Lake Cunningham Native Garden: Where Ecology and Community Intersect

At the October 2022 CNPS Conference in San Jose, Ashok and Arvind made a presentation about the Lake Cunningham Native Garden.

This was part of a longer session titled “Native Plants in Public Spaces” consisting of 5 presentations.

It offers a concise introduction to the park’s history, the Native Garden, and the volunteers who make it happen.

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Birds of Lake Cunningham

Leah Moffatt has been volunteering at the Native Garden for over a year. She is a birder and a photographer too. On volunteer workdays, she makes time to go birding around the lake. Over time she has captured photographs of the many species that inhabit the park in various seasons.

Cedar waxwing, Lake Cunningham Park, San Jose, CA
Cedar waxwing on toyon

Check out the photo album here: Birds of Lake Cunningham.

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Going Native Garden Tour Kickoff includes the Native Garden

The 2021 Going Native Garden Tour kicked off today with a virtual tour of all publicly accessible native plant gardens in the area. The virtual event included a special focus on the Lake Cunningham Native Garden. The presentation starts with a historical and ecological perspective of the area before embarking on a guided virtual tour of the plants and wildlife in the garden. It concludes with a look at the people who have shaped and continue to shape the garden.

The native garden video presentation begins at 10:50.

Slides in PDF form are available here (104 MB).

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How is the Native Garden faring in the era of Covid-19?

You may be wondering what is happening at Lake Cunningham Park and its Native Garden since the shelter-in-place order took effect in California.

The park remains open 8am-half hour after sunset. SIP and social distancing guidelines apply: wear masks, maintain 6′ distance. Amenities are locked down/taped up. No restrooms, no benches, no workout stations. Trails/roads are available to pedestrians, joggers, bicyclists.

The parking fee has been waived. I see more people visiting. Entire families. Even kids on tricycles. Most use masks. Rangers remain on duty. Maintenance not so much. Weeds abound.

The Native Garden stopped volunteer workdays under direction from the city as well as the California Native Plant Society. Since May 5, the city has allowed weeding to resume as an essential service under its Adopt-a-Park program. All volunteers must go through training. Among other things, they must wear a Volunteer vest.

The Native Garden has fared well until now mainly due to the effort put in by volunteers in the months prior. Timely weeding of the poppy patch resulted in a grand display on Park Road this year.


Poppies and phacelias by the Native Garden sign were pleasing and inviting.


Thick mulching has paid off. Timely mulching, planting, and caging on sycamore hill has allowed the young plants to take root, and limited the competition from invasive annuals.


Ashok and Arvind live nearby and have been visiting the park almost daily. Ashok has focused his energy on weeding, systematically going from bed to bed, removing invasive annuals before they set seed. The common offenders are ripgut brome (Bromus diandrus) and red brome (Bromus madritensis). The weed pile in the parking lot is huge. There are additional weed piles tucked into various corners of the native garden.

Weekly irrigation of the ~100 trees planted in the last three years has resumed. All are doing well, but can use some spot weeding.

If you are in a position to help with weeding, visit the Forms page, get trained, and contact us. We don’t know when life will return to normal, but life does go on.


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30 (More) Native Trees Planted Along Inner Lake Path


Humans plant while California gulls confer in the lake (Photo: Magesh Jayapandian)

Volunteers from the California Native Plant Society and Silicon Valley Volunteers planted 30 more native trees at Lake Cunningham Park in San Jose on Saturday, November 9, 2019.

A total of 32 volunteers (17 from SVV, 16 from CNPS) worked from 9am to 1pm (140 volunteer-hours) on tasks like planting, watering, staking, and caging. The area around each tree will be mulched in a followup session December 7.

This completes a 3-year project begun in 2017 to line a 1/2 mile stretch of the sunny Inner Lake Path from the Marina to the Native Garden with shade-giving, habitat-friendly native trees. The project was funded by City of San Jose Parks & Rec and by BeautifySJ (2018 & 2019). This is the site of the 1st Day of the Season Bird and Plant Id Walks at the park led by Vicki Silvas-Young since 2016.


