Written by Eleanor Clark, SPAWN’s native plant nursery intern

We live in a country where 30-40 percent of food produced a year is wasted, excessive amounts of resources are spent to grow non-native produce-exports, and many communities don’t have access to fresh produce. Some communities have started a trend towards free food forests such as the Community Urban Food Forest in Atlanta, Georgia where a former farm that is located in an area identified as a food desert is being used to combat food insecurity. 

California is one of the most botanically diverse places in the U.S. and of those native plants, countless of them are edible and either equally or more nutritious than their mainstream counterparts. Growing native plants as produce would be another way to feed our population with food that takes less resources to grow and adds habitat that supports native populations of pollinators, animals, and people. These thoughts are what led me to start planning an edible native garden, designed to resemble a single household garden, at our site near the main SPAWN office.   

To start this journey of creating an edible native garden many questions needed answering. Where would it be? What plants are native and edible in Marin County? What conditions do these plants require? In order to research these topics I read books such as “Tending the Wild” and visited websites such as calflora.org. Within these resources I found a plethora of edible plants are native to Marin County, California. I chose my site based on the criteria of access, sun availability, maintenance potential, and general aesthetic.

Eleanor Clark, SPAWN’s native plant nursery intern, at the site of her edible native plant garden in Olema, California.

After picking the site for the garden I moved on to preparing and observing the site in order to design the garden according to the pre-existing conditions. The site was covered by wooden debris, large logs, and a diverse array of invasive plant species. While working on clearing the site and weeding I noticed that wetland indicator plants were growing in certain areas that aligned with the placement of large logs. The large logs were then incorporated into the design for the garden to help trap or direct water flow. Plant placement was then determined from watching how light falls over the site, type of edible use, sun needs, and water needs of each plant. The preparation of the site was completed by weeding, clearing debris, moving soil in from the nursery, creating gopher caging for the lilies, and then chainsawing and orienting the logs to fit the design. Next the garden was planted out with the help of volunteers, fencing was put up for the plants that need it, mulch was put down in the garden to help with water retention and keep invasives from resprouting.      

One of the plants in the garden, known as cow parsnip, is a favorite veggie of grizzly bears and makes up fifteen percent of their diet from spring to fall.

Here are some fun facts about the plants that make up the garden:

  • Cow parsnip, also known as indian celery (Heracleum maximum), is a favorite veggie of grizzly bears and makes up fifteen percent of their diet from spring to fall. 
  • Individual bunch grass plants have been found capable of living for over a hundred years. 
  • Eating too much clover can cause bloating and eating too much bay nuts can cause digestion issues, but when eaten together the negative effects are nullified. 
  • Plants qualified under the term “Indian Potatoes” have been found to recede in number with the absence of being properly harvested by humans and a part of their restoration could include eating them more often. 

In conclusion, advocating for the proper harvest or use of native plants could lead to a future where feeding the population while using less essential resources and promoting the success of native ecosystems come hand in hand.

Volunteers helped plant out the edible garden.