
Yolo County Resource Conservation District

Mentors
Bob Ream, retired
Grace Auringer, Technician, Genomic Variation Lab
Mandi Finger, Associate Director, Genomic Variation Lab
Matt Clement

Summary of the Day
You may have heard that the Center for Land-Based Learning is moving from our current headquarters at the Farm on Putah Creek in Winters to The Maples in Woodland. The new office is coming together quickly (check out our new headquarters here!) and we have plans to do SLEWS projects onsite for many seasons to come – starting now!

As part of the site construction, a stormwater retention basin was installed alongside our future California Farm Academy plot. Since this area won’t be actively used, it’s a great opportunity to create habitat for wildlife!

You may have heard the unfortunate news that monarch butterflies are at risk – the California population plummeted by 86% in just one year (from 2017 to 2018). To help address this, the Xerces Society has developed “Monarch and Pollinator Habitat Kits” to distribute to restoration partners. Yolo Resource Conservation District is implementing one of these kits here at the Maples. These kits consist of native milkweeds (the host plant for monarchs, essential to their breeding success) and nectar plants to support adult monarchs and other pollinators. Along with the Xerces kits, the Yolo County RCD planned to line the bottom of the basin with native grasses.

We will have two field days at the Maples with Woodland High School, and at our opening circle I recognized many familiar faces – several of the students participated in SLEWS last year and were back for more! As we relocated to the stormwater basin after opening circle we realized we had a surprise visitor – Mary Kimball, Executive Director of the Center for Land-Based Learning! She assisted the Yolo County RCD staff in giving a stellar planting demonstration, in the process planting the very first plant of this restoration project!

We had a TON of work slated for this first field day, yet as always Woodland High students shocked us with their enthusiastic and unwavering work ethic. We started by laying down two 750+ foot lines of drip irrigation, and followed by planting 225 container plants and installing drip emitters for each. After that students moved on to plug planting in the basin itself, planting more than 2000 plugs! Finally, students planted 150 milkweed rhizomes in the pollinator meadow area.

A productive morning of work was rewarded with burritos from Chuy’s Taqueria, and we were fortunate to finish the field day just as the rain started! Our next field day with Woodland High will be at Capay Open Space Park, and I cannot wait to see what we accomplish there!

Adopt-a-trestle in the Yolo Bypass

Davis Senior High School at Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area
SLEWS Program | Sacramento Valley | December 10, 2019

Participating School
Davis Senior High School

Partners
Yolo County Resource Conservation District
Yolo Basin Foundation

Mentors
Allie Igwe, UCD Graduate Student
Brian Keegan, Sacramento State Graduate Student
Randy Wittorp
Xerónimo Castañeda, Conservation Project Associate, Audubon CA

Summary of the Day
“What’s it near?”

When people ask this question about the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area SLEWS project, I just don’t know what to tell them! Located about 30 minutes south of the highway 80 Yolo causeway on gravel and dirt roads, this site is about as remote as it gets for SLEWS projects. First on the list of “to do’s” for this project was figuring out a way to get 35+ students, teachers, mentors, and project partners to the correct site. For all you bypass hunters out there, we needed to meet at parking lot M – the furthest from 80 – so we met mentors and parent drivers at the Yolo Basin Foundation Headquarters to start the caravan. There was lots of birds to see on the bumpy ride – I spotted Sandhill Cranes, Northern Harriers, White-tailed Kites, coots and lots of waterfowl like Northern Shovelers and Northern Pintails. We were lucky this time that the road was only somewhat wet and muddy – we may not be so lucky after a few winter storms!

The Yolo Bypass is a manmade system of weirs that diverts floodwater away from the Sacramento River and thus prevents the city of Sacramento from flooding during the rainy season. As you can imagine, this means that some years the bypass is under water.

What happens to bypass wildlife in these years? Well, the water usually comes in from the east and moves west, so they may be able to move west before their home is underwater. And if they don’t? Well, there used to be a railroad spanning the bypass, and the “trestles” that once elevated the tracks are still present. During flood events, these become the only islands of dry land – drones have captured photographs of animals like coyotes, deer, and rabbits stuck on these small land masses. The problem is these trestles aren’t high quality habitat – and that’s where we come in!

