2004 Garden Crusader Awards

Winner: Restoration
Robert Lawson, Alisa Viejo, Calif.

Robert Lawson
Garden Crusader Robert Lawson
Hiking through the parks and natural areas outside his home in southern California, Robert Lawson is always on the lookout for native plants. For the past eight years Robert has been landscaping his backyard with California native plants. He is a keen gardener, and his main interest lies specifically in the propagation and growth of these natives. More recently this passion has taken another twist. Robert is at the forefront of propagating native plants used for restoration within the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park in Laguna Beach, Calif.

Laguna Coast Wilderness Park
Laguna Coast Wilderness Park is a 6,700-acre preserve that was established 10 years ago. The land was used for cattle ranching, and many native southern California plants had been squeezed out by invasive exotics. Robert has been a docent at the Nature Conservancy's Irvine Ranch Land Reserve nearby for the past five years and he loves the outdoors. "When Laguna Coast Wilderness Park ranger Barbara Norton heard of my interest in native plants, she suggested I start a nursery at the park," says Robert. "Since I love growing native plants and hiking in the park, it seemed like a natural fit," he says.

Robert began coordinating volunteers to collect native plant seeds and grow the plants. "We started identifying natives and collecting seeds of plants such as coastal live oaks, California buckwheat, and coastal sagebrush," he says. The plan is to propagate the plants and restore sections of the park one at a time.

Robert is a self-taught naturalist and has done countless experiments on the right conditions to germinate and grow natives. "Much of the native plant-growing information is stored in people's heads," he says. "I spent a lot of time talking with growers and volunteers about the best ways to grow specific natives, and I learned through trial and error."

Starting the Nursery
At first Robert used his 1,000-square-foot backyard as the nursery to grow these plants, but that space quickly became too small. Robert then obtained support and funding through a local foundation, Laguna Greenbelt Incorporated, to start a nursery at the park. "My dogs and my wife were both happy to see me move the nursery from our backyard," he says.

Laguna Greenbelt has several volunteer groups working to restore native plants in Laguna Coast Wilderness Park. "The nursery group collects seeds in the park, germinates them, and grows them into nursery stock," says Robert. "The restoration group will use the nursery collected seed and nursery stock to plant in the park," he says. Robert formed a 10-person volunteer nursery group. In 2003 Robert and volunteers used funding given to Laguna Greenbelt to build a nursery structure to grow the plants. "This year we grew 200 plants consisting of 20 different species to plant in the park," says Robert.

Robert volunteers about one day a week at the nursery to work on this project. He has spent weekends and vacation time from his information technology position at a local university to keep the project on track. "Not only do I like the work of growing natives and being outside, but it helps that my wife Nanci is also involved. "It's a way we can spend time together on a project we both love," he says.

Future Plans
Robert's goal is to not only produce genetically correct native plants to grow in park restoration projects, but also to develop a plan to teach other volunteers how to collect and grow natives. "I'd like this restoration project to be a model that other parks in the county can use to enlist volunteers when re-establishing native plants," says Robert. "Next year we hope to train more volunteers on how to collect and grow natives and get school kids involved in some of the activities," he says.

Growing native plants is a long-term plan for Robert. "I can see myself working in a native plant nursery in retirement, instead of a greeter at a local department store," he says. With his knowledge and drive, Robert Lawson may be the one running, not working in, a native plant nursery in the future.

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