Home & Garden Columns

Garden Variety: An Ecological Calamity Below Albany Hill

By Ron Sullivan
Friday January 26, 2007

We gardeners learn (or try to) that our work is worth doing despite disheartening setbacks. It’s the sort of nasty life lesson that somehow doesn’t stop hurting just as badly the tenth or hundredth time as it did the first. Still, we go on.  

Some of us are looking sadly at our frostbitten tender plants this week. (Fellow mourners: Do not prune off the apparently dead bits! Wait until late spring, at least; green buds will appear where you least expect.)  

Sometimes we lose big: locusts and landslides are bad news, but the worst can come from our own species. Gardeners who work in public have told me scary stories of theft, vandalism, and plain ignorance that would break the flintiest heart. 

Most recent was an e-mail from Susan Schwartz to the other members of the Friends of Five Creeks. The Friends do the highest form of gardening: restoration of natural areas. They’re volunteers, too—now that’s serious halo material.  

Concerning a stretch of Cerrito Creek on the Richmond-Albany border, near its entry into the Bay, Susan wrote: 


This message is hard to write. On the north side of Cerrito Creek at Pacific East Mall, where hundreds of volunteers did thousands of hours of work restoring natives beginning in 2001, nearly all the native grasses and many, probably most low-growing plants on the bank below the path appear to have been killed by herbicide. Three oaks appear to be dying as well. 

My best guess is that this was a mistake by landscapers, who have long used herbicide to kill weeds on the path at the top of the bank. It follows a long series of insults to this restoration project, including repeated mowing that wiped out small native shrubs we had planted, and kept grass from setting seed. Despite repeated requests, the owners of Pacific East Mall have never agreed to create a written maintenance plan for this project, as required in their use permit.  

I apologize to all who spent so many hours, in all kinds of weather, transforming this creek bank from a fenced-off garbage-and-blackberry jungle to a burgeoning oak savanna, alive with wildflowers. 


Susan discovered the damage just before the holidays, and hypothesizes that the spraying, possibly of some pre-emergent weedkiller, happened in December. The damage has progressed since then. From what I saw, I wonder if some herbicide washed downhill toward the creek: a scary thought.  

“What’s saddest is that stretch had become pretty self-sustaining,” Susan said. “The one bright spot is that the Richmond city people have been very helpful, all along.” 

Despite the swath of death, we saw in a half-hour’s casual stroll a young red-shouldered hawk hunting lunch, a great egret, Anna’s hummingbirds, several black phoebes, and various warblers and sparrows; and monarch butterflies lured out by the warm day. Across the creek, young native plants still thrive.  

If you volunteered here, or just walked the trail, Susan asks that you email Joe Light in Richmond's Community Development department, and say what the place has meant to you:  

joe_light@ci.richmond.ca.us. Please also copy to f5creeks@aol.com.