‘Reed Canyon’ and Crystal Springs Creek: ‘Reclaiming’ a Natural Area


The east end of Reed Lake looking south.

The landscape is the land we live in.  It is the place and the territory that surrounds us: built, disturbed, neglected or purposeful.  A garden is a piece of that landscape that we have defined as special, that we have applied our own purpose to, a theme, above and beyond the natural forces at work across its face to grow plants of our choice.  Many urban places are feral, once domesticated, now gone to ‘weeds’.  A few pockets may be as nature made them, eroding at their edges, surrendering little bits of themselves to exotics tramped in on our boots, the hooves of our horses, the hair of our dogs, floated into place by streams or rivers or flown in by birds and on the wind.  Most landscapes exist somewhere on that continuum between undisturbed nature and the wastelands we have left in our wake of disturbance, vacant land waiting in that limbo, land on its way to purpose, value and development.  As Portland became urbanized over the last 150+ years the land has been literally transformed, become an expression of our culture, via a matrix of values and forces, that act as a particular and devastating template, a process that is still occurring and will continue to do so as long as value is measured in dollars, and demand, fashion and greed, keep cycling and reinventing this place we have made our home.  These in-between places are what French landscape architect, Gilles Clement, calls the Third Landscape.  Few areas are they that have escaped this process.  The Reed Canyon, that contains most of the headwaters of Crystal Springs Creek (another spring lies within the City Parks owned Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden), the last of the free flowing such creeks on the east-side, may have been spared the heavy handed re-contouring of its terrain, but it has suffered much over the years anyway.

Prehistory: The Story Before the Management Plan

From its origins to its joining with Johnson Creek, Crystal Springs Creek was one of many following drainages, large and small, down to the Willamette.  The USGS map of 1852, Township 1S and Range 1E, shows the area including Crystal Springs Creek, with its lake backed up behind a beaver dam that was ‘solidified’ as a land bridge in 1929, as a thin scratchy line.  If you look at sections 12, 13 and 24 on the map, which includes the Reed campus, all of these creeks drained the uplands into a broad expanse of marshes and wet meadows, now themselves drained, and occupied by more recent constructions like the Eastmorland Golf Course, the Brooklyn Railroad Yards and light industrial properties.  All of the other creeks have been buried in pipes, a part of the wide spread cutting and filling of the landscape that was necessary before our pattern of first agriculture then later the urban development we now live with on the East side.  One, just south and below the bluff that Powell Blvd. follows, drained west through what is now Powell Park and served as a source for potable water for early subdivisions in the Creston-Kenilworth neighborhood where I live.  No creeks remain on the City’s west side below the Tualatin Hills.  They’re all long buried like Tanner Springs Creek that wends its way, entombed in pipe, from the Goose Hollow neighborhood in southwest across town to the Willamette taking an angle that brings it on a northwesterly route beneath Tanner Springs Park in The Pearl District.


Where the marsh area transitions into the upland’s at the East end. In the middle distance to the right you can see the top rim of a beaver dam that corrals the east most spring.

The Canyon is a 28 acre refuge on the Reed College campus.  The one hundred sixteen acre campus had plenty of space on which to develop the school.  Previously much of this land was farmed and the lake, springs and creek were left free to flow.  Cows had roamed over much of it trampling the slopes.  In the days when it was common place to cut, fill and drain land, there was simply no need here.   At the campuses west end was the small, privately held, Rivelli Farm that was still yielding produce for local consumption up through the recent ’00’s’.  The little ‘farm’ was irrigated from the creek with low pressure Ram pumps pushing water out sprinkler heads through the captured power of the creek’s own flow.  This last section, about 1.4 acres, was acquired in June of ’07 and has since been included under Reed’s management.


From SE 28th looking across the old Rivelli farm site, the creek hidden within the brush to the left and the Canyon stretching off to the east. Eastmoreland Golf Course is off to the right, the south.  The meadow area center and right is being managed more as an Oak savannah with Garry Oaks…keep those Fir trees away!!!  Conifers can overtop and shade out our Oaks.

For many years the Canyon ‘suffered’ through benign neglect, valued as an escape for students from the pressures of school and as a ‘natural’ backdrop to the developed campus.  ‘Below’ the land bridge on the north slope was a Holly Farm that for years was harvested for its Christmas time bounty.  The College built a swimming pool adjacent and west of the land bridge, in 1930, a pool that remained through the 1990’s an ironic feature, emblematic of a culture that celebrated progress over nature, nature improved, water rendered ‘useful’. The creek was ‘piped’ beneath and beyond the pool 200’.  There was a small boat house for student use the lake being maintained open and clear for use.  Student housing was built in 1957 between what had been actively farmed fields and the crest defining the Canyon’s northern perimeter.  Students crossed the ‘land bridge’ to access classrooms and the other services and support functions of the college.  It still remains as a path and service road augmenting the two foot bridges that were added, the one to the east in 1984, itself replacing an older and more dangerous wooden structure and in 2008 the more sinuous crossing to the west of the ‘lake’ through the tree tops that links the newest dormitory structures.  Much of the slopes below the campus buildings were regularly mown providing access to much of the open water and creek, but this practice was abandoned and it was allowed to grow up ‘naturally’.  Thickets of Red Alder and Blackberry lorded it over the English Ivy as well as the tougher pioneer species and weeds after mowing was suspended.  The Columbus Day Storm took out several large Doug Fir trees and the site remained in a kind of limbo.  Dense thickets filled in.  Old staffers told stories of things they used to do, practices long since abandoned. Beaver were viewed as ‘pests’ and their structures had no place.  Times and views have done an about face.  No surprise these days.  Everything is different.


