First Rain of the Season


View of the mulched bed from the accessible path

This weekend brought the first major storm of the season to the Bay Area. It rained off and on all day Saturday and Sunday. Despite the drizzle and the rain, volunteers from Foothill College, West Valley College, and Milpitas High showed up on Sunday to help out. Job one was loading and spreading a thick mulch layer in the bed facing Park Road and rearranging the logs to make them more visible. It was quite a workout. After a short rehydration break, we switched gears to remove invasive grasses at the base of a young coast live oak and several coyote bushes; below them we spread a thinner mulch layer to keep the weeds out and let the water through. We pruned up the coyote bushes to improve visibility and make it easier to work near them. The rain didn’t discourage the wildlife: we spotted a fence lizard, many Anna’s hummingbirds near the California fuchsia, and a scrub jay on the blue elderberry.

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The Joy of Mulching



Mulched bed in the Native Garden at Lake Cunningham Park

Although summer has yielded to fall, the Loma Prieta fire still raging in the Santa Cruz Mountains is a reminder that fire season is not yet over. Fire, an integral part of California’s ecology, can still wreak havoc after decades of fire suppression and periods of prolonged drought. Once upon a time, native Californians routinely set small fires to clear out low growing vegetation without harming larger shrubs and trees. They knew that without periodic small fires, they would eventually be faced with a catastrophic crown fire that would consume everything, small and large. Their land management practices thus created the magnificent estate-like landscapes the Spanish encountered when they first came upon this land: vast meadows of bunchgrasses, annuals, and perennials interspersed with giant valley oaks that resembled the finest country gardens of Europe’s upper classes.

Within the comparatively short span of 250 years, California’s open spaces have now been overrun by invasive non-native annual grasses from Europe. These invaders live fast and die young; by early summer they have scattered a prolific amount of seed. Their dry stalks persist, however, and act as kindling for today’s fires, usually the first to ignite. Reducing and removing these invasive non-native grasses can diminish the fire risk.

In Lake Cunningham Park, the fire risk is low — Fire Station #21 is just one block from the White Road entrance — but we remove these invasive plants for another reason: they out-compete young native plants. We spread arbor mulch (woodchips) thickly over open areas to control weeds, to retain soil moisture, and to slowly enrich the clay soil with organic material.

An enthusiastic and effective crew from Silicon Valley Volunteers joined us today to mulch a large area between Park Road, the accessible path, and the parking lot. Volunteers worked efficiently to load the chips into wheelbarrows and bring them to the beds where they were spread evenly around the native plants. We weeded around each existing native plant so it was prepped for the rains with maximum exposure to sunlight.

The California fuchsia was in full bloom, and two resident Anna’s hummingbirds were squabbling over it. The toyon berries were reddening but not fully ripe. A Monarch butterfly wafted by while two dragonflies flew in formation. The day was mild and sunny, making it a joy to be out in the open, to exert ourselves without overheating.

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Weeding in an El Nino Year

Thanks to the El Nino rains this winter, the native plants are doing well in the Native Garden. So are the invasive annuals. Open areas in garden beds are overrun with invasive annuals like slender oat (Avena barbata), ripgut brome (Bromus diandrus), and red brome (Bromus madritensis). This is because those open areas were mulched five years ago and have not been mulched since; the original mulch has decomposed to a fine compost, creating a fertile medium for annuals to thrive in. So the main focus in the garden now is to weed the invasive annual before they drop seed.

On Saturday, May 14, 2016, Clinton Nguyen of Independence High School Red Cross Club helped us remove invasive annuals from several beds. We started by weeding around the Native Garden sign off Park Road. This bed features a baby Califonia buckeye tree which has flowered for the first time.


We then worked on the beds around the western sycamore trees by the lake. Here are pictures of the bed before and after the weeding:

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We finished the session by weeding around the large stand of California buckwheat off the accessible path. In a month or so, the buckwheat will be blooming its head off, and pollinators in the area will take notice.


California buckwheat has ample room to expand after thorough weeding around it

The following day, Sunday, May 15, 2016, we were joined by Silicon Valley Volunteers. The group of seven volunteers worked on removing the invasive annuals from the bed adjoining the parking lot. Oat and brome grasses were removed without harming existing native plants. When we finished, the parking lot looked neat and well-maintained.

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1st Day of Spring Bird & Plant Identification Walk

Vicki Silvas-Young is a lifetime birder and native plant aficionado active in both Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society and the California Native Plant Society. When she offered to lead a beginner’s bird and plant identification walk at Lake Cunningham Park, I jumped at the opportunity. She chose the 1st Day of Spring, March 20, 2016, and what a wonderful day it turned out to be.

