At a mulching party, East Bay residents learn how to convert lawns to gardens

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On a warm Saturday morning, people began to slowly stroll into the Memorial Tabernacle Church in Oakland’s Bushrod neighborhood. They were gathered not for a morning service, but for a special kind of lawn party. Trail mix, cookies, apples, and fresh-cut pieces of banana were laid out in colorful bowls on a table, but nothing smelled more fresh than the two 4-foot piles of compost and wood mulch laid out on the road in front of the church.

StopWaste, a public agency dedicated to reducing waste in Alameda County, hosted the lawn party to revitalize the Memorial Tabernacle’s community garden, using this hands-on project to educate volunteers on how to convert a water-thirsty lawn into a fruitful garden.

“We encourage people that instead of ripping out their lawns that go right into the landfill and create methane gas, to leave them in place [as a] resource and add compost, cardboard and mulch,” said Jeanne Nader, the StopWaste program manager. “California will always have a sunny dry climate … and you can still have a beautiful landscape, but it’s just not going to look like what people are used to having like lawns. We live in a Mediterranean climate, so it’s not suited to that kind of landscape.”

The sheet mulching technique that StopWaste contractor Trevor Probert demonstrated at the May 6 lawn party is a simple process and only takes a few steps. Gardeners layer three affordable and accessible recyclable items: cardboard, compost and wood mulch.

First, prior to laying down dirt layers, gardeners prepare the site by removing bulky items and weeds from the lawn. A layer of cardboard on top of the untreated grass becomes the first layer. At the church, volunteers worked under the midday sun, filling 45 buckets of compost that they carried back and forth, adding 3 inches of compost as a second layer.  Adding compost provides a planting medium for plants that are 4 inches high or smaller. And lastly, once everything was full and even, the gardeners added wood mulch to optimize water conservation and weed control.

StopWaste advocates for sheet mulching because compost and mulch layers hold moisture and reduces greenhouse gases. Drought-tolerant plants like the California Lilac and Copper Canyon Daisy save water and thrive with compost. “We are actually helping put carbon back into the soil and fight climate change at the same time that they’re making an amazing garden,” said Nader. “The more carbon we can put in the ground, the less it goes into the atmosphere.”

By the end of the project, the garden at the church had a new grapevine, a mandarin tree, a plum tree, a lime tree, a Burgundy Hearts Eastern Redbud and some edible passion flowers to attract butterflies. Members are hoping the new garden can become a butterfly sanctuary and that visiting insects will help pollinate the neighboring plants.

Designers and landscapers Anne and Daniel Webster also included a rock memorial in the design plan, after church members requested to memorialized the people that have put a lot of love into this garden, including Victory Lee, director of the Victory Garden Foundation.

Church and community members were delighted with the finished project, saying the church garden had been neglected for a couple of years without any green growth. “We had a garden started back in 1970 and it was part of a children’s program,” said Tiffany Grant King, the church’s administrator. The program ran for fifteen years until the program’s founder passed away, and although other programs attempted to host a community garden, they had no success.

StopWaste and local utilities are encouraging residents to replace lawns and grow gardens at home, too. “People want to do something especially in their backyard to make change—and sometimes they just don’t know how to do it,” said Nader. “It’s also important for people to see that you can grow your own food. We live in a climate that’s pretty ideal for growing year round … and that’s pretty special. People can be sustainable in their own living area.”

California’s Department of Water Resources is committed to replacing 50 million square feet of lawns across the state with drought-tolerant landscaping, and has made rebates available to residents to achieve this goal. Residents who grow drought-resistant landscaping can apply for a turf replacement rebate, for water rebates to receive up to $2 per square foot of lawn. The application requires a measurement of the turf area to be removed, 5 current pictures, and a copy of your most recent water bill, or electrical bill if you have private water well. A rebate check is sent in the mail after each completed project.

The East Bay Municipal Utilities District and the Contra Costa Water District provide mulch coupons for residents in those water districts and the application can be found here. Applications must be approved before the beginning of projects to ensure payment for rebates. Resources, toolkits and instructional videos on how to host your own mulch party are available on the website StopWaste.org.

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