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Eve Pearlman: May flowers

Submitted by on 1, April 30, 2010 – 5:00 amOne Comment

Photo by Jan Watten

On a sunny Saturday morning a few weeks ago I arrived at the home of a nearby family for what their Evite billed as a garden work party in the old-fashioned, barn-raising/many-hands-make-light-work tradition. Drinks and sandwiches and babysitting provided. The goal? Transform the water-guzzling grassy patch of earth in front of their home into a cheerful area of low-water-using flowering plants.

“I love blossoms,” said my neighbor, Anne. “And the grass required a ton of water and chemicals and work to keep it lush.” Because, of course, if you think about it, year-round-thirsty lawns make no sense in climate like Alameda’s.

Arriving at 9 a.m. with my gardening gloves in hand, there were already a dozen people hard at work in Anne and Gregg’s yard. Someone was shoveling soil to bring up the grade, another helper was carefully digging up a dogwood to transplant, and someone else was marking out the path for the stepping stones.

And though the work party organizers promised chore reciprocity, I don’t think anyone was particularly interested in banking hours. We were there because lending a hand is a fulfilling community experience.

For their front yard redesign the couple hired Kahli Waters of Peace of Earth Gardens. Waters, who has designed, installed and maintained gardens in the Bay Area for the last decade, says she got rolling on what she calls ‘build-your-garden parties’ a few years ago when some friends wanted to rehab a weedy strip outside their Oakland apartment building. They called their work party Mulching for Margaritas, and the endeavor was a great success. “It brought that small neighborhood together,” says Waters.

Since then Waters has helped with about a dozen garden work parties, and she enjoys the community spirit they create. “My granny had a farm in Idaho,” she said. “And people regularly came together to work on big projects, and it was always fun — as a kid it felt just like a party.”

I was assigned to plant the median strip with vinca minor (periwinkle), and worked trowel to trowel with one worker to fill the oft-neglected area between sidewalk and street. We finished quickly, satisfied to stand back and look over the dozens of little plants ready to grow. Then we set to work on planting dymondia in the awkward area between the driveway’s two lines of concrete. As we worked, people came and went, some of whom I knew, some I did not. I kept my head down, intent on finishing my small part of the task. And then, before heading off to a day of errands, I consumed the material part of my reward — an excellent veggie sandwich.

Driving by the reworked yard that evening just before dusk, I saw a landscape transformed. They’d built a berm and path across its center. And embedded in a thick layer of mulch was a sage called ‘Midnight Blue,’ gaura ‘Bee Blossom,’ lavetera ‘Kew Rose,’ lavenders, and the white cheerful blossoms of Santa Barbara daisies.

Waters says she learned as a child growing up in Tucson’s desert climate that water is precious. And today she is so passionate about conservation that she will neither install nor maintain lawns. “I plant what the Earth will support here in our climate,” she says. Fortunately, Alameda’s weather gives her many options. Plants native to the Bay Area do well of course, but so also do many Mediterranean and South African plants.

It is well known that lawns are an English invention. And while lawns make sense when they can be ‘mowed’ by sheep rather than by exhaust-producing mowers (an EPA study found that in some urban areas, up to 5 percent of smog is due to single-stroke gasoline engines like those that power lawn mowers) and when the rain is regular enough to sustain them, they make no sense in climates such as ours where we can, as we know, go for seven months without a single drop of water from the sky.

It is also interesting that the old English lawns were not at all the chemical-requiring bastions of uniformity to which many now aspire. (“I don’t use anything toxic,” says Waters, “because it all drains into the Bay.”) Lawns of yore were made up of a large variety of ‘meadow plants’ such as clover and chamomile.

The Saturday garden work party was a win-win-win. Alamedans helping Alamedans, the streets beautified, and the creation of a small zone of free of chemicals and wasted water.

“Everyone walks by and comments on how nice the yard is,” says a satisfied Anne. “And they also say how much more beautiful our house looks now.”

You can reach Kahli Waters at kwaters@peaceofearthgardens.com.

Eve Pearlman offers her take on Alameda’s stories, big and small, every other Friday on The Island. Contact her at eve@theislandofalameda.com.

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