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Making space for pollinators

Local landscape architect's volunteer efforts transform 'hell strips' into havens for bees and butterflies

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"Hell strip," in landscape design lingo, refers to the unsightly, often ivy- or dirt-filled plots between the sidewalk and road. They line Palo Alto's Oregon Expressway, Middlefield and Embarcadero roads, and are typically installed with the aim of beautifying streets, keeping pedestrians safe and managing stormwater runoff. But often, they become patches of no man's land where dogs relieve themselves and trees struggle to grow.

For one Palo Alto landscape architect, this unused land spells opportunity. Juanita Salisbury is transforming these hell strips, along with the city's parkway islands and medians, into pollinator gardens, which are habitat and food sources for bees, butterflies and birds. Creating a "corridor," where pollinators can reliably find food along the stretch of land between the Baylands and Foothills Park/Pearson-Arastradero Preserve is a policy outlined in Palo Alto's Master Plan for 2030.

Five pollinator gardens — installed and maintained by Salisbury and fewer than a dozen volunteers she's recruited — are the extent to which the corridor has been realized so far. Another local grassroots effort to help pollinators, the Palo Alto Garden Club's Monarch Butterfly Project, is specific to monarch butterflies, focusing on planting a corridor of native milkweed, as well as nectar plants, to support the dwindling monarch population.

Since 2014, Salisbury has worked independently with residential clients in the Palo Alto area, but she hasn't always been a landscape architect. Salisbury received her Ph.D. in biopsychology and studied animal ingestive behavior during her postdoctoral work before deciding to enroll in a landscape architecture degree program in 1996. Through both careers, one element has remained consistent:

"I love watching animals eat," she said.

Salisbury thinks of plants as food sources, not decor, and she wants to feed the species on which everyone up the food chain depends: pollinators. When designing landscapes, she said she's "always thinking about the insect first." Salisbury's focus on providing nutritious diets to insects has led her to native plants, which insects find the tastiest.

Salisbury always has maintained her own garden — which doubles as an outdoor laboratory where she can consistently observe the species her plants attract and in turn give home-tested recommendations to clients. But back in 2016, Salisbury's backyard filled up. Meanwhile, she drove past a 4,000-square-foot strip of lawn along Embarcadero Road every day on her way home.

"I was like, 'I'm out of space ... what's the worst that can happen if I ask the city?'" she said.

Eventually Salisbury asked Palo Alto Community Services Manager Mark Ribeiro about replacing the lawn with native plants. Her proposal resonated with the city's recently adopted Master Plan policy to "connect natural areas ... on public land to create wildlife, bird, pollinator and habitat corridors." She raised funds on Gofundme to buy the plants and installed the Primrose Way Pollinator Garden with help from neighbors in late 2016.

Today, five gardens totaling approximately 10,000 square feet attract numerous species of birds, butterflies and bees. All located north of Oregon Expressway, the gardens are intentionally within walking distance from one another — a short enough distance that a bee can easily fly between them. And Salisbury now has a much bigger laboratory from which to observe insect ingestive behavior.

But because she's using public land, Salisbury can't just focus on science. Before planting a new garden, she conducts outreach and gives neighbors a chance to share feedback on the plans. Typically, she said, she hears little in response. In one case, a neighbor handed Salisbury a $1,000 check when he recognized her from the outreach flyer. In another, a neighbor expressed a desire to keep their cul de sac's lawn instead of installing a native plant garden; in response to the concern, the designs were scrapped.

Salisbury relies on Palo Alto's Open Space and Parks Division for help in selecting and preparing sites. The division has installed irrigation systems, delivered mulch, designed educational signage, and for some of the gardens, dug up dense, decades-old networks of ivy. They also help Salisbury select sites that wouldn't otherwise be suitable for recreational use, due to their proximity to traffic. In return, Salisbury and volunteers have taken some maintenance responsibilities off the city's plate, since they take care of the plots they plant.

In January, Open Space and Parks Division Manager Daren Anderson invited Salisbury to make a presentation on the project's progress to the Palo Alto Parks and Recreation Commission. In the presentation, Salisbury explained how the gardens not only strengthen ecosystem resilience, but also have a ripple effect on the people who live nearby. Planting the gardens has brought together a group of native plant enthusiast volunteers, and neighbors have pitched in to help, too. The gardens have created educational opportunities: Salisbury discusses how to use native plants, featuring observations from these gardens, at high schools and various organizations. She also distributes seeds collected from the gardens. In a more subtle way, the gardens "communicate something about these spaces, that there are engaged, caring people in this environment," Salisbury said.

At the meeting, Parks and Recreation Commissioner Jeff Greenfield praised the project as a "success story" of city-citizen partnership. Other commission members volunteered ideas for future pollinator garden sites, one member suggesting that all Palo Alto churches install native gardens as the Unitarian Universalist Church has done.

During the meeting, Open Space and Parks Division Manager Daren Anderson praised Salisbury's level of care for the gardens, "A key piece that Dr. Salisbury, I think, is underselling, is her incredible perseverance ... I've been a part of a lot of native plantings that come in. You can restore an area and in about a year ... unless you keep coming back and taking care of it, it'll quickly revert to invasive weeds."

A big question remains: How will the pollinator gardens initiated by Salisbury be replicated on a scale to become a true corridor that traverses the city of Palo Alto? At this point, the city has not allocated funding to the pollinator corridor project. Salisbury continues to seek funding from sources like the nonprofit Happy Hollow Foundation's "Progress for Pollinators" grant, which provided the resources for several of the gardens so far. For the next garden, she is working with Grassroots Ecology to remove the ivy hell strip in front of the First Congregational Church on Embarcadero across from the Primrose Way garden. Salisbury also has been designing a pollinator garden as part of Rinconada Park's upcoming renovation, collaboratively with the Open Space and Parks Division. Ultimately, Salisbury said she dreams of lining the rest of Embarcadero Road with native, nutrient-rich plants and involving students from Palo Alto schools to learn about pollinators.

"It's city land, it's not my land, but I'm willing to sort of change the way the tapestry of planting looks in this town," Salisbury said. "And the more of the seed bank that we can get toward the natives, the better it's going to be."

If you're interested

Juanita Salisbury will speak about how to plant a pollinator garden at the Western Horticultural Society's meeting on March 11, 7:30 p.m. The meeting is open to the public; admission is free to society members and $10 for nonmembers. The society meets at the Los Altos Youth Center, 1 N. San Antonio Road, Los Altos. For more information, visit westernhort.org.

She will also speak at a series of Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency events this spring, all of which are free. For more information, go to bawsca.org.

Freelance writer Laura Swenson can be emailed at laurajswens@gmail.com.

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