Before Ashley King let everyone get their hands dirty, she touched on the reason why they had all gathered under a tent to pot plants Monday morning at Clark Public Utilities’ native plant nursery.
“It’s a way to honor the life of Martin Luther King Jr.,” said King, the utility’s StreamTeam program coordinator. (No relation to the late civil-rights activist.) “He wanted everyone to live up to their potential and better their community.”
The holiday, always on the third Monday in January, has been a national day of service since 1994.
StreamTeam’s focus is restoring the Salmon Creek watershed. That’s done by planting native trees — but first there has to be a seedling, a young plant, that’s mature enough to put in the ground. AmeriCorps volunteers applied rooting hormone to cuttings from willow trees and red-osier dogwoods that were potted in tube-shaped pots. In about two years, the seedlings will be big enough that they can be planted along streams.
AmeriCorps volunteers instructed the crowd to plant cuttings off to one side to make room for a drip irrigation line, which saves money on watering the plants. And, they told people to pack the seedlings in tight because air pockets can fill with water and drown the plant.
If You Go
• What: Upcoming StreamTeam and AmeriCorps native tree planting events.
• When: Jan. 27, Feb. 17 and April 21.
• Information: www.clarkpublicutilities.com/events
Erica Erland, corporate communications manager for the utility, said the system has come a long way since she was an AmeriCorps volunteer in the ’90s. Back then, they experimented with keeping seedlings in a cold storage warehouse; it didn’t really work, she said. Trial and error during the early years made StreamTeam the powerhouse it is today. Every year, at least 30,000 trees are planted along local watersheds.
“It’s become a very refined operation,” Erland said.
King said the utility’s trees have a 90 percent survival rate, which is higher than the industry average of 70 percent. Growing the trees themselves also saves about $2 per plant compared to buying them at wholesale prices. It’s the largest native plant nursery in Clark County, although it’s not open to the public.
Otha Terry and his 12-year-old son Solomon were among the dozens of people who came out to volunteer at the utility’s Orchards-area campus.
“I like playing with the dirt,” Solomon said. He went back and forth scooping dirt from a wheelbarrow and also retrieved buckets of tree cuttings.
“It’s nice to serve the community, especially on a day like this,” Otha Terry said.
Monday morning was sunny and mild, drawing 76 volunteers. Last year on MLK Day, the utility’s campus was covered in snow, but about 40 or so people still showed up to pot seedlings.
“We had a surprisingly good turnout last year,” King said.
More than 100 people signed up to help this year. That included about 20 students from Columbia River High School. Horticulture teacher Heather Mardon said this was the second time she brought students to the utility’s seedling potting.
“Native plants are a huge part of our education program,” she said.
Columbia River got a grant from the National FFA Organization to put native plants in the school courtyard. Students will be taking cuttings from those plants and growing them to sell at the school’s annual plant sale.
Heather Loewen became a Stream Steward in 2016, meaning she took the utility’s seven-week workshop to learn about topics such as wetland habitat, water quality and stream restoration.
“I volunteer a lot and like being outdoors,” she said while helping cut a dogwood branch.
Not all plants can be propagated by cutting branches, but the method works for red-osier dogwood, willows and ninebark, King said. Volunteers potted 4,774 cuttings.
The seedling potting event was one of several service projects happening throughout the county Monday in recognition of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Volunteers removed invasive species, picked up trash and maintained gardens at local parks, sorted food at the Clark County Food Bank and sold used library books to benefit summer reading programs.