Conservation Neighbor Nick Cavagnaro

Nick (behind table) brings joy to the fall bulb sale with his contagious smile.
Nick (behind table) brings joy to the fall bulb sale with his contagious smile.

Corvallis, Oregon has many great attributes including Oregon State University, a sustainability-minded community, and quick access to birding, hiking, and a variety of landscapes where you can soak up the glory of the great outdoors. These local features attract an exceptional group of retirees who appreciate education and nature, and who invest their time with organizations like Benton SWCD. Nick Cavagnaro is an extraordinary example of a retiree who moved to Benton County for those exact reasons, and who gives and gives and gives to our community.

Nick’s education began in art school and then onto Humboldt State University for natural resource interpretation. He worked as a museum preparatory at the Oakland Museum and then as an exhibit supervisor at the California Academy of Sciences Natural History Museum in San Francisco. His ultimate career combined his artistic talent and love of the outdoors when he worked for the East Bay Regional Park District in Oakland CA. There he created publications, exhibits, and outdoor educational panels for the Park’s ten visitor centers.

After retiring, Nick and his wife, Cathy, moved to Corvallis’ Oak Creek area in 2013. In addition to Benton SWCD, he has volunteered with Institute for Applied Ecology, the Greenbelt Land Trust, and Oregon State University where he is now employed two days per week at the Oak Creek Center for Urban Horticulture. He helps propagate plants, manages pollinator beds around campus, and creates carpentry projects such as native bee blocks, and bee hotels, which have been installed at many sites on and off the OSU campus. Nick enjoys the vibrant energy flow of the OSU campus.

Nick Cavagnaro with Teresa Matteson (BSWCD staff) and Eliza Mason (BSWCD board) at the 2019 Native Plant Sale. Photo by Kathleen Dennis
Nick Cavagnaro with Teresa Matteson (BSWCD staff) and Eliza Mason (BSWCD board) at the 2019 Native Plant Sale. Photo by Kathleen Dennis

Nick first encountered us when he purchased plants through the Benton SWCD Native Plant Sale. He picked up his order and learned about volunteering at the Sale. He has been a valued, knowledgeable, enthusiastic volunteer since, often working multiple shifts during one-day events such as the Fall Bulb Sale held during the Corvallis Fall Festival and the Native Plant Sale (February 1, 2020). Nick buys bare root natives each winter and pots them up for two years before planting out into beds that surround his house. His landscape strategy combines native and non-native plants to reduce lawn and create wildlife habitat. Nick has a strong sense of which non-natives are great pollinator plants. He doesn’t have use for plants that do not support the local wildlife, be it birds or insects.

Nick’s Advice for Volunteers Who Are New to the Area

Work with several groups to hone your interests and see where your energy fits. Then be selective as to where you dedicated your time. Nick likes events such as the BSWCD native plant sales that are one-day duration and do not get monotonous. He enjoys engaging the public and sharing his knowledge while smiling and chatting. He emphasized that it is important to also consider your physical capabilities. Some volunteer work is very physically demanding.

Nick and one of his plantings on OSU campus.
Nick and one of his plantings on OSU campus.

Plant Tips from Nick

  • A propagation technique that I learned from Nick is starting pollinator mixes in 4” pots in fall. Cover the flat with metal window screen (to prevent mice and bird predation), leave outside all winter. Water if necessary to keep the soil damp. In early spring, plant the entire 4” square in one hole. These plants will grow and self seed to expand into a planting area.
  • Many native annual plants flower in the spring and then die. You can extend the flowers well into the summer and even into fall if you water them. When the plants die, don’t cut the dead flower stalks. You can either harvest the seeds or leave them for hungry birds in the winter.
  • Regularly monitor planting beds for irrigation needs, weeding, and to control over-zealous natives, such as California poppy, lupine, yarrow, and tar weed.
  • To prepare for a wildflower planting, Nick smothered weeds with cardboard for three years. He then planted a conglomeration of wildflower mixes (not all Willamette Valley natives) to grow the plot of beautiful, blooming wildflowers in the background of the photo below.
  • Nick with bird box and wildflower planting
    Nick with bird box and wildflower planting.

Some of Nick’s Favorite Plants

Pollinator Seed Mixes

Nick’s experience is that in many mixes dominate varieties will quickly take over the site. To mediate that tendency, he recommends mixes with fewer varieties and no grasses. Select grasses can be added after the forbs are established.

Irrigated Sites

  • Vine maple, Acer circinatum, part shade, fall color, bee-friendly.
  • Red Twig Dogwood, Cornus sericia, wet or dry, large, prune from base, berries attract birds.
  • Red flowering Currant Ribes sanguineum, Feb-March bloom, attracts hummingbirds and bees.
  • Narrow-leaved milkweed, Asclepias fascicularis, attractive to butterflies, bees, and other insects. Caution: Milkweed sap contains cardenolides (heart poison), which produces vomiting in low doses and death in higher doses.

Drier Sites

  • Oregon Sunshine, Eriophyllum lanatum, low growth, long stems reaching upward, single yellow flowers.
  • Coyote Brush, Baccharis pilularis, shrub with late flower, easy to propagate from cuttings.
  • California fuchsia, Epilobium canum, full sun, spreads slowly, attracts hummingbirds, fall bloom.
  • Elderberry species, shrub, Sambucus racemose (red) and Sambucus cerulea (blue).
  • Manzanita, shrub, Arctostaphylos colunmbiana, broadleaf evergreen, smooth rust-colored bark.

Not PNW Natives

  • Cup Plant, Aster Family, Silphium perfoliatum, 4-8 feet tall, looks like sunflower, moist woods, prairies, sun, dry-moist, wet, high drought tolerance, tolerated clay, birds, butterflies, hummingbirds, bees
  • Cardoon, Aster Family, Cynara cardunculus , 3-6 feet tall, looks like artichoke, large spiny foliage, globe-like, violet-topped flowers.
  • Dark Star ceanothus, Ceanothus x ‘Dark Star’, dense shrub up to 6 feet tall, compact leaves and gorgeous fragrant flowers, evergreen, attracts butterflies and bees.
  • Blue and Purple Salvias, so many to choose from, bee and butterfly magnets.
Nick and the insect hotel on OSU campus
Nick and the insect hotel on OSU campus

Thanks, Nick! For all you do for our community and natural resources!