By Jeff Clemetson | Editor
Mt. Helix Park restoration programs bring back natural beauty
On April 2, the hard work of volunteers restoring the native habitats of Mt. Helix Park was recognized when the California Native Plants Society (CNPS) included the park in its Garden Native tour for the first time.
“Mt. Helix was included because we wanted to highlight this beautiful spot and the native plant restoration that is going on,” said David Flietner, a botanist with CNPS of San Diego. “Over the course of the past four months, I’ve seen a great reduction in non-native weeds and new natives planted.“
To be included in the tour, the park had to meet a threshold of 80 percent native plants and be an interesting place to visit, said Mt. Helix Park office administrator Peggy Junker.
“They wanted to feature our old growth because they had determined there were some 100-year-old-plus trees and bushes here,” she said. “And our old growth and our beautiful rock formations were kind of the big draw.”
The focus on promoting native gardens in the park is relatively new, thanks to a couple of restoration programs. In the fall of 2013, the Mt. Helix Garden Party was formed to preserve and beautify the park landscape. In November of 2015, the Garden Party added the Adopt-a-Plot program, where volunteers take responsibility for a part of the park’s landscaping.
“It has made a dramatic difference, too, compared to last year,” said Junker, who in addition to being on the Mt. Helix Park staff is also the Adopt-a-Plot coordinator. “Last year was just a big mustard patch up there. This year, sages and all kinds of things are coming out of the ground. It’s just fantastic.”
Junker and Garden Party team leader Caroline Harrod credit much of the success of the programs to Ed Piffard, whom they call the park’s “plant aficionado.” Piffard has been working with native plants for 25 years, even though it is not his professional business.
“I’m just interested in them; I started growing them,” he said. “I grew from seed about 300 different species so I’m pretty familiar with all the local plants.”
Knowing the difference between native plants and weeds is the most important skill for the volunteers who adopt plots to restore. After signing up for a plot to take care of, volunteers must go through training to identify the plants the park wants to keep and those that are weeds to abate. Volunteers are also given a lanyard with pictures to help identify the plants and if there is still a question, they text photos to Piffard to make sure they are not removing an important native plant.
“What’s amazing to me is how fast the volunteers have picked up on identifying plants,” Piffard said. “Going from knowing nothing, what’s a weed and what isn’t, especially since these things start out pretty small, their identification abilities have just dramatically improved so quickly. It’s very encouraging.”
The native plants and seeds are mostly donated from individuals who belong to groups like CNPS, which recently facilitated a $250 donation to the park from Tree of Life Nursery. But the park is careful not to accept any donation of plants, no matter how good the intention, because people’s perceptions of what are and aren’t native plants varies, Harrod said, adding that a lot of people clip succulents from their gardens without realizing that most succulents are actually exotic plants.
“The succulents don’t provide a bush to nest in and they really don’t provide the flowers and the blooming for the pollinators to be going in and out of all year long and that’s why it’s so important to have these native plants, because we’re bringing back the wildlife,” Harrod said.
For the most part, Piffard said, the park doesn’t need many plants; in fact, the biggest cost of the restoration project is purchasing trash bags for the weeds because weeding the plots is the most important, and most difficult, aspect of the project.
“Once the weeds are gone, nature kind of takes care of itself. We’re just adding a few extra plants,” Piffard said. “The weeds were really bad here a couple years ago. So the deal with the adopt-a-plot is that people would take a little ownership of it. And it’s worked, that’s exactly what happened.”
Although the native plant life on Mt. Helix has improved since the restoration project began, there is still work to be done.
“Since about 15 years ago, when I first started coming up here, there are some plants missing now, which is unfortunate,” Piffard said. “I’d like to reintroduce them.”
Right now, most of the plots being adopted are along the Yawkey Trail, and only a quarter of the park is being maintained by the program, Junker said.
“We have a 12-acre park and we can really adopt out every piece of it,” she said. “Eventually it would be nice to have the whole mountain taken care of, but some of the areas of the mountain are really inaccessible.”
Flietner anticipates the CNPS Garden Native tour will be back in the La Mesa area again in 2020 and said it would be great to see the progress made on the restoration project between now and then.
Harrod said she looks forward to their return, and to once again show off the work the volunteers do to maintain the park’s native beauty and bring recognition to one of La Mesa’s prime jewels.
“[Being on the tour] was exciting because California Native Plant Society is statewide and it was the San Diego chapter and it’s a wonderful recognition countywide we never really received before,” Harrod said. “And a lot of people were still surprised there is a park up here and it’s not city-owned, it’s not county-owned, it’s not government-funded and we have native habitat and old species.”
For more information on the Mt. Helix Garden Party and Adopt-a-Plot programs, visit mthelixpark.org. For information about CNPS Garden Native tours throughout the county, visit garnennative.org or cnpssd.org.
—Jeff Clemetson is editor of the La Mesa Courier. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.