The weather was cool but not cold and mostly sunny. Some 30 people showed up, including members of CNPS, SCV Audubon, Open Space Authority, Silicon Valley Volunteers, Latino Outdoors, and the general public.

Vicki started the walk in the Marina parking lot, where we saw great-tailed grackle up close, and an American white pelican in the distance. On the way to the native garden, we encountered many more birds, including Anna’s hummingbird, black phoebe, bufflehead, California towhee, Canada goose, killdeer, mallard, ruddy duck, song sparrow, tree swallow, and yellow-rumped warbler.

Arvind pointed out common non-native plants like blue gum eucalyptus and London plane, as well as many native plants in the native garden, including Bee’s Bliss sage, black sage, blue elderberry, California sagebrush, chaparral clematis, Fremont cottonwood, hummingbird sage, purple needlegrass, valley oak, western sycamore, woodmint, and Yankee Point ceanothus. Members of Silicon Valley Volunteers have been working in the garden since fall 2015 on tasks like weeding, mulching, and planting.

The bird and plant list can be found here.

The walk was cosponsored by the California Native Plant SocietySanta Clara Valley Audubon Society, and Open Space Authority in cooperation with Lake Cunningham Park staff and San Jose Parks & Recreation staff.

Many thanks to Vicki, Ashok, and Steve Rosenthal for organizing/leading/supporting the walk. Special thanks to Susan Sundberg whose untiring efforts in the native garden have produced superb habitat that is also beautiful and charming.


View additional photos posted by Silicon Valley Volunteers here.

Stay tuned for the 1st Day of Summer bird+plant ID walk in June.

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PHHS Red Cross Club Conquers Invasives Again

This Saturday, January 16, Piedmont Hills High School Red Cross Club returned to the Native Garden on a visit scheduled by Albert Duong. The team of seven volunteers, along with Xin and Arvind, mulched large beds overgrown with invasive annual grasses. Take a look.

Now these newly mulched beds will remain free of invasive grasses for up to 5 years — a worthwhile investment in controlling invasives.

The skies were overcast, but it was dry until noon when it drizzled just a bit. It was not cold — a great day to be outdoors. The garden was full of bird chatter.

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Piedmont Hills High Red Cross Club Conquers Invasives

This wet year has brought much needed moisture to California. The native plants love the moisture; so do the invasive plants. In particular, the park has invasive grasses from the Avena, Bromus, Loleum, and Hordeum genera. These sun-loving grasses germinate with the onset of rains, grow to form a thick carpet, and choke out the slower growing native seedlings. They seed prolifically before drying up and dying in late spring.

One of the most effective ways to control these invasive annuals is to smother them with a layer of woodchips. This denies them sunlight without which they cannot grow. The chips, if laid 6-8″ thick, will last about 5 years before decomposing to form rich compost.

On Sunday, January 10, 2016, a team from Piedmont Hills High Red Cross Club helped us do just that. They mulched weedy grass areas near the parking lot entrance to the native garden. They worked on both sides of the accessible path, and when they were done, the weedy lawns had been covered up nicely.

This will help the native plants in the area get established; when they grow large enough to cast their own shade, they will need less help from us in controlling invasive annuals.

Thanks to all for a terrific workday.

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Planting Deergrass

Saturday, January 2, 2016, was a cold, winter day in San Jose. It was cloudy but dry, the air was still, the temperature outside a chilly 41°F. In spite of that, a record number of volunteers showed up for the native garden workday.

Silicon Valley Volunteers consists of young men and women that volunteer their time for good causes. They have been to the native garden on two previous occasions, and this time they brought 12 volunteers. Together with 5 other volunteers, we made up a large team. Some were coming to the native garden for the first time, some had been here before, a handful were seasoned hands.


Silicon Valley Volunteers and others take a break

How does one get useful work done with a large and diverse group such as this? By planning ahead, dividing tasks into manageable chunks, and training.

We needed to plant 15 deergrass in a new bed that runs alongside Park Road. This is a new part of the garden in which interconnected paths will define new beds. We divided ourselves into 4 teams: diggers, planters, mulchers, and waterers. The diggers dug the holes. The planters then planted the deergrass into each hole, filling it up and tamping the soil in place. The mulchers encircled each plant with a layer of woodchips to protect the plants from their invasive neighbors. Finally, the waterers deep-watered each plant. We thought it would take us all morning to complete this task — we were finished by 10:30am!


Newly planted deergrass are barely visible amidst the mulch; in a couple of years, their dramatic stalks will be a commanding presence along Park Road.

After a short break to rest and hydrate, we mulched the bed across from the picnic area. The volunteers worked very efficiently, and both mulch piles were completely used up. On a tour of the garden, we learned about three common workhorse plants of the garden: coyote bush, blue elderberry, and toyon.