The ‘new’ pedestrian bridge from the path along side of the creek. Throughout much of the west portion of the Canyon deciduous trees like Red Alder and a brushy layer including cane berries are thick providing heavy competition for many would be weeds.

The Management Plan and the Change of Focus

Over the years it became more obvious that the previous management of the Canyon was insufficient, even counter productive.  Biology students began to use it as an outdoor laboratory and the problem of invasive species became impossible to ignore.  Others looked at its chemistry even the economics of the site when, as seniors, they wrote their theses.  Reed commissioned and, in 1999, approved a new management plan for the Canyon with the intention of reclaiming the lost areas of the landscape, protect those areas that were relatively intact, augmenting plant species with those lost over time, with an eye on upgrading habitat for wildlife, though, what that would look like was not clear early on.  The Canyon has been a recognized State Wildlife Refuge for many years, but it had been managed benignly and by taking on this new management plan Reed was strengthening its commitment to re-establish the site as a functioning valued ecosystem and habitat.  This period coincided with the regional and national commitment to protect and enhance habitat for Salmonids which were always a part of the Crystal Springs Creek system as a part of the Johnson Creek Watershed though not fully understood.  But it was primarily plants that drove the thinking going into this first document.  Reed has been partnering with several agencies and the City’s Bureau of Environmental Services as it has worked to pursue this goal.  This is a tall order.

As the on-site horticultural staffer, Zac Perry, was enlisted to help flesh out this early document contributing much of the material laying out the current and desired plant community.  As in most such endeavors it takes this kind of knowledge to create a working document that will help provide the direction and guidance to move the landscape in a positive direction.

In a garden our priority is on the plants that we have chosen, encouraging or tweaking the site to better meet their needs while choosing from a list of plants which befit its theme.  It is a back and forth that considers site conditions, our purpose and/or aesthetic vision and our resources, both labor and budgetary.  In a natural area like this we do the same, but our plant choices are driven by site conditions and much more limited to a palette thought to have been original to the site, or other natural sites thought to have conditions comparable to those here today.  Toward this end goals were established to support the natural cycling of energy and nutrients across the Canyon minimizing the human role in the process and our disturbance of the site while building/improving the relationships, the natural energy, water and nutrient flows within the site.  In short, working to create a sustainable landscape.  In the process of accomplishing this it may be found that the existing conditions are insufficient to support a desirable species and may require intermediate steps to be taken that will help in turn create those needed conditions for success (Plant communities evolve with place and the conditions, affecting everything from light/shade conditions to soil tilth, surface drainage and the soil biota itself, conditions which can be prerequisite, essential, for the establishment of certain species of the desired community.  Not surprisingly, when these communities are disrupted the supporting conditions also degrade.)  This requires an in-depth understanding of the site and its innumerable micro-sites.  The gardener here is both actor and ‘student’.  The relationship goes beyond monitoring change, including anticipating the plant/animal community’s response to your management and efforts.  All of this in a process of ‘adaptive management’ (Please see an earlier posting on Adaptive Management here).


Looking west from the new bridge across the long sloping north bank that was once the site of the Holly farm.

The home gardener has a great deal more ‘latitude’ and can start from ’scratch’, working within their own set limits, including clearing their site, augmenting, replacing or amending the soil, adding irrigation systems and placing the most disparate, unrelated plants together, if we so choose.  ‘Natural sites like this one tend to take conditions as givens and work to build ‘health’ back into them over time.  reducing the negative effects of the soil seed bank that has accumulated on their site, by targeting those weeds and maybe, repeatedly, growing them out and even spraying the germinating weeds while minimizing soil disturbance that would bring up more weed seed.  This does not preclude intervention on a large scale, but it does so in a careful thoughtful way.  The Reed Canyon site, with its prodigious amount of weeds and invasive plants, has a Management Plan that guides these efforts and limits what it considers overly disruptive.  It prioritized the protection of existing native species, plant and animal, while minimizing the negative impacts of heavy handed management practices, even in the short term, due to conflicts and negative consequences that would likely impact animal species and sites that lay downstream.  This includes the use of suspect herbicides and ground clearing that could result in erosion and siltation which would effect water depth and quality.  The goal has been to work with the forces and cycles active on the site to ‘build’ health and diversity while recognizing that these are complex relationships that need to grow over time.

The act of gardening, whatever our purpose or a site’s size, is an activity we all recognize and relate to.  The particulars change, of course, as will the ‘thresholds for action’…our tolerance to those things and forces ‘warring’ against us.  Our work in our gardens is a combination of our efforts to manifest our vision while at the same time holding back the forces that would seem to be working against us.  A garden that consist of a few pots on our condo’s balcony gives us the opportunity for exercising the most control, climate and aspect being almost the only things we have to yield to.  A larger ‘natural site’ like the Reed Canyon, however, demands that we pay considerably more attention to what is going on within its boundaries, not just because we have a formal management plan, but because we will never be able to impose our wills…there is simply too much going on and it has a ‘will’ of its own.  Thousands of square feet, or even acres of weeds like Garlic Mustard, Reed Canary Grass, Blackberry and English Ivy call for an organized and consistent approach that home gardeners may take an entirely more ‘casual’ approach to.  Such a casual approach can doom an effort like this one at Reed Canyon.  Our best option is to ‘submit’ to the site, to learn from it, to understand the underlying cycles and forces at play there and use what we have learned to our advantage, otherwise we will be forever overwhelmed.


