The Watershed Nursery takes native plant approach to Bay Area habitats

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The Watershed Nursery takes native plant approach to Bay Area habitats
The Watershed Nursery, which made one of its first homes on a basketball court in the East Bay hills, today leases property from the City of Richmond at 601 A Canal Blvd. in Richmond. (All photos by Kathy Chouteau)

By Kathy Chouteau

It all started with a dream.

Local ecologist Laura Hanson dreamt one night that she had lost her current job and was wondering what to do next. In her dream, she decided to grow plants.

The dream inspired Hanson to approach her friend, Diana Benner; the two had worked on Bay Area restoration projects and environmental education for youth where they often couldn’t find the right plants for their projects.

Together they decided to grow plants for restoration projects—and the rest, as they say, is history.

In Sept. 2001, Hanson and Benner established The Watershed Nursery, which made one of its first homes on a basketball court in the East Bay hills, but today leases property from the City of Richmond at 601 A Canal Blvd. in Richmond.

“You’re focusing your material that you bring to a project based on the material that exists in that watershed currently or historically,” said Benner regarding what prompted the nursery’s name.

At first, The Watershed Nursery wasn’t open to the public—it worked on a contract basis. Today, the business operates as a full-scale native plant nursery offering hundreds of species of California native plants while specializing in native plants for the San Francisco Bay Area. The nursery also offers restoration services that contribute to local habitat enhancement projects.

The nursery’s overall aim? “Contributing to the enhancement of habitat value around the San Francisco Bay Area,” per Benner.

So why are native plants so important to propagate? “It has to do with evolution and the adaptation of local fauna to the local flora,” said Benner. “There are a lot of studies that have found that habitat in an urban setting—looking at the number of caterpillars or butterflies or birds using native species vs. ornamental non-native species, and really finding a quantitatively significant difference between that use.

California has close to half of the whole diversity of all of the plant species for all of North America because we are so topographically diverse,” continued Benner. “There are all of these little niches, little micro ecosystems. We have a huge amount of diversity here—so it’s another layer on top of the benefits of natives of the importance of preserving the diversity that we have in this state.”

A lot of The Watershed Nursery’s projects involve people who are trying to remove non-native species and put in a diversity of what would have historically occurred in that site.

“And it is pretty cool—if you get the plants well established and working, the fauna follows,” said Benner.

Significant habitat enhancement projects the nursery has been involved in have included working on a creek with steelhead trout in Cupertino’s Blackberry Farms area and the Invasive Spartina Project, which aims to preserve California’s coastal biological resources through the elimination of introduced species of Spartina (cordgrass).

“The interest between private homeowners and landscapers in using natives has been growing,” said Benner. “More and more people are getting interested and understanding the ‘why’ of using natives and really appreciating the impact that they can have.”

The Watershed Nursery—which offers native plants from the nine counties surrounding the bay—and  then some—is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tues. through Sun. and is closed Mondays and holidays. Visit the nursery’s website to learn more.

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