Reclaiming the landscape: Greenhouse project to spur habitat restoration
Under a clear sky and afternoon sun, the winding road through Cherokee and out past Birdtown is a beautiful one. It’s a trek that employees at the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ Office of Environment and Natural Resources have been making a lot over the past several months.
With the ribbon now cut on a 2,200-square-foot greenhouse and a black-clothed grow yard filled with 33,000 native plants representing 32 species, they’ve finally got something to show for it.
“By this fall we’ll have over 100,000 plants,” says project manager Patrick Breedlove, looking out over the yard of potted natives.
Those pots represent just the starting stock for what Breedlove eventually hopes to see covering the yard and growing along Cherokee stream banks. The department is continuing to get more species in — largely from the N.C. Forest Service, which has given the Eastern Band a reduced price — with plans to gather still more from the backcountry.
Come fall, they’ll take cuttings of all the plants and start growing those cuttings into new plants. Those baby plants will go in the greenhouse for the winter while their roots grow and their stems harden into wood, and from there they’ll move to a soon-to-be-erected cold-weather hoop house. The last stop will be a return to the grow yard when the weather gets warm, where they’ll await planting in some tribal restoration project. Meanwhile, another batch will be growing up six months behind.
“Our goal in three to five years is for us to provide all plants, not just for environmental-based projects but to land-based projects that need native plants,” Breedlove said.
The tribe doesn’t reveal cost figures for projects, but the propagation operation, with its automated greenhouse and irrigation system, soon-to-be-installed tower lights and security system and the impending renovation of a historic house onsite that will serve as an office didn’t come cheaply. But within three years, Breedlove said, the greenhouse operation will have paid for itself.
A plus for propagation
The plants will mainly be used in restoration projects to improve waterside habitats and wildlife forage. Before, the Eastern Band has had to buy all those plants from some other supplier, but it’s a whole lot cheaper to grow them in-house. For instance, a rhododendron in one gallon of soil costs $3.30 to buy, but only about $0.60 to propagate.
“For some of them, we’re about 10 or 15 percent of cost,” Breedlove said.
It’s the potential for cost savings that initially sparked Breedlove’s interest in the greenhouse idea. He started looking into the dollars and cents in 2012, submitting a financial analysis to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which funds ECBI restoration projects. The funds were approved in October, with 99 percent of the money coming from the EPA, though a whole laundry list of partners donated supplies, volunteers, professional advice and the remainder of the cash. By January, the first ground was broken, and by July the greenhouse was ready to go.
“I detailed my whole department down here for the last two weeks,” said Jamie Long, manager of the Office of Environment and Natural Resources. “We worked every day, long hours.”
The result? A greenhouse capable of holding two batches of 80,000 plants each year. The building has LED lighting as well as grow lights, and the roof pieces can open up to let heat out when the building gets too hot. It’s made of tempered glass, not polycarbonate, which turns yellow and starts blocking light after a few years in service. A weather station monitors metrics such as humidity and temperature, adjusting with heating, fans or irrigation as needed to meet the settings. A pair of 5,000-gallon rain barrels stand on either side of the building, ready to catch any rain running off the roof. Just one month in, they each hold 1,500 gallons.
“Once we use that in the greenhouse, once we catch it off the roof, we water the plants with it,” Breedlove said of the rainwater.
The plants in question are the thousands of pots gathered on the 1.4-acre grow yard beside the greenhouse. The greenhouse itself is empty at the moment, waiting until cooler weather comes to be filled with plants.
Five species are slated for the first round of propagation: Carolina rhododendron, Catawba rhododendron, mountain laurel, doghobble, silky dogwood and black willow. They’ll root in the greenhouse throughout the winter. Then, once their stems grow woody, they’ll be transferred into a hoop house to be set up beside the greenhouse. A hoop house is a kind of semi-permanent greenhouse consisting of plastic stretched over a metal frame, but unlike the greenhouse it won’t be heated. Rather, it will serve as a transition between the cozy greenhouse and seasonal elements a native plant must adapt to.
From there, they’ll be shipped out to streamsides throughout the Cherokee reservation.
The OENR is actively involved in restoring riparian zones, the name for habitats that grow up along running water. Those areas are often easy targets for invasive species, which squelch native diversity and don’t provide much for wildlife when it comes to food and cover. Riparian zones can also fall prey to erosion when the shallower roots of invasives allow stream banks to collapse or the river channel starts digging into the banks. By removing undesirable species and replanting with natives, restoration projects keep natural systems in Cherokee working like they’re supposed to.
“Our goal is to restore it before there is any impact to it, whether that be manmade or natural,” Breedlove said.
This fall, Breedlove’s office is planning the largest-scale restoration project yet, involving 5,600 feet along Snowbird Creek.
“That’s the largest project we’ve ever done here on the reservation,” he said.
The project will require 100,000 native plants, well outside the normal range of 20,000 to 40,000. It will involve removing some invasives, breaking up an abandoned beaver dam that’s been degrading trout habitat and reshaping the channel to a more natural contour.
Having the greenhouse onsite will allow the OENR to do more of those kinds of projects. The office operates on consistent funding from the EPA, so its budget won’t change as a result of the greenhouse. But because they’ll now be able to produce more plants for less money, they’ll have more capacity for restoration.
“It’s cost savings so we’ll be able to do more larger projects,” Breedlove said.
Of course, the extra plants will require some extra work to pot and propagate. The department isn’t planning to hire any extra staff, though. Rather, they’re relying on summer interns and volunteers from the Oconaluftee Job Corps. Those volunteers have helped out a lot already, chipping in to pot the thousands of plants that have been coming in over the summer to reside in the outdoor grow yard.
“We have a lot of volunteers,” Breedlove said.
Maybe that’s because plant propagation isn’t just an environmental project. It’s a cultural project. The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources has a region-by-region list of native plants to help out localities wanting to plan restoration projects, but the Eastern Band doesn’t go by that list. They have their own, which includes plants with large root masses capable of holding riparian soil in place, those producing berries tasty to wildlife and plants with especially high cultural value to the Cherokee people.
For instance, Breedlove said, when it comes to selecting species for restoration, “an oak is an oak,” but lately he’s been trying to plant a higher proportion of white oaks.
“White oaks are culturally significant to the Eastern Band,” he said. “They use them to make baskets.”
Another example is the black walnut, used for its edible nut as well as for the stain surrounding the fruit that yields black ink or dye. Berry bushes and fruit trees also appear in the species list, planted to attract game animals like grouse and turkey.
“Our list is just more specialized for tribal lands,” Breedlove said.
As the stockpile of trees and bushes outside the greenhouse grows and multiplies, Breedlove is looking forward to the imminent multiplication of healthy habitat on the Qualla Boundary. And he’s glad that his office is on the road to making that happen.
“It was a lot of work, but we got it finished,” Long said, “and it really turned out well.”