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Church group tackles a conservation project

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East Wenatchee’s landscape began a transformation in 1908 with the completion of the Columbia River Bridge and its life-giving irrigation pipeline. Like Wenatchee before the Highline Canal, the east side was characterized by sagebrush, rabbit brush and other tough shrub-steppe plants that could survive through hot, dry summers and only a few inches of rain a year. Irrigation changed this, not only for orchards but for small residential lots where gardens and flowering shrubs now could thrive.

Today, only a small percentage of the land within East Wenatchee’s boundaries remains as dry shrub-steppe terrain. Unfortunately, some of this land now is dotted with unwelcome invasive species such as knapweed and the goathead plant (tribulus terrestris). One such plot is located in the 1600 block of Sunset Highway and belongs to the Cascade Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

In the summer of 2009 the church purchased the 1.5-acre vacant lot next to its fellowship hall. With the conveyance of the deed came a share of irrigation water. There was no indication the lot had ever been watered, though, and waist-high knapweed and tire-pricking goatheads abounded. Church members were determined to be good stewards of their new property.
The following spring, Bruce Keleman and Ken Toevs used a tractor to pile up decades of knapweed skeletons. They obtained a burning permit and burned the weed piles; this improved the lot’s appearance but was clearly a temporary fix. Toevs sprayed the herbicide Roundup in 2011 and 2012, which somewhat controlled the weeds but also destroyed the native grass. He fertilized the field and church caretaker James Dunn mowed and watered it once in 2012.

In the fall of 2012 several church members took a more aggressive step. Jack Toevs hauled his nephew Ken’s tractor and harrow to the site. Mark Seman and Ken Toevs planted ryegrass seed, then harrowed it into the soil. Brian Ohme, Don Oliver and Dan Riordan helped Toevs spread mulch over the seed, using poplar and maple leaves raked by many volunteers from the church’s irrigated property next door. The ryegrass prevents weeds from growing while sequestering carbon and improving the soil.
A lush crop of rye sprouted this spring and waved gracefully across the field. On July 14, when the grain had dried past the milky stage, six church members cut some of the rye by hand. After it’s threshed from the stalks, the rye grain will be ground and baked into bread for the congregation to celebrate its successful land stewardship project. Most of the rye is being left to reseed the field, and for quail and other birds to enjoy. “It’s been neat to see the plot go from wasteland to productive green,” Toevs observed. “Others can do this, too.”

Chris Rader writes about the history of North Central Washington. She can be reached at