Members of Silicon Valley Volunteers expressed their shared interest in working outdoors and doing something for the environment. They want to adopt this new part of the native garden. We look forward to a long and productive partnership.

Jim Adams of Granada Native Garden in Livermore joined us for the last hour. His blog contains many well-written and researched articles on native plants:

We saw many healthy seedlings of toyon and blue elderberry all along Park Road. Birds have been gorging on fruit in the native garden, perching on the trees along Park Road, and doing their thing (evacuating, say the doctors). The seeds on the ground have germinated and taken root even through the punishing drought of the last five years. They are thriving without any assistance. This is a good sign of a functioning ecosystem.

The warblers and hummingbirds flew overhead. Toyon berries were almost all gone, consumed by robins and finches. All was well in the garden.

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Proposed Expansion

A plan for expanding the Native Garden at Lake Cunningham Park has been submitted to park staff. Under this plan, the garden would expand to cover the remaining area between the Park Road and Inner Lake Path, from the dirt parking lot in the east to the picnic area in the west.


The requirements for the expanded garden are:

  1. Improve nature-based recreation opportunities for visitors.
  2. Create a low maintenance landscape (reduced need for mowing, watering, or pruning).
  3. Maintain and enhance the views of the lake.
  4. Provide benches for resting and observing.
  5. Provide alternatives to the Park Road used by walkers and joggers. Provide convenient connector paths between the Park Road and Inner Lake Path.
  6. Provide summer shade to park visitors and anglers.
  7. Provide improved habitat for local fauna.
  8. Reduce the invasive weed load in the park.
  9. Execute a science-based plan to eradicate Russian knapweed (Acroptilon repens).

The proposed plan contains several new paths. Visitors will have the option of using these paths instead of — or as a way to get to/from — the Park Road and Inner Lake Path. The paths would allow people to get closer to the flora and fauna of the native garden.

A detailed planting plan is being prepared. If you have ideas or suggestions, please post here or email

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Volunteers at Work

Last week, volunteers Fran and Chris pointed out that when we are working in the native garden, many people pass by us without a second glance in our direction; they mistake us for park staff doing our job maintaining the native garden.

It is true that we get a lot of support from park staff — tools, mulch, logs, water lines, encouragement — but the work of planting, mulching, weeding, pruning, and watering is done by volunteers, by people like you and me.

Fran and Chris suggested we put up a sign that informs passers by who we are and what we are doing. Here is what we came up with:


So the next time you visit the park on a Saturday morning and see this sign near the native garden, look for volunteers nearby. Stop and say hello. And if the spirit moves you, roll up your sleeves and give us a hand.

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Maintenance and Planting

Thanks to a surplus from a city restoration project, Lake Cunningham Park has received a batch of native plants collected and propagated from a local watershed. On Thursday, December 24, 2015, 12 toyons were planted on Tully Road between White Road and Glen Angus Way in the bed adjoining the park fence. It rained off and on all morning, and the ground was nicely moist. The plants are off to a good start. In about 3 years, they will create a colorful, water-wise, and low-maintenance frontage for the park.


12 more toyons (like the one in the left foreground) were planted along Tully Road

On Saturday, December 26, 2015, five volunteers performed a variety of tasks in the native garden. Their tasks will give you a good idea of what is involved with maintaining a large native garden in a public park.

1. Dead stems of California aster, narrow-leaved milkweed, yellow nutsedge, and soap lily were removed. This is not strictly necessary from a habitat point of view (no one does this in natural areas), but this makes the garden neat and appealing to its human visitors. When humans like what they see, they are more likely to support it and volunteer for it.

2. Dead stalks of elegant clarkia were removed with care, without disturbing the seedlings germinating below. These will form a tall stand of pink flowers in late April and May, loved by native bees.

3. A dead coyote bush was cut down and its branches collected and piled up into a brushpile. Again, this was not necessary for habitat value;  we do this to make the garden look nice to human visitors. We do our best to minimize the impact to wildlife. The brushpile becomes a welcoming place for insects and birds seeking shelter.

4. Grasses in front of a stand of California buckwheat were removed to allow the buckwheat to expand.

5. A particularly large stand of coyote bush was growing close to the lakeside path. Three volunteers pruned it up and away from the path and to promote visibility on all sides of the shrub.

6.  2 box elder saplings made available by the City of San Jose were planted near the lake shore. They were planted among the existing coyote bushes where they will be safe from trampling or vandalism. When they grow to their full size, they will shade out the coyote bush, causing it to decline and eventually die. This is how plant succession happens in nature. Coyote bush is a pioneer plant, the first to colonize any open space; it plays an important role as a nursery for young native trees which will eventually replace it.

We observed many robins feeding on toyon berries on sycamore hill. Fran’s comment rang true: “If you plant it, they will come!”

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