Growing Solutions: A Model of Restoration and Sustainability

Karen Flagg of Growing Solutions shows Chumash youth how to plant native California coastal grasses to be used in traditional basket-weaving.

This spring, Growing Solutions Restoration Education Institute (Growing Solutions) brought students from their Restoration Ecology class at Santa Barbara City College (SBCC), California to Santa Barbara Island to assist with MSRP’s seabird habitat restoration project. The students volunteered their time to help with planting native plants, weeding non-native plants, collecting seeds, and transplanting seedlings into larger pots. The students gained valuable hands-on restoration experience while also enjoying the beauty and wildlife of Santa Barbara Island.

Growing Solutions has been a partner with MSRP since 2008 supporting our seabird restoration projects on Scorpion Rock and Santa Barbara Island. They helped establish permanent nurseries on Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara Islands and have advised our seabird biologists on the restoration of native plant communities. Their expertise has been invaluable to the success of these projects.

We were interested in learning more about Growing Solutions and what else they are doing in their local community so we caught up with Don Hartley and Karen Flagg, two of the founders of Growing Solutions, to tell us more about their efforts.


Tell us a little about your background and what led you to where you are now.

 Don Hartley of Growing Solutions

I hold a Master’s Degree from the University at Santa Cruz. I am an Environmental Horticulture Instructor at SBCC and I co-teach the Restoration Ecology class, among other classes.

Karen Flagg of Growing Solutions

I was a graduate of SBCC and continued my studies in Experiential Education in Applied Ecology at Prescott College. I am currently an instructor at SBCC, co-teaching the Restoration Ecology class, and serve as Treasurer of Growing Solutions. I have extensive experience in project management and implementation.

We founded Growing Solutions in 1997 with Stephanie Langsdorf amid a water quality crisis in Santa Barbara.  Due to toxic runoff, Santa Barbara public-health officials were posting record numbers of beach closures. Under a mandate from the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) clean water requirements, local governments were required to address this issue. Our intent at the time was to provide hands-on education in ecology and sustainability with an understanding that a healthy land ecosystem would ultimately result in improved water quality in Santa Barbara’s creeks, marshes, sloughs and ocean. Our strategy was and is now a “whole-system” restoration—that a healthy functioning ecosystem is ultimately more efficient and cost-effective at filtering urban runoff than a mechanized approach using fossil fuels. Our primary role is to collect, propagate and grow site-specific native plants used for the design, implementation, maintenance and monitoring of restoration projects.

We have had the privilege to work on hundreds of coastal projects ranging from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara. These include Ellwood Mesa for the City of Goleta, restoring a closed landfill for the Santa Barbara County, multiple projects on the SBCC campus, restoring seabird habitat on Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara Islands, and currently providing all the native plants for the Malibu Lagoon Restoration Project. As a small non-profit, we have been able to adjust to changing priorities in the community with our overall mission being to provide environmental education . Whether it relates to creeks, wetlands, water issues, or the integration of farming and urban land use of wild lands, we continue to provide hands-on learning opportunities for the community.


What is Growing Solutions and where do you see this organization going in the future?

Our organization, Growing Solutions, is a 501c3 non-profit corporation that we founded in 1997 with the mission of building environmental and societal sustainability through hands-on education. Our programs focus on the integration of self-reliant technology that we couple with agricultural, watershed, and resource management projects. Our students study real-world issues using a theme-based educational setting gaining a sense of stewardship and practical real-world job skills.

In the future, we will be looking to participate in landscape-scale restoration projects. These projects will have more emphasis on the integration of “built” environments, such as agriculture and human use with wild and native systems.  We, as others have, come to the conclusion that this is the way to provide the best possible scenario for the most species.


How did you first get involved with the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program (MSRP)? What restoration project(s) did you support and continue to support?

We first became involved with MSRP when we saw a grant funding announcement for a seabird restoration project on Scorpion Rock off of Santa Cruz Island. We had an employee at the time, David Mazurkiewicz, who had knowledge of seabirds and experience growing native plants for Growing Solutions. David was hired by the Channel Islands National Park Service as a seabird biologist and Growing Solutions helped MSRP build a permanent nursery on Santa Cruz Island to grow native plants for the Scorpion Rock project. We coordinated student volunteers to help with planting native plants on Scorpion Rock which helped us get a lot of work done very quickly.

We have also provided training on the process of growing native plants for MSRP biologists to support seabird projects. Most recently, we advised MSRP on the design of a new nursery with an innovative water conservation design on Santa Barbara Island.  We continue to work with MSRP on Santa Barbara Island seabird restoration efforts as an advisor and coordinating volunteer trips.


What makes the MSRP restoration projects unique?

The great and unique aspect of working with MSRP on these seabird restoration projects is the opportunity for MSRP staff to participate in the on-the-ground activities, adapt the plan as needed, and provide multi-year funding. Also of course, MSRP provides a secure funding source that gives the field crew the momentum to work in the field.


What is your most memorable experience since you started Growing Solutions?

That’s a difficult question. There have been many. It is truly rewarding to see when students and former employees pursue careers they have dreamed of. It has been a pleasure to teach, hire, mentor and then work with peers such as David Mazurkiewicz and Andrew Yamagiwa, two seabird biologists with the National Park Service and California Institute of Environmental Studies, who were hired to work on MSRP seabird restoration projects.


What are a few simple things that people can do to change the way they live now?

The most obvious thing is to vote- at the ballot box and with your wallet – it matters. Write letters and give your opinion to elected officials.  Choose a profession that is important to you and do it well.


What advice do you have for future restoration ecologists?

Learn to see.  Take the time to really try to understand the complicated and interconnected systems out there.  And then come up with compromises that serve more species rather than less.


Edited by: Gabrielle Dorr