In 2005, when Mary and Jon Campbell bought the 10-acre property bordered to the north and south by Yellow Hawk and Caldwell creeks, the property had been neglected for some time.

The central, once-productive, perennial hay field was full of weeds, and the creek banks were either “like a desert or were buried under a mountain of impenetrable Himalayan blackberry bushes.” The hay field had been farmed as close to the creek waters as the disc could get. A sprinkling of old and failing black locust trees formed the only structure and shade on the property.

Jon and Mary wanted to plant native trees and shrubs for wildlife and were interested in restoring the creeks. They were approached by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife about creating a riparian buffer along the banks. These riparian buffers use native shrubs and trees to shade creek waters and provide insects for fish besides stabilizing the creek banks and reducing sedimentation. Fallen branches provide structural complexity in the channels — generating small pools and gravel areas.

So when they received a call from Fish and Wildlife saying a cost-sharing, matching-grant program was expiring soon that would suit their project needs, they moved quickly forward.

The application process was completed in a hurry, and in little time an excavator was on the site ripping out mounds of blackberry bushes and trucking them away, leaving the whole property and creeks denuded and open to the sky.

 A fish-bearing stream

Yellowhawk Creek originates artificially at a diversion point on Mill Creek at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Mill Creek Project Headquarters and acts to aid in flood control for the city of Walla Walla. Its flow is regulated year round. Yellowhawk Creek is really a distributary branch of Mill Creek, and over time the main channel likely changed between this and the present one on Mill Creek.

Yellowhawk is a fish-bearing stream, and bull trout and steelhead occupy it and use it as a migratory passage it to Mill Creek, important as Mill Creek’s cement channel and portions of shallow, unshaded water render it problematic for fish passage. Other native fish species documented in the creek are: speckled dace, margined sculpin, redside shiner and rainbow trout.

Russell and Cottonwood creeks join Yellowhawk Creek just below where the Campbells live. Both are nonregulated creeks and subject to flushing events or flooding, generating better quality fish habitat. Caldwell Creek is a spring-fed creek and has a low fish population. Both the Campbells and Fish and Wildlife considered the couple’s project important as an example of what can be done to restore key creeks for fish and wildlife habitat and create wildlife corridors in developed areas such as Walla Walla.

Planted buffers in developed areas between lawns, landscaping or crops act as filters for the movement of sediment and chemicals. Pesticide movement from homeowners’ yards to waterways via both runoff and sediment movement is an often-unrecognized issue for fish. Planting creek sides is a type of project that can be used by landowners in urban, suburban and rural settings — all very important areas for fish and wildlife as well as the larger rivers. The Tri-State Steelheaders and the nonprofit Kooskooskie Commons have provided some support and continue to monitor the creeks. 

Creating habitat

The Department of Fish and Wildlife’s contractor initially put down permeable, black landscape plastic as a mulch to suppress weeds from overwhelming the new plants.

The Campbells’ goal was to have a site-appropriate, low-maintenance planting, and they focused on native shrubs and trees for this reason.

Over 3,000 native, pencil-sized plants were placed — types of plants that need to grow next to water and those that can tolerate drier conditions.

Willows, both a fast-growing hybrid cultivar and a smaller, native species, as well as cottonwoods were planted next to the water to grow quickly and provide shade. 

Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir were used away from creek banks to add height, diversity and a place for raptors to perch.

A multitude of drought-resistant shrubs such as yellow currant (Ribes aureum), mockorange (Philadelphus lewesii), native viburnum (Viburnum trilobum), Wood’s rose (Rosa nutkana), Pacific ninebark (Physocarpus capitatus), snowberry (Symphorocarpus occidentalis), serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia), chokecherry (Prunus virginianus) and blue elderberry (Sambucus nigra) were used to create a deep field buffer and habitat for insects and birds.

Jon and Mary wanted each plant to have leaves, flowers, berries or seeds for wildlife habitat as well as provide cover, shade structure and nesting places for wildlife.

Ninety-five percent of the plants took.

Still going strong

Now, 14 years later, the plantings are many feet wide and high and still growing. The property is incredibly lush and looks like a giant garden surrounding a rich hayfield. The desert-like setting and blackberries are just a memory. Initially, the shrubs and trees looked very small and manicured in the large, empty landscape. They now form a continuous bank of trees and hedgerow, with intermingling foliage and layers of vegetation, and the creeks are fully shaded.

Irrigated with overhead sprinklers for the first three years, now the creekside areas receive no additional irrigation and require almost no weeding. A planting across the top of the field away from the creeks in very rocky soil is about one third of the height of the creekside plants, and Mary and John have just added another large block of plants in front of the original planting to bulk up this hedgerow.

New plants are weeded and watered for about three years and protected from the elements and deer and rabbits with reusable plastic tubes. The Campbells continue to experiment with plant establishment methods and have dispensed with the black plastic weed barrier and instead used layers of newspaper topped with mulch. In these areas, the plants grew especially quickly.

The shrubs and trees flower and fruit over a long season, providing an abundance of food over the course of a long season — including winter — for wildlife. The nectar-rich willows are the first to flower, followed by the yellow-flowered currant, a favorite of bumblebees. Then serviceberry, chokecherry, elderberry, viburnum, mockorange, Wood’s rose, and Pacific ninebark flower in sequence. Fruits, berries and seeds ripen over the course of the summer and winter.

 Choosing plants

Plants were sourced from the University of Idaho Franklin H. Pitkin Forest Nursery at ubne.ws/2XZFZN0 and the native plant nursery Plants of the Wild at ubne.ws/2WKC0lW.

Since 2005, the Campbells have planted an estimated 6,000 plants, and they are not done — inspired everyday by the beauty and abundant wildlife drawn to the planting, they continue to trial new species.

Most plants have been a success, and a few they would reconsider using again. Large, hybrid willows were used in the initial planting for fast growth to shade creeks. John and Mary wish now they had stayed with just native willows as these hybrids produce quantities of fluffy blowing seeds and may not live as long as the native species. Elderberries also grew very fast, and then just collapsed. Alders and aspen planted for beavers are not thriving.

A fellow who helps them with the property brings them trees he thought needed rescuing from nurseries, so the plantings include a number of large maples, American chestnuts, plus trees such as birch from Mary’s parents, and lilacs.

Despite the size of the planted area, the Campbells know each individual tree and area and have many favorite groves and trees to visit. As the trees and plants mature, some have fallen across the creek creating small pools and waterfalls for fish and are special places to visit and sit. A favorite plant is the native viburnum shrub, Viburnum trilobum. It has large, flat-topped clusters of showy white flowers that really stand out in the landscape. The berries were devoured by robins in the snowy winter when there was little else to eat.

John and Mary’s goal is for the plantings to self-perpetuate and to “last for all time” and for people to “love the plantings.” As they sit on their porch and look out over the lush and bucolic landscape that looks like it has been there forever, they know they have created something very special — and want to share it with all.

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