The transformative power of planting season

LASHP Park Champions (7)

Melissa Potts at Los Angeles State Historic Park

By Melissa Potts, Programs Coordinator

I confess…. I LOVE plants. Before joining California State Parks Foundation in September, I was a park interpreter for three years. Interpreter in the parks world means that it was my job to learn about the natural environment and California’s history and share that knowledge with park visitors.  I was astounded to find that no matter what my topic was, I could find a way to tell that story by talking about plants!

Plants are the foundation of a healthy ecosystem, supporting a variety of wildlife – everything from the smallest insects to the largest mammals. They transport us to the past when we learn that humans once utilized our native plants for food, shelter and medicine.

Plants also have the power to bring people together and build community in our state parks. This coming together of community is the power that drives California State Parks Foundation’s volunteer program. We’re currently entering a special time of year that seems to get volunteers of all ages excited: between now and March, it’s planting season!

The weather is cooling down and there is promise of rainfall, which means that


Melissa assisting a volunteer with planting at Los Angeles State Historic Park

volunteers across the state will gear up with gloves, tools and their very own native plants – all supplies provided by California State Parks Foundation – to put in the ground. Volunteers, whether first-timers or planting pros, will gather together to learn a few planting tips before beginning:

Step 1: Dig the hole. If it hasn’t rained recently, the soil may be dry and compacted, so be prepared because this could take a while. You can pair up with a friend for this endeavor or make a new one!

Step 2: Get the measurements just right – your plant can’t be in a hole that’s too shallow or too deep

Step 3: It’s time to place your plant in the hole and gently fill it in with dirt.

Step 4: Your plant’s first watering is the MOST important one, so be generous.

Step 5:  It’s likely we have a few hundred more plants, so if you’d like, repeat!

You may find later, that somewhere between steps 1-5 you became invested. Many volunteers who return to the park take a detour just to check up on the little plant they put in the ground months before. There is a pride in seeing the plants flourish and even a tinge of worry when they look a bit ragged.

Planting season is fun for volunteers and while the land is transformed, it seems volunteers walk away a little changed, too. For some, it was the first time digging a hole or smelling a sage plant. Our returning volunteers love to be able to give back to their parks. Elementary school students experienced a completely different kind of field trip – they loved to take extra time to name their plants and put rocks around their newly planted buckwheat, so they can come back and show their parents.  Others find that it strengthens and creates connections to the parks – it makes you feel like it really is your park.  These connections are what makes planting season so special and it reminds us all that the beauty of our state parks is that they all belong to all of us.

Experience this special connection in person by registering for a volunteer day near you. See our calendar and map of upcoming parks and dates here.

Behind the scenes of a Park Champions first workday

Philip Headshot Volunteer

Philip Oakley Otto, Southern California Field Consultant

California has 280 beautiful state parks, though many need consistent, sustainable volunteer to support to help maintain that beauty. Our Park Champions program was created to help with just that. Last year we hosted workdays in over 50 state parks across California, and this past year we were thrilled to be able to add new parks to that list!

One of these parks was Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. Thanks to the artful planning by park staff and the energy and enthusiasm of our volunteers, we were able to complete over 140 feet of fencing, exceeding expectations and achieving a marked visual impact at the McCoy House. We caught up with Philip Oakley Otto, our Southern California Field Consultant, to talk to him about first workdays and what goes into bringing a new park into the Park Champions program.

Could you describe the process of getting a park to sign on for a Park Champions workday?

Philip: A huge part of Park Champions’ success lies in our relationships with the Department of Parks and Recreation staff. After some phone calls and emails with our park contact, I’ll schedule a site visit with them to get to know the park and see the projects they’ve identified as possible Park Champions undertakings.

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Volunteers with park staff at the first workday at South Carlsbad State Beach on August 11, 2018

What are your responsibilities around a first workday?

Philip: I work with park staff and volunteer Core Leaders to develop the workplan and order any supplies, tools or rentals needed for the workday. I like to attend the first workday at a new park, but thanks to the amazing support of our Core Leader superstars, I’m often playing more of a supporting role, learning about the individual park dynamics and thinking about any areas of improvement for future workdays.

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Core Leader Ken assisting volunteers at the first workday at Asilomar State Beach on May 24, 2018

Do first workdays differ in any way from established workdays?

Philip: We have some amazing super regular volunteers who are always excited to visit and volunteer in a “new” park. There’s definitely some extra excitement and talking in the morning kickoff as the workday team and I make acknowledgements and introduce the park and project. There are also typically first-time volunteers for whom the new park afforded the discovery of the Park Champions volunteer program.

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One of our youngest volunteers at the first workday for Old Town San Diego State Historic Park on August 4, 2018


Why do you believe it is important to have new parks join the Park Champions program?

Philip: We have 280 State Parks in California. Park Champions is active in over 50 of those, but there are still many more that could benefit from the help of our hardworking and enthusiastic Park Champion volunteers.

First Workday 1

Volunteers at the first Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park workday

What has been your favorite first workday you have participated in?

Philip: Picacho State Recreation area, a remote park on the Colorado river (closest town: Yuma, AZ) has a special place in my heart. As part of the site visit to plan the first workday, the ranger took us up river in a pontoon boat which provided an ideal vantage for viewing the extent of the park, much of which is only (easily) assessable from the river. A few miles up, we got out and floated back down to the campground. Our first workday weekend, which focused on campground maintenance and fencing installation, included a sunset hike through the rocky terrain that reminded me of Joshua Tree but with epic views of the Colorado river and multiple close sightings of wild burros.

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Volunteers at the first workday for Picacho State Recreation Area

Interested in joining the excitement of a Park Champions workday? Click here to register for an upcoming workday near you!