The east-facing section of Point Isabel Regional Shoreline in Richmond is an amazing place. At almost any time of day, Hoffman Marsh is full of birds and the occasional mammal enjoying the habitat, both in the water and along the shore. The actual park is a narrow strip of land that includes both sides of the paved recreation trail running through it. Volunteer efforts over the years have introduced an abundance of native trees, shrubs, wildflowers, and grasses to create a natural environment along the shore east of the trail. It’s looking better every year as these plants establish themselves.
West of the trail, however, is a different story. Once the site of a railroad siding from World War II, it is a level, naked stretch of land where only the toughest weeds and grasses make their homes. The soil here is especially hard, rocky, and compacted, and it still looks, well, industrial. But it is part of the park, and longtime volunteers Tom and Jane Kelly thought it was about time to start making it look that way.
They knew it could be tricky but decided it might be worth the effort to add some native plants on this side: native shrubs by the entrance fence and trees to make it look more like a park. For the tree species, they asked for my help since I had successfully added young trees—California sycamore (Platanus racemosa) and black cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa)—along the shoreline. We quickly agreed that the coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia) would be the best choice due to its tolerance of the windy and dry conditions in this area most of the year.
The next step was to locate the oaks. We wanted them to be fairly tall to stand out from the lower herbs and shrubs. I went to The Watershed Nursery in Richmond and Oaktown Nursery in Berkeley, both great sources of native plants in the East Bay. But both only had tiny saplings less than a foot tall, far too small to make any kind of statement in an open stretch of land. Tom and Jane looked at CNPS East Bay Chapter’s Native Here Nursery in Tilden Park and also found only tiny oaks. East Bay Nursery in West Berkeley had two large box specimens of Q. agrifolia that were probably 10 feet tall but had already been sold for $600 each. Tom and Jane were purchasing the trees, so they had to be budget friendly.
But East Bay Nursery also had some lanky, eight- to nine-foot, slightly malnourished coast live oaks in the far back of the store that cried out for a home. They had been tightly tethered to tiny stakes in five-gallon pots and looked like they were yearning to be free. I let Tom and Jane know about these specimens and told them to check them out. The next day I also found three thick, unstaked, hardy coast live oaks at Berkeley Horticultural Nursery and let them know about these as well. But their $185 price tag was a budget buster, and the Kellys voted to save the saplings at East Bay Nursery.
So they purchased the best three of the lot, and moved them to Point Isabel in the pickup that Tom’s brother Jim owns. We agreed to plant them on Wednesday, December 7, 2022, since rain was forecast for Thursday and we wanted our trees to get a healthy start from the oncoming storm. We had been to the site earlier to dig test holes, so we knew where the softest, clay-rich soils were. We dug starter holes in the best places, and from those holes we had our location for the trees—the best soil became our design guide.
In the end, we dug two holes on the open west side of the trail and one on the east to plant our trees. I liked the idea of trees on both sides of the trail to create a parklike feeling and tie the design together. We freed each tree from its single tiny stake, loosened the root balls, and amended the existing soil as we lowered the trees into place. I bought new, large stakes to support the young trees, two for each tree so they would be able to move in the wind while being supported. This will also build strength in their trunks as they grow.
After our efforts, Tom, Jane, Jim, and I stood back and looked and admired our work. It was not just planting three young trees in a barren area. We had successfully expanded the park onto new ground. Three trees had created an instant park on an overlooked lot.
— Randal DeLuchi is a Point Isabel revegetation volunteer and described planting other trees in that park in “Little Cuttings That Cut It” for the July 2021 Bay Leaf.