Panoramic view of Phase 2 plantings (right) and Phase 3 plantings (left)

The tree planting project was conceived by native garden volunteer Tilak, a Tree Amigo with Our City Forest. Park Supervisor Steve Ryan approved the project as a 3-year phased effort with ongoing monitoring and feedback. Bubbler irrigation at each tree, a key factor in sapling survival, is installed and maintained by staff. Volunteers are responsible for weekly watering, weeding, and monitoring. The sapling survival rate is ~90%, and most plants have doubled or tripled in size in 1-2 years.

Trees planted by the lakeside include riparian species such as Fremont cottonwood, white alder, box elder, and western sycamore. Trees in upland portions of the path include valley oak and black walnut. All are winter deciduous, providing shade during the hot summer months, allowing for sunshine during winter. Native trees are adapted to the local soil and climate, and are expected to thrive on their own once the root system is established. Native trees provide unmatched habitat value to wildlife, including insects and songbirds. Cottonwoods and walnuts will also add fall color to the park.


This Phase 2 valley oak has doubled in size since its planting 12 months ago.


Silicon Valley Volunteers is a local organization with 4,300 members on They are a key partner in the Native Garden, and the primary volunteer source for the tree planting project.

California Native Plant Society is an environmental nonprofit with ~10,000 members, and 35 chapters covering California and Baja California. The local chapter covers Santa Clara County and San Mateo County, and has ~900 members.

Photos of the event can be seen at:

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Propagating Dudleyas

Say the words “California native plants” to a fellow gardener and sometimes the response is, “No, thanks. I’m not into the cactus look.” Many people are unaware that here in Northern California, there are no native cacti!

What we have instead are two genera of lovely native succulents: Dudleya (liveforever) and Sedum (stonecrop). Dudleyas are called liveforevers because they can live a long time even under adverse conditions due to the moisture they store in their fleshy leaves and succulent stems. In the wild, dudleyas grow on well-draining soils of coastal bluffs and in the cracks of boulders, usually facing sideways or at an angle.

At home, they do best in mounding rock gardens or pots. I find pots easier to manage and control. Part shade or north facing exposures or morning sun are best. Be vigilant against snails and slugs who love to munch on dudleyas. Enjoy the flowers in spring and be delighted by the hummingbirds drawn to the nectar. Expect some drying up in summer, but as soon as the rains return, the dudleyas puff up again.

After a few years, each plant develops an elongated, branched stem. The succulent foliage is at the top of each stem, but below it are dried up leaves of seasons past. The plant is now ready for rejuvenation, repotting, and vegetative propagation.


If your dudleya looks like this after a few years, it is ready for repotting.

With a clean pruner, just snip the stem at the base of the plant, like this:


Now you have the entire plant, stems and all, like this:


Separate the stems from each other using the pruner, like this:


Now comes the fun part. Gently rub off the dry leaves using your thumb and forefinger, like this. If the leaves are truly dry, they will crumble as they come off. In some species of dudleya, the dry leaves are tenacious, and may have to be gently torn/teased off the stem. Take care not to damage the succulent leaves at the top of the stem.


Do this for all stems. When you are done, you should have several cuttings, each topped by fleshy foliage, with a smooth, bare stem below, like this:


To start repotting, you will need a potting mix. [Revised 2023-01-16] Store bought cactus mix is too rich. Make your own. Paul Heiple, the chapter’s dudleya propagation guru, uses the following recipe for dudleyas:

4 parts coarse/sharp sand (“120-sieved”)
2 parts compost or potting soil (avoid peat moss!)
1 part 1/4″ chips of decomposed granite

Mix it all in a bucket and keep it ready. Moisten it with some water just before use. Now you are ready to repot.

Half-fill the pot with the potting mix, set a large stone off-center, arrange the dudleya stems around it, and fill in the pot. Shake the pot gently from side to side to allow the mix to settle and fill in any air pockets. Water gently but thoroughly.

Water weekly through the dry months. Enjoy!


If you have extra stems, plant in 4″ pots and share with neighbors and friends.


That’s all there is to it. Place in bright shade, and enjoy the plants for another 4-5 years. Bon jardinage!


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Stinkwort Removal

Stinkwort (Dittrichia graveolens) is an oily, sticky, intensely fragrant plant from southern Europe that has invaded California in recent times (since the mid-1980s). It is an annual plant that grows during the long dry summer. It is now rapidly expanding in open riparian or grazing areas of the state.

Stinkwort has found its way into Lake Cunningham Park, including areas adjacent to the native garden. Today a team of volunteers got to work removing this plant from areas next to the bike track and the peninsula opposite the picnic area.