Looking north from the south trail near the east end where the ‘Lake’ begins to transition to marsh. Every area within the Canyon possesses a degree of complexity that would be overwhelming to most gardeners. Most of us will never have to cope with a marsh.

The Canyon was divided into several management zones in the Plan within which work is adjusted to be sensitive to the matrix of conditions there as well as to be effective in terms of moving toward goals.  These conditions vary with each particular site’s relationship with water:  Open water, marsh, flowing creek/riparian and upland conditions which can vary further with distance from water and  with elevation.  Within these ‘categories’ are further divisions based on northerly or southern aspect, which obviously effects the available light and the plants that may do well there.  There is also the issue of historic disturbance such as the land bridge/dam that created the need for a transition back to a free flowing stream; the channelization that happened in the western portion on the Ravelli property that once helped drain the adjacent land for agriculture and sped the flow; and, the further restriction of running it through a culvert pipe to get it cheaply and effectively under 28th Ave, all things that required corrective action if the larger goals were to be attained.  Another situation that has been problematic here has been the Canyon’s relationship with the private residential properties along its northern border across the eastern portion, this particular loss of ‘control’ is a common one that ‘public’ properties often share with neighbors, not unlike what many home gardeners share with non-gardening neighbors with conflicting priorities.  In this case these properties had long served as an entry point for various aggressive exotic species that owners brought into their own yards.  These all work together to form a complex matrix of problems and shape the strategies necessary to ‘solve’ them.

In addition to these site specific issues and concerns are the larger overlying priorities of Reed College itself and the assortment of local and regional, state and even national agencies and bureaus that have legal jurisdiction on the site.  These present issues and opportunities for funding as well that were a home gardener forced to deal with them might very well prevent any of us from ever leaving the couch.  Whatever the barriers to ‘progress’ they may seem to present, their ultimate goal is to improve the conditions on the site including everything from water quality, fish, bird, reptilian and amphibian habitat to tree canopy preservation.  The problem becomes how does one move ahead without compromising Reed’s management goals or those of the other involved organizations.  How does this play out on the ground.

Paralysis would be an easy and natural response to all of these constraints and variables.  Reed wrestled with these issues. Much as some might bemoan the Management Plan it also points to a set of goals and defines a set of ethics, rules of care which, if practiced, will get us there. The many layers of rules, law, code and guidelines offer a way ‘out’.  They assure that consistent effort and sense will be brought to the work.  This wouldn’t happen if we all simply chose to do what we wanted, what we thought was best from our own individual perspective.  Such rules afford the opportunity for trust to develop between the different players involved.

There is a natural divide between academia and those who are confronted daily with the problems of moving a project ahead on the ground and another between the various agencies whose scope of responsibility is focused on their own narrow concern.  People want assurances that the work will be sensitive to their concerns and that takes time, communication and respect on both sides. Ultimately any landscape, requires our considered thoughtful engagement to transform it into a healthy, functional system, in terms of nutrient and energy cycling, species diversity and, ultimately, beauty.  Projects like this are bigger than anyone of us.  It is important that such efforts be coordinated if they are to be successful.  Our backyard gardens are private and personal and usually quickly degrade when we leave them.  Reed is working to create a landscape that will be successful over the long term.  That goal can only be achieved if staff, students and volunteers work within the bounds of natural systems inherent and integral to this particular site.  It’s longevity will be assured only to the degree that its goals and directives become part of the ‘culture’ of care of those who use it and manage it.  It must be part of the knowledge and culture of the Reed College community and institution.


The upper ‘Lake’ where down trees are left in the water providing among other things surfaces for turtles to haul out on and for water fowl to rest.

Gardening on a Site That’s Bigger than Us: Defining our Assumptions, Thresholds for Action and Best Management Practices

When we move beyond our own home gardens everything becomes immediately more complicated.  Co-workers, owners or the institution itself will have something to say about this, perhaps a lot, and, there will likely be expectations that the ‘work’ and the landscape continue on, purposefully into the future after you are gone.  At some level, all gardeners do this for themselves, in their own gardens.  At home, however, we are a more forgiving ‘employer’.  We may be new to both gardening and this particular plot, and, therefore, much more forgiving of mistakes and tolerant of ‘experiments’ than an organization with history in a landscape that predates us.  I’ve already written of Reed’s overall vision for its landscape, it’s management goals, made explicit in documents.  These are not merely decorations or idle busy work once assigned to a manager and now forgotten.  These define a mission and everyone is expected to be on board.


Many of the east, marsh, end trails are raised like this one cutting across this patch of Cat Tails. A series of these connect several of the ‘islands’.

