Now is an opportune time to complete the lawn conversion you have been considering, especially since the East Bay has received a good soaking from the first of our fall and winter rains and because East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) has extended the timeframe for its lawn conversion rebate. The rains mean the soil microbes in your lawn are active and ready to commence their all-important work of creating a healthy, living planting environment. The EBMUD rebate extension means up to $500 dollars to help transform your boring, water-greedy lawn into a beautiful, sustainable, drought-resistant landscape.
Cynthia Ruzzi, co-founder of Sustainable Danville Area, and her husband Dave decided to convert their front and backyard lawns after they stopped watering them in response to the 2008-09 EBMUD water emergency requesting a 20% reduction in water use by residential customers. Their 1,200 square-feet of lawn soon became unsightly and the rebate program was a catalyst to convert it to a native plant landscape.
Converting your lawn through the EBMUD program is relatively painless. The first step is to measure the lawn area you want to convert then complete and submit an application form. Be aware you must meet certain requirements to qualify for a rebate. For example, converted landscapes must be planted with California native or climate-appropriate plants, or converted to permeable hardscapes with materials that allow water to pass through. Planted areas must be covered with at least three inches of mulch and no bare soil is allowed. Additionally, you must meet with an EBMUD representative for a pre and post-conversion inspection and complete the project within six months. Click here for full details on program requirements.
In August 2010 Cynthia met with Ms. Chris Finch, EBMUD representative for the lawn conversion program, who conducted the pre-conversion inspection. Chris verified the square footage of the area to be converted and explained the process. The first step seemed counterproductive: a month before planting time start soaking the lawns for 20 minutes a week. This was necessary to activate the soil microbes gone dormant over the dry summer.
"A 'bank account' of water in the soil is necessary", Chris explained, "so plants enter a living, active environment - not dormant soil."
Chris also recommended Cynthia and Dave start the landscape design process by determining their preferences (plants, hardscape, or a combination), familiarizing themselves with drought tolerant plants, and then selecting plants they liked that would also thrive in their particular microclimate, in this case Danville in the San Ramon Valley. Cynthia said the EBMUD publication Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry climates of the San Francisco Bay Region was invaluable during the learning and plant selection process. EBMUD also has a resource list of local nurseries, demonstration gardens, classes and events, and books where you can learn about and view native plants. Additionally, some local nurseries will design a lawn conversion planting plan for a fee and then rebate the fee as credit toward plants purchased. (Click here to investigate East Bay nurseries that offer significant "Tear Out Your Lawn" challenge discounts and free consultations.)
During the pre-conversion inspection Chris also offered advice on which existing plants to leave in place and those best removed. As Cynthia explained, the goal of the conversion is not to strip out all existing plants but to integrate those that work into the new, drought-resistant design.
During the month their lawn was receiving its weekly soak, the Ruzzi's asked friends and neighbors to save newspapers and went "dumpster diving" in search of cardboard to use for the sheet mulching. This is an all-important step in the conversion process because the sheet mulch kills the lawn and suppresses further weed growth while improving soil nutrients and structure and encouraging favorable microbial activity. Sheet mulching is also a wonderful labor saver because it spares you the hard work of actually tearing out the lawn. Cynthia did offer one warning. If your lawn is full of tree roots you may have to do some additional digging or rototilling to rid the area of roots before you can lay down an effective mulch covering. (Click here to learn more tips for sheet mulching success.)
Once the sheet mulch was down Cynthia and Dave covered it with three to five inches of compost, purchased from EcoMulch of Martinez, to create the actual growing environment for their plants. Shoveling and transporting over 14 yards of compost by wheelbarrow between the front and back yards was definitely the most labor-intensive exercise of the landscape transformation! But top mulching is an non-negotiable requirement to receive the EBMUD rebate. There can be no bare earth left in the landscape.
After the compost came the installation of over 60 new, drought-resistant native plants and the transformation was complete. The unsightly and boring lawns were gone and in their place was a tidy and attractive landscape of plants, shrubs, and trees. Chris came out for the final inspection and measured to ensure the top mulch met the minimum required depth and that the plantings fulfilled the other program requirements. The Ruzzi's landscape passed inspection and they received the full $500 rebate!
Cynthia offered some tips for a smooth and successful conversion. EBMUD does not insist that homeowners install mature-sized plants and most landscape experts will tell you to leave plenty of room between plants to allow for growth. The top mulch ensures the area does not look barren because it provides a natural appearance. But check with your homeowner's association first to ensure they don't have limitations on the amount of bare space you can have in your yard.
Also, be aware that the rebate is 0.50 per square foot up to a maximum of 1,000 square feet so your rebate will depend upon the total area converted. Lastly, the rebate is paid as a credit