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Stinkwort is easily removed by pulling when young when it uproots easily. A mature plant has a tenacious taproot, and calls for a sharp weeding tool capable of severing the root just below the ground level. Once it flowers, it must be bagged and disposed off properly so as not to produce more seed and invade other areas.

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Shade Trees Coming Soon

If you have been to Lake Cunningham Park at the peak of summer, you know that the sunnier portions of the park can get quite hot. Walking along the Inner Lake Path in 90°F+ heat can be particularly trying.

There is good news around the corner. Parks & Rec staff has just approved a proposal to plant 29 shade giving trees on both sides of the Inner Lake Path. The distance covered is 1,500′, from the Native Garden to the Fishing Pier.


The selected trees are all locally native or near-locally native trees. This means they establish more easily and quickly than non-native trees, require less water and maintenance, and provide habitat to local birds and other fauna. Within 10 years, the trees will be tall enough to provide shade to walkers and joggers and bicyclists on the Inner Lake Path. Three out of five chosen species will turn a brilliant yellow before dropping their leaves in fall, and the path will continue to receive full sun during winter.

For a tree list and planting plan, see the project summary here: Shade Tree Project Summary

We seek volunteers to help with installing irrigation and planting the saplings. Three workdays are planned:

  1. Saturday, Nov 11, 9am-1pm: Irrigation installation Session 1
  2. Saturday, Nov 18, 9am-1pm: Irrigation installation Session 2
  3. Saturday, Dec 2, 9am-1pm: Planting 29 trees

We welcome your help at any or all of these workdays. To volunteer, click on any of the sessions above.

Directions and Forms are available from links at the top of this page.

Wear garden-appropriate clothing; dress in layers suitable for the weather. A hat, sunblock, and garden-worthy shoes are recommended. Gloves and tools will be provided.

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A Fine Summer Morning

Today, we were joined by a father-daughter duo, Patrick and Jane, who drove across the valley to help with summer maintenance tasks in the native garden. On a hot day like this, the shade of trees and shrubs was most welcome while working on tasks like weeding and pruning as well as during the break.

The first order of business was hand weeding the Russian knapweed (Acroptilon repens) from the Fremontodendron bed. This invasive perennial comes up even through thick mulch. We pull as much of the root out as possible.


Before: Russian knapweed in a mulched bed

During break, we observed honey bees and skippers on the California buckwheat, Anna’s hummingbirds over the California fuchsia, and bush tits on the elderberry and toyon. Later, a jackrabbit made its way over the hill into the shade of the pines.

After the mid-morning break, we changed gears and worked on pruning the blue elderberry (Sambucus nigra caerulea). This plant is by nature a large shrub. In a garden setting it can be trained as a small multi-trunked tree, making it easier for humans to approach its base for planting, weeding, or simply enjoying the shade. Using loppers and pruning saws, we removed the lowest branches and the occasional dead branches. When we finished, the tree had a fountain or umbrella shape, narrow at ground level, gradually flaring out above 6′ to form a shade-giving canopy. The pruning also improved visibility through the garden.


Jane & Patrick enjoying the shade of the newly pruned blue elderberry (Sambucus nigra caerulea), standing a weed-free mulched bed

This native garden exists because of volunteers. The volunteers are drawn by the scenic location, fresh air, and wildlife viewing opportunities. The wildlife inhabits this garden because of the food and shelter provided by the native plants. The native plants are here because volunteers put them there and nurtured them during the early years. It is all connected in the nicest way possible. The universe nods in appreciation.

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Weed Warriors

With the abundant rainfall this season, native plants have thrived but so have invasive annuals and perennials. The native garden is regrettably teeming with Russian knapweed, perennial pepperweed, and drying stands of invasive annuals like slender oats, red brome, and ripgut brome.

Our amazing volunteers are tackling the weeds by pulling them where the weed load is light, and thickly mulching where the weed load is high.

On May 6, Silicon Valley Volunteers helped us weed and water the long deergrass bed next to Park Road. Thanks to Magesh for posting photos.



Click here for more photos.

On May 20, a crew from Milpitas High Leadership Team weeded near the picnic area, transforming a knapweed-choked bed into a beautifully mulched bed landscaped with ceanothus, purple sage, zauschneria, and coyote brush.

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