Many organizations have created ‘Best Management Practices’ (BMP’s) that staff and management have put together, little recipes, to direct specific actions on the ground.  These need to be ‘fluid’ and subject to modification as the work progresses and its effects are monitored and assessed, but individual decisions to change practice on one’s own by staff and volunteers may likely be expressly limited or forbidden.  BMP’s are developed over time to help organizations avoid repeating mistakes, attempts to benefit from institutional knowledge gained over time despite changes in staff and the continuously revolving carousel of student and volunteer help.  Mistakes can be expensive and impede progress toward the ultimate goals for the landscape.  BMP’s can be very specific, if this situation arises, do this, or serve more broadly as ‘thresholds for action’ defining ‘tolerance’ levels so that staff time does not get consumed by less important tasks slowing overall progress on a site towards the broader goals.


These trees in the bottom lands are all subject to toppling given the saturated soil conditions, like these have.  The streams at this end serve as a spawning area for native Lamprey.

BMP’s can be written for any task in the garden or landscape.  They are commonly created to direct weed control efforts and may be specific down to the species with explicit control instructions.  This is very common when managing invasive species, because any control method that we might choose will have broader effects on the site. Generally these are influenced by our experience on the site, our history, so serve to guide our present actions.  We may be directed to ‘ignore’ specific common weeds, that a home gardener might be intolerant of.  Experience might show that certain weeds in a situation are a necessary ‘bridge’ to get us where we might want to be and so direct us to leave them alone.  Control methods are ultimately ‘disturbances’ of the life in the landscape and there may not be a straight line path to our goal.  Watch and learn.


All this cut up wood is the result of storm damage and a few trews that were judged to be a threat to the adjacent buildings. The Western Sword Ferns hold their own awaiting the Spring return of the herbaceous perennials. Wood is generally left in place to decompose.

BMP’s may also be written for pruning, planting practices, irrigation and the treatment of ‘waste’ material created on site, among other things.  In a landscape like Reed Canyon, if the goal is to create a functioning ecosystem and habitat, we must look at the entire site as a closed system, at least in the ideal.  Such systems don’t create ‘waste’, everything is endlessly cycled back through the landscape. But of course, this site has been disturbed historically and compromised by invasive species and the loss of significant species that were once necessary members of a functioning community.  So some effort must be made to rid the site of invasives, their seeds and any material that may serve as propagules. BMP’s are a necessary ‘tool’ for reaching the goals of such a site, while it may not be essential that they be written, making them as explicit as possible becomes more important over the long run…as long as they remain subject to review and modification over time reflecting both what staff has learned and in order to meet the changing conditions on the ground.  This is essential as there is no established line to reach the ultimate goals of the Canyon.  In a sense the same is true in our home gardens.  It is doubly true if we are to pass our gardens on to someone else and they expect to continue with its evolution.  Knowing what came first and how we got there is essential to both the development of the garden and the gardener.campus_map_lg

Gardening in Reed’s Canyon: Practical Examples

Zac Perry has been the staffer in charge of the Canyon since 2000.  He has been the one implementing the management plan.  He had a hand in writing it.  He prioritizes and monitors the work, organizes student work days and mentors them out in the field grounding their academic work, literally in the pond, the muck soils and unplands.  Today he carries much of the practical history around in his head and in a collection of photos, videos and documents that Reed is digitizing to make available to students, researchers and maintenance staff into the future.  Reed’s relationship with the site is as unique as the school itself.  Professor Robert Kaplan, a herpetologist, recently retired, has long helped champion the Canyon, conducting research, supporting his students work, both research and the physical drudgery necessary to manage and develop  the landscape.  Professor Kaplan and Zac developed a relationship over time that can be characterized by mutual respect which has benefited the Canyon.  While searching for Kaplan’s successor the school has chosen to look for someone who is less of a specialist, someone with an ecosystems background.  The school recognizes the value of the Canyon and the programs it offers that will benefit all of us into the future.

Reed Canary Grass


Reed Canary Grass borders much of the Lake, dominating parts of the marsh. Here Canada Geese and Mallards take advantage of the water.

Reed Canary Grass, Phalaris arundinacea, is a major problem on this site.  Much has been written about it and its ability to dominate and degrade a landscape, impairing or destroying its value as wildlife habitat.  I won’t repeat it here.  There are also those that contend that this grass belongs here and was resident in some native plant communities.  Either way it is extremely vigorous and was listed in the original Management Plan as undesirable and disruptive.  It is still here.  Eradication is still desired.  Much has been tried.

In his first year here Zac and students spent many hours in the eastern portion of the Canyon, where it was well established, slogging through the marsh, digging it out manually with shovels then solarizing the removed mass.  An entire acre was dug up…it returned, whether from seed in the soil bank or missed rhizome or both.  Some recommended that he flood the site under more water for two years then drain, dry and burn it.  He has not tried this.  He has legal requirements that prohibit him from stopping, backing up flow, because of the threat such action poses to fish and other wildlife downstream and burning within the City borders has its own set of hurdles.  Could it work??? In some areas they have stuck Willow cuttings, fresh cut whips in the Fall, 10’ long into the soil and masses of rhizome.  The ‘cuttings’ root readily and are both tall and vigorous enough to over top the Reed Canary casting shade over time that weakens the grass.  There is a trade off here that others may not be willing to make as the Willow can grow into thickets that many people view as problematic in terms of security.  We have to remember that healthy natural landscapes and human fears and perceptions are often in conflict and each time nature ‘loses’, its health is compromised.  Others advised them to spray it out with Rodeo, an herbicide containing Glyphosate rated for use in and near water as it is reputed to have very minor effects on fish, amphibians and water borne insects, largely because the ‘surfactant’, which causes many of the problems, is not present in this formulation.  Zac was reluctant, but they tested it unsuccessfully.  In more recent years Zac has lead work parties out into the flowering Reed Canary, remember this is rubber boot slogging work on this site, with hand scythes to remove the flowers before they set seed which would put pressure on suitable sites downstream along the creek.  This is an annual task.  Fortunately, things are beginning to look up.

