Tucked away on the western edge of Foothills Park, the newest addition to Palo Alto's park system doesn't have any benches, picnic areas or walking trails to distinguish it from other parts of the scenic preserve.
Its main topographical feature, Buckeye Creek, is currently nothing more than a concrete channel, cutting along the periphery and waiting for water.
The site does, however, offer something that the rest of the Foothills Park doesn't: a nursery where for the past 13 years, volunteers and staff from the environmental nonprofit Acterra have been growing native plants for use in restoring and enhancing other nature preserves. Now that the city is trying to figure out what to do with the 7.7-acre addition, the future of the nursery is hanging in the balance.
Though it only occupies 0.53 acres, the nursery's small collection of greenhouses incubate 20,000 seeds and plants, collected and organized into pots of varying sizes. The Acterra gardeners know the provenance of each of these seeds, drawn from local parks and preserves. In the next few months, the nursery is expected to fill up even more, as the planting season approaches.
"We plant in the late fall or winter time to take advantage of the rains," said Alex Von Feldt, stewardship program director at Acterra.
Rain, however, isn't the only thing that Acterra is hoping for. Long-term security is another. As Palo Alto prepares to engage the public in figuring out what to do with the 7.7 acres, volunteers are hoping that the new plans don't conflict with their existing operation.
Peter Neal, an Acterra employee who was working in the nursery on Wednesday, said the operation has been located there for 13 years. The Russel Lee family, which in 1981 gifted the site to the city, fully embraces the operation, Neal said. A granddaughter of Lee, founder of the Palo Alto Medical Clinic, was an Acterra volunteer, Von Feldt added.
The nursery has recently made some improvements, Neal said, one of which involved getting the plants off the ground and onto tables. Other improvements are under consideration. For years, the nursery has operated "off the grid," both in terms of public awareness and power consumption (it is powered by solar panels).
"It's a little uncomfortable, not knowing what the future holds," Neal said. "Just dealing with the issue of finding a place to relocate, if that becomes necessary."
To be sure, no one is panicking. In April, Acterra signed a five-year lease for the site. Yet the agreement also includes a clause that allows the city to cancel the lease with a 90-day notice. And during the council's Monday discussion, Councilman Pat Burt recognized Acterra for its recent work in upper Wildhorse Valley, where the nonprofit's volunteers helped remove thistle and invasive species and plant native wildflowers. The work, Burt said, was "amazing," turning the area into "one of the most remarkable sites in Palo Alto."
The future of the Acterra nursery probably won't be determined for at least another year or two. The council this week approved a hydrology study for the 7.7-acre site, which will remain closed and relatively unchanged until the study is completed and the city determines, through a public process, what to do next. But whether the nursery stays or goes, city officials hope to see Acterra continue its efforts to collect and repopulate seeds in local open space preserves. Daren Anderson, manager of the Community Service Department's Open Space, Parks and Golf Division, said the city values its partnership with Acterra "tremendously."
"The benefit of having native collected seeds, and the experience for our park visitors to participate in the process of collecting and growing -- it's invaluable," Anderson said. "And then, of course, taking that seed that's locally sourced and planting it inside our preserves is a tremendous gift. That's the way restoration should be done."
To watch an interview with Daren Anderson, manager of the Community Service Department's Open Space, Parks and Golf Division, visit the Weekly's YouTube channel.