Yolo County Resource Conservation District has planned a project to vegetate these trestles, creating wildlife corridors in the bypass. They’ve chosen plants that not only provide food and cover for sheltering wildlife but of course are flood-tolerant as well.

After arriving and enjoying breakfast, students heard all this and more from Martha Ozonoff, the Executive Director of the Yolo Basin Foundation and Alex Tremblay, Project Manager from Yolo County Resource Conservation District. Then it was time to divide into mentor groups and get started!

This project is unique in that each mentor group is tackling a single railway trestle over the course of three field days. On this day, the project task was to install a drip irrigation system to support the plants we’ll plant on the second and third field days. Each mentor group was shown an example – three parallel lines of irrigation along the entire mound, connected to a perpendicular line – before setting off to complete their own system. Groups had to problem solve to make the system work for their particular trestle. One group had to navigate around a large mound in the middle of their trestle, while others had to avoid rocky trestle sides. Once the line had been spooled out, students installed 100 emitters on the lines. Next time we’ll be planting native shrubs alongside these emitters, which will ensure they have water when the bypass is dry. One group was so dedicated to caring for their trestle that they picked up trash to clean it up before their next visit!

After lunch, students interviewed the mentors to learn about their education and career paths, as well as getting to know them better for the field days to follow. To close out the day, we shared our favorite moments of the day. This group was really interested in wildlife and mentioned finding deer antlers and even a dead opossum and coot!

Looking forward to our next Field Day on January 7th!

A day of irrigation along two creeks

Winters High School at Putah Creek Dry Creek Confluence
SLEWS Program | Sacramento Valley | November 1, 2019

Participating School
Winters High School

Partners/Landowners
Yolo County Resource Conservation District
Valerie Whitworth and Michael Barbour

Mentors
Corey Shake, Partner Biologist, Point Blue Conservation Science, NRCS
Josh McCabe, Restoration Coordinator at ACRT Pacific
Lea Pollack, UCD Graduate Student
Marisa Alcorta, Apprenticeship Program Manager, Center for Land-Based Learning

Summary of the Day
Our second Sac Valley SLEWS day of the year brought us to the confluence of Putah Creek and Dry Creek in Winters, CA. Landowners Michael Barbour and Valerie Whitworth have been working with Yolo County Resource Conservation District to plan a habitat restoration project in an area that was damaged by fire in October 2018. This will increase biodiversity in the area as well as provide habitat for pollinators and the wildlife of the creek. We were happy to involve Winters High School students with this project, walking distance from their school!

After students arrived on foot and enjoyed breakfast, we gathered in our opening circle to introduce ourselves and the project goals, and learn names with a round of group juggle. From there Amy Williams of Yolo County Resource Conservation District led us towards the creek to teach us about a very important plant – blue elderberry. There are special rules and protective measures surrounding this plant. Why? It is the only host plant for the Valley Elderberry Longhorn Beetle, a federally protected species of insect. Its habitat has been greatly reduced due to agriculture and urban development. To protect the beetle, the blue elderberry plant is protected from disturbance, trimming, and removal. Our project site has a sizeable elderberry shrub in the middle of it, so we took extra precautions to make sure it was not damaged during our work.

To start our project, we had to move a bunch of brush that was in the way of our project site. Though there was a sizeable amount of cut branches, students and mentors made extremely short work of it. Next the entire class gathered together to lay out the longest irrigation line. This is a group effort – students space themselves about 20 feet apart and carry the line all the way to the end as the spool of irrigation tubing unspools. One this line was “stapled” down, students got in their mentor groups to divide and conquer.

One group worked on installing emitters on existing oak trees, another created a “grid” of irrigation for the pollinator meadow, and the other two groups laid out 3 more lines of irrigation in the main planting area, taking care around the elderberry of course. By lunch time, students had installed 2500 feet total of irrigation and installed 280 emitters!

Once we were done eating, we ventured down to Putah Creek where Amy and mentor (and biologist!) Corey Shake talked about the significance of the creek and the wildlife that calls it home – especially spawning salmon! We even saw some wildlife of our own on the field day including western fence lizards, a fuzzy caterpillar, beetles, and birds. After exploring the creek, students found a quiet spot to sit and reflect on their first field day in a field journal. This low energy activity was probably a welcome end to the day – a mentor’s fitbit tracked that we walked 4 miles while working throughout the field day, not even counting the students’ walk to and from school!