Beaver are still active here and what do they do besides chew on woody stems and occasionally kill standing trees? They build structures that back up water, an activity that was once actively opposed here.  In one area, in the site’s eastern extreme, near one of the springs, this has resulted in a new ‘pond’ with four feet of water.  The effect, the Reed Canary is drowned here, plus Geese and water fowl have been attracted that have been grazing the grass around its perimeter down to its meristematic tissue weakening it while holding, at least this sections population’s spread in check.  Often we don’t have to solve every problem ourselves.  Often as systems regain their function and integrity problems can resolve themselves.  Remove the negative disruptions and support the healthy functioning of a system and… Is the problem gone? No, but the threat it poses to the health of this site and those downstream may be lessened.  That may be the best that we can hope for for now.  Document. Monitor. Respond and Move On.  It would appear that a strategy utilizing multiple paths maybe the best.

Blackberries, Ivy and….

Blackberries, Rubus armeniacus, were very common on this site particularly on the slopes that had once been mown and then left on their own.  With the native landscape disrupted the Blackberries, being opportunistic, quickly took advantage of the ‘vacancies’ as did Ivy, Hedra hibernica (Genetic studies are proving out that it is not English Ivy, Hedra helix, but this species that is problematic across much of the maritime Northwest).  Both of these invasives are primarily upland species, that while aggressive spreaders if left on their own, are more easily controlled by mechanical, manual, methods than the Reed Canary Grass.  Persistence, of course, is still required.  In the early portion of the growing season Blackberry puts enormous energy, that it has stored away in its roots, into growing its new shoots.  These shoots have to be replaced as they are not permanent woody growth that annually add girth, each shoot dying back after two years of vigor.  If left on its own the old canes remain as a formidable structure supporting the lank new growth, growing ever denser and more impenetrable.  After shoot extension comes flowering and fruiting, two more energy intensive activities of the plant.  At this point the plant begins to replace its reserves in the mass of its roots and grow them larger in preparation for the coming spring.  Zac takes this time of year to cut them down depriving them of the energy that would replenish them, but don’t wait too long.  Smaller masses they may choose to grub out roots and all.  They choose not to use herbicides.  They have transformed the slopes.

Zac and I share a favorite tool, one that used to be marketed as a ‘weed wrench’ (for a helpful review of the original click here), but now manufactured as the ‘UPROOTER’ .  It does a great job pulling out undesirable woody plants including English Holly that was once thick on much of this site, rouging out tap rooted Oak seedlings, English Hawthorn and Cherry.  It is much less disruptive than using a shovel to dig them out and reduces the need for herbicides that you might use for cut and treat control of stumps.  Zac has a never ending list of invasive to control and has realized that some tasks can be delayed but others, particularly those that produce large, aggressive and viable seed crops, need to at least be cut back to prevent seed dispersal.

As you walk the network of trails here there are, of course, other weeds.  We all know the adage, ‘Nature abhors a vacuum’…something will colonize bare soil.  Bare soil represents an instability.  Living nature, contrary to what many seem to believe, builds complexity/stability over time.  It is not a mechanical system tending toward entropy.  While individual organisms have given life expectancies, as may certain populations on a site, the larger system or community of organisms not only lives on indefinitely, but slowly cycles or evolves creating a changing matrix of organisms that tends to increase in complexity and in doing so, develops a kind of dynamic stability.  The community tends to continue.  A degraded site, like this one, then is in more rapid flux, perpetually evolving.  Many ‘weeds’ then may serve as ‘temporary’ place holders in the process.  Remember, common weeds, are plants growing out of place, in places where ‘we’ commonly may not want them.  Where ‘we‘ may not want them.  Wants are related to human habits, preferences and desires shaped by societal forces, fashion and expectation.  Weeds are not a ‘biological’ given.  Different location, different gardener…different weeds.  As they occupy the soil spreading their roots, sharing space with others, they are changing the growing conditions, providing opportunities for an evolving community of micro-organisms, changing the soil texture, moving it along in its development.  When work priorities are being set, a continuous process, the relative value/threat is assessed…if they move about aggressively with what we are attempting to establish, then we act to remove them.  If our preferred plants lack the vigor to establish after planting or seeding, given our best efforts for them to do so, then maybe we leave the weeds to their work, at least until we have another alternative.  If we are concerned about their spread we may chose to cut them down before they set their seed, leaving them and their roots in place to do the work below ground.  If they’re rhizomatous and aggressive maybe we bump up their priority for removal.  If they are truly ‘invasive’ we don’t dawdle we attempt to control them at the best time.  If we have time and our action does not ‘disturb’ their ‘neighbors’ we might extract them.  The overall evolution of the site toward the goal is the main priority.  The time required to remove every ‘weed’ will take time from other higher priority work and it may prevent us from moving closer toward our goal.

