GROWISER: The Wild Garden
PRESERVING AND EDUCATING: Andy Huber, a crop and soil science professor with the OSU Agriculture Program at Eastern, stands among mule-ears this past June at GROWISER â€” Grande Ronde Overlook Wildflower Institute Serving Ecological Restoration. - Photos/SARAH WEST
Andy Huber can easily rattle off the names of the plants bristling on this patch of Pumpkin Ridge, whether they’re native — which he likes — or not.
On a sunny morning in June, the lupines were still flattened from a once-in-a-blue-moon snowstorm up on Pumpkin Ridge, although all the white stuff had retreated.
Fresh off that one last reminder of 2008’s belligerent winter, wildflowers bloomed in profusion amid the rich, dry smell of ponderosa pine needles on the property called GROWISER — Grande Ronde Overlook Wildflower Institute Serving Ecological Restoration.
Huber, GROWISER founder and a crop and soil science associate professor with the Oregon State University Agriculture Program at Eastern, has great ambition for this slanted terrain.
“My objective for the whole (property) is to turn it back into native plants,” he says.
“Native,” by his definition, are those species that were calling Pumpkin Ridge home when Lewis and Clark were cruising the Snake and Columbia not terribly far north — pre-European, in other words.
Huber’s route to this landscape followed its share of twists and turns. Born and raised on a dairy farm in Portage, Wisc., he has spent his life close to the land. He achieved a bachelor’s degree in general science from the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, after first testing the waters as a conservation and then a philosophy major (partly at UW-Stevens Point).
He eventually earned a master’s degree in agronomy from Oklahoma State University and, in 1983, a doctorate in crop science from OSU.
At that time, Huber was immersed in the study of wheat seed development, inspired to tackle problems of food production and access around the globe.
“My objective was to help feed the world,” he chuckles.
His longtime passion for ecological restoration, and his academic and occupational background in plant physiology, all coalesced with that real estate deal.
“In my philosophy,” Huber notes, “there are no accidents.”
That initial roadstake on Pumpkin Ridge became the core of GROWISER, which has gradually grown through the acquisition of neighboring parcels. There are now some 220 acres of forest, open woodland and bare slope — all of it maintained under the non-profit organization Huber established soon after the original purchase.
The property had, in the past, been logged, grazed and, in places, cultivated. An old grain mill still lies in the shadows of the conifer woods, on the edge of the hillside meadows.
A healthy proportion of native plant species convinced Huber of the land’s fit for GROWISER’s intent. Much of that guiding philosophy derives from the writings and research of Aldo Leopold, who lived along the banks of the Wisconsin River not far from Huber’s family farm.
NATIVE PLANT GUARDIAN: Huber admires the vibrant petals of Blue Mountain penstemon on GROWISERâ€™s bunchgrass prairie. To the southeast rises Hug Hill and, in the distance, the rocky head of Mount Harris. - Photos/SARAH WEST
Leopold, a forester and predator control agent in his youth, devoted his later years to the burgeoning science of ecology. He became famous for his idea of the “land ethic,” a doctrine of sound management that respects the complexity of ecosystem dynamics.
This worldview was most famously expressed in Leopold’s book, “A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There,” published posthumously in 1949.
“I’m carrying some of (Leopold’s) spirit out here,” Huber says.
Up on Pumpkin Ridge, his management shifts with the seasons. In the winter, he thins the forest and burns brush. Springtime finds him weeding and leading tours through the wild gardens. He begins harvesting seeds for propagation in the summer, and tills into the autumn, the time of planting.
When thinning, Huber likes to leave part of some dead trees standing for wildlife. Pileated woodpeckers, for example, bore into old snags, encouraging infiltration by the ants they relish. He hopes to develop a forest of widely-spaced, big-trunked trees naturally resilient to wildfires.
On the drier, south-facing slope and areas of shallower soil, ponderosa pines dominate. Elsewhere, the forest is mixed, with Douglas-fir, grand fir and western larch mingling their canopies.
The grand fir, however, is declining on the property, a victim of Northeast Oregon’s prolonged drought. A few have stood on this high ground for a long time; scattered throughout are firs with massive trunks and tall crowns that Huber estimates to be over 200 years old.
Below the understory are plants of smaller proportion, including several species of orchids — some of Huber’s favorite plants.
“There’s something about the orchids that’s special,” he says, eyeing a few mountain lady’s slippers arcing out of the undergrowth.
FIELDS OF GOLD: Beneath a Mount Emily still speckled with unseasonable June snows, GROWISERâ€™s south slope bristles with blooming mule-ears. - Photos/SARAH WEST
This year, they were around two weeks late in their emergence, thanks to the late, cold spring.
The open grasslands of the south slope flare with great beds of big, burly mule-ears, two species of balsamroot, penstemons and lupines, all piercing through billowing native bunchgrasses of multiple species — Idaho fescue, bluebunch wheatgrass, Great Basin wild eye, California brome and others.
Huber says GROWISER’s neighbors take an interest in the management going on on the property, especially the ceaseless war waged upon invasive weeds like goat’s beard and bulbous bluegrass.
He’s always on the hunt for these stubborn exotics.
“Kill the weeds, re-seed the natives — that’s about what I do,” he says.
Huber offers tours of GROWISER to schools and organized groups. Call him at 962-3543 for more information.
GROWISER also has an online presence, at www.growiser.org .