Building Health and Diversity Back into the Landscape

The work of reclaiming a ‘degraded’ natural site is very much the same whether it is a small patch of woods along the back of your garden, the Reed ‘Canyon’ or Portland’s ‘Forest Park’.  Size I’ve already spoken of.  It is the ‘history’ of the disturbance that makes much of the difference to the work: how long has it been under attack or stress and the intensity or thoroughness of the disturbance.

Early on much of Reed’s Canyon slopes were maintained as a clean grass and trees landscape, everything between the trees mown and kept ‘clear’.  Such a practice allows many plants to germinate and grow only to be repeatedly cut down or trampled, in this case by students and visitors.  We know that these practices are one way to weaken and gradually diminish or even kill many weeds so that it will certainly do the same for many of the desirable ‘woodlanders’ that grew here previously.  Prior to this the slopes were grazed by cattle which could move down the slopes to the water freely trampling and churning the soil as they moved across the site.  This regular ‘mixing’ continuously brings seed to the surface where it may germinate and spend itself depleting the soil seed bank over the years as well as compacting and destroying the soil structure itself changing its immediate environment, depleting oxygen and the biological composition of the many species of bacteria, fungi and more that are necessary to a functioning plant community.  This was itself a huge assault.  The necessary complexity was lost.


East of the ‘landbridge’ the creek often follows two channels. The planted conifers, starting to add size, will top the deciduous trees here and dominate the site. Most of these are shade tolerant like these Western Red Cedars, though Doug Fir and Grand Fir have also been added.  As they do this the conditions on the ground will change.

This is why such a place can’t just be replanted one day and become an instantly functioning plant community and biome.  All of this ‘disturbance’ resulted in a massive loss of species and the consequent decline in the humus layer that would have been part of a woodland habitat as well as the organic content of the soil itself, the microbial life and the many ‘macro’ soil organisms that constitute the living part of healthy soil.  This is an integral part of a fully functioning ‘closed loop’ system as all such ‘healthy’ functioning systems are.  It is at the heart of any functional habitat or biome as well as any landscape that promoters may claim to be sustainable.

It is also important to look at the fate of ‘waste’ produced on such a site remembering that there is no ‘waste’ in nature.  Reed has changed its course and now returns much of the former waste.  ‘Neatness’ can be a bane to healthy landscapes.  Leaves and branches are left where they fall.  Generally, the only material removed is viable seed and rhizome, material that can exacerbate invasive and ‘weed’ problems here and downstream.  Large woody debris has been added to the creek bed to help create meanders and resting places for fish.  Fallen soften wood trees are left to decay.  The softwood trunks and heavy branches of trees that need to be removed to protect buildings, are cut up to help speed their decomposition.  Hardwood trunks and large caliper branches have been placed to help reinforce trails across the sloping and wet site.  Test have been conducted to measure organic content of soils and their microbial life including microrrhiza.  Sometimes these are purposefully added back.  Increasing biomass and complexity is a primary goal to the work on site.

Much of this returning of complexity can’t be ‘added’ as amendments or the return of waste material.  It has to be grown back through the active growth of plants and their supporting casts.  Roots and fungi produce exudates that help form the crumb structure needed by binding together soil particles and creating pore space.  The Plants modify the soil pH and absorb various nutrients that might otherwise be leached away.  Plants are part of the system the build and retain soil nutrients and are in relationship with various bacteria and fungi that all benefit from.  Soil is not inert.

Planting: What and When

As a ‘natural area’ we still have active viable examples around us as models.  Our goal isn’t simply an absence of exotic weeds.  Each of the areas in the Canyon will ultimately constitute a plant community that transitions from one to the other across the site based on the conditions created by elevation, aspect and inundation even by the mix of plants currently growing there.  The whole site cannot by a mixed woodland dominated by conifers.  The water alone will see to that.  The different aspects created by the sloping terrain will allow a varying amount of light penetration to the ground level which will subtly effect the ground layer plant community much as it does as you cross from one side of a ravine to the other on an undisturbed site.  Much will be the same, but there will be differences too.  When we are choosing our plant palette we need to keep this in mind just as we do the composition of the tree canopy and the differences in the soil community its rooting will make.


A view toward the main campus from the older Canyon bridge. Many conifers have been added in to the deciduous understory.

Much of the upland portion of the Canyon is covered by deciduous tree canopy.  Some of these are exotics.   The ground layer is currently very simple and much of it is dominated by the weeds that are common in our region.    While the woodland may be creating the light conditions for a ‘native’ ground layer the seed bank has long been absent those species and can only produce a simplistic matrix of weeds. Desirable species require importation from off site.    Here and there a native Oxalis and Tolmiea menziesii make an appearance sharing space with the much more vigorous and adaptable Western Sword Ferns that proliferate on some areas, but even these areas may be overwhelmingly weedy.  Viola labradorica, with its purple flowers, covers scattered swathes, in others it is Herb Robert or Geranium robertianum.  In a mid-March walk I saw no sign of any Lily Family members, like, Trillium, False Solomon’s Seal and Twisted Stalk or Fairy Bells, plants you would typically find in many upland areas including those that have suffered some disruption.

Above the creek east of the land bridge I found this Oxallis and Tolemia, though they are much less common than the many weedy species on site.

Above the creek east of the land bridge I found this Oxallis and Tolmiea, though they are much less common than the many weedy species on site.

In upland portions north and above the Lake and marsh, adjacent to the residential properties, there is the problems of garden escapees like Arum italicum, Ranunculus ficaria or Lesser Celandine  and Common Squill.  These can be especially persistent here even in landscapes where they don’t receive any summer irrigation and their bulbs or tubers contribute to the difficulty of controlling them.  In this same area are various Prunus that are dominating the shrub layer.  Currently this area has been ‘cleared’ and has little protective canopy.  The strategy is to take a more aggressive stand against the invasion and continuing ‘pressures’ that these private residential properties pose to the site.  Reclaiming this area has its own set of potent and persistent problems that must be addressed and will have to have its own strategy for establishing some kind of ‘natural’ landscape.

Below one of the private residences where much woody material has been cleared. It is common in this eastern section to find Ranunculus ficaria, the Lesser Celandine, and the bulb, Common Squill or Scilla sp.

Below one of the private residences where much woody material has been cleared. It is common in this eastern section to find Ranunculus ficaria, the Lesser Celandine, and the bulb, Common Squill or Scilla sp.

Another situation predominates in the creek bottom, below the land bridge, where Salmon, Thimble and Elder Berry are quite common, beneath a more or less complete deciduous canopy.  When you get down to the ground layer, often the wrong, exotic, species dominate although there are scattered colonies of Skunk Cabbage and a handful of other natives.  In and immediately adjacent to the stream is Impatiens glandulifera (pink flowering)  or I. capensis (the orange flowering species), I’m not sure which, either one capable of  germinating and growing into a carpet.  We have two native Jewelweeds which can be difficult to tell from I. capensis, as well as hybrids between the native and I. capensis.  I. capensis, an eastern North American species, is visited here by honey bees, not the Ruby Throated Hummingbirds of their home range, here often attracting the bees away from the native species because of their large nectaries leaving the natives unpollinated. This plant, because it germinates early in the season, in high numbers and quickly grows relatively tall and dense, can also  out compete more diminutive natives for light.  Which species is here?

Another creekside denizen, this time a weed, Impatiens capensis.

Another creekside denizen, this time a weed, Jewelweed, Impatiens capensis with the always present Hedra hibernica.

I think it is safe to presume that it is not just the absence of seed from an appropriate native community in the seed bank that is the problem here, but that it is also the resident weed population and the soil environment itself that is to ‘blame’.  These areas have mineral soils with low organic content, not the humus rich woodland soils, with the characteristic microbial life that is both associated with, and necessary to, the life of desirable woodland, creekside, or marsh ground dwellers.  The resident weeds, given the growing conditions, have a relative competitive advantage.  Planting species before the soil environment is supportive of them will doom them, likewise if they can’t out compete the weeds for dominance.  There is no ‘cook book’ for rebuilding a woodland, marsh or lake system.  It would seem to be an incremental process.  Removing the biggest thugs and bullies while introducing successively more sensitive species when conditions become closer to undisturbed native sites, would seem to be the strategy.  Each plant possesses its own amount of vigor and adaptability, their need for specific associations, so there will likely be much trial and error.

One of my favorite native harbingers of spring, these magenta blooms of our native Salmon Berry, Rubus spectabilis, growing next to the creek.

One of my favorite native harbingers of spring, these magenta blooms of our native Salmon Berry, Rubus spectabilis, growing next to the creek.

Over time, as the desirable species become more numerous and ‘settled in’ to their particular micro-sites, as their ‘fit’ becomes more natural, there will be fewer niches available for opportunistic weeds.  Of course the current seed bank stacks the deck against success, but no one should believe that this should be an easy process as the history of disruption has been both a long and thorough one.  Just as our participation was ‘necessary’ during the period of disruption it is now during this period of reclamation.

On my mid-March foray I didn't see on plant of any species in the Lily Family. So far the only bulbs are scattered Daffodils and Squill.

On my mid-March foray I didn’t see one  plant of any species in the Lily Family.  Here scattered exotic Daffodils and Squill fill their role.  While they may be bright and cheery, signaling springs arrival for many of us they don’t belong.  Still….

Much of what is ‘broken’ here is unseen and widely misunderstood by us.  Our own lives have parallels.  Each of us struggle to understand what it is that we must do to be healthy and happy.  There is no specific formula.  We are complex beings with myriad relationships, many that we are barely aware of, all of which play a role in our lives.  For many, if not most of us, our relationship with the green and growing world upon which we ultimately depend, is itself mysterious, tenuous.  Many deny that this ‘link’ even matters.  While I am most surely biased, it is my belief that if we are to ever understand our place in this world, to find some degree of contentment and connection, it will lie in large part with the healing of our relationship with the green world, the denial of which is at the root of much of the environmental devastation in which we now find ourselves.  Health, like so many other things, cannot be compartmentalized, denied to the many and squandered by others.  Projects like this one in the Reed Canyon are a kind of litmus test for where we stand as a society.  There is so much we don’t know.  Much we can learn from other areas.

Forest Park, in the hills of NW Portland, have been smothered beneath Ivy for decades.  While Sandra Dietrich was still building up the No Ivy League, she discovered that, in many cases, when they literally peeled back the heavy layer of Ivy, many species still laid beneath waiting as viable seed and bulbs.  At first she was surprised at the reappearance of plants like Trillium which she had thought would have to be planted and re-established. Others reappeared on their own as well.  Seed and other ‘propagules’ have varying ability to lie dormant in the soil, so time is a factor here.  But it is also the intensity of the attack: was it only a few events long ago or have the disturbances been unrelenting, more or less continuous for years?

So, we begin by planting trees and the other dominate components of the landscape we are attempting to create, plants that will, over time, begin to transform it.  We begin to heal the feedback loops returning the ‘waste’ to enrich and nourish it.  We attempt to remove the ‘dis-ease’ that plagues the site and return it to health, a state that is largely an internal and integral one.  We measure our interference and seek to support the healing that characterizes a healthy system, which will, hopefully, increase the chances that the planting and establishment of a more complex ground layer will be successful.

How long will this take…decades.

The Long Term Prospects

When will staff and managers be able to ‘walk away’ and leave the site on its own, functioning as a ‘natural’ landscape with its cycling intact and its soil seed bank functioning to perpetuate the established community?  As large as this site may seem, in terms of the healthy landscapes of old, this is very small.  It will likely be unable to ever function on its own because of this.  Add to this the sea of landscapes that surround it which are out of balance, broken and overwhelmed by exotics and invasives, that will continue to apply ‘pressure’ on this and similar sites and we will find that our participation will, by necessity, remain active and continuous.  Humans have always been a part of nature and its many functioning loops and systems.  We are not separate from or above it.  We have not, however, recognized our roles in it and have actually largely rejected even the idea of stewardship, but that is what in fact is necessary, for the continuing success of the Canyon or any other ‘natural’ area…actually any landscape.  Landscapes cannot provide for us indefinitely without our active supportive participation, so I’m afraid this task will stay with us if we expect to live in a landscape that provides us with any ‘value’.  And, it is absolutely imperative if we expect our landscapes to function as habitat for the many species that are dependent upon them directly and locally for their survival.

‘Gardening’ on a ‘natural’ site like this demands your attention.  Its routines are fluid.  You are in relationship with it. It demands that you have a kind of wide eyed sense of wonder, of awe.  That you ‘see’ what is there in front of you, the links and relationships between the many and complex parts.  Your familiarity with the site, your regular monitoring of response draws you in and, essentially, transforms you into one of its component parts.  It tempers your response, but does not numb you into a series of excuses for not acting.  In a sense the work is a kind of ‘facilitation’ wherein the gardener adjusts their actions to support its healthy functioning.  We don’t understand everything.  It is simply too complex, so we prioritize our work, do what we can be most effective with, and, sometimes, discover that our efforts have worked as a kind of catalyst, that the living system has made an additional internal ‘correction’ that we did not anticipate, and, in so doing, may have ‘solved’ a series of problems that had previously confounded us.  There is a ‘sense’ to living healthy landscapes, that works as an internal correction system, a kind of ‘gyro’, that as it spins with the force of its internal life, keeps the whole system upright and moving in a positive direction, that works to keep such a landscape in dynamic balance, protecting it from ‘minor’ perturbations.  We mistakenly tend to think of landscapes as neutral, malleable, even dead, something to be acted upon, that are prone to a kind of landscape ‘entropy’ and fail to see the dynamism at the core of their health.  We also fail to recognize our central role in their degradation and how often our efforts to ‘maintain’ a landscape are in fact a series of disturbances that perpetuate their ‘dis-ease’.  We often spend a seemingly endless amount of labor and dedicate a like amount of resources in a ‘doomed’ cause.


‘Reed Lake’ looking east from the land bridge.

Reed’s Canyon, is on its way back to being a landscape that functions much as it once had, prior to the cycle of massive and endless disturbances, into one that cycles nutrients and resources in a way that not only preserves its healthy functioning but will build complexity into it and make it better able to resist future disturbances.  Will it be identical to the one that predated the College? Very doubtful.  There has simply been to much changed here.  But it can become a site that can function much as it once may have.  Such systems possess a resilience that most modern contrived landscapes do not share.  Crystal Springs and the Canyon are in a very real sense an outdoor lab that Reed has embraced.  We should all continue watching their work and hopefully learn from their experience so that we can conduct our own ‘experiments’ across a growing field of sites.  The need is huge.

Reed  on-line resources:

Canyon History

Canyon Natural History

Crystal Springs Headwaters: Fish Passage and Restoration Project


Fish ladder built in 2001 each ‘step’ with a ‘resting’ pool. Note the shrub to the right that suffers the repeated advances of a beaver. The old swimming pool sat roughly in this area and to the right.

Rivelli Farm Restoration Project

Senior Theses whose topics concern some aspect of Reed Canyon For those of you who don’t know, it is a degree requirement that all senior students produce a thesis project, that is original, in order to receive their diploma.  Reed has a widely respected Biology department. This page lists all related theses which can be found in whole in the Reed Library.

Reed College Herbarium Reed College houses a herbarium of Northwest plants.  Some of the collections pre-date the College.  Some were collected as parts of senior theses projects, others are from other sites. Campus collections can be viewed here at the Consortium for Pacific Northwest Herbaria.

A Short Bibliography:

Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes, Thomas Rainer & Claudia West, Timber Press 2015.

Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature In A Post-Wild World, Emma Marris, Bloomsbury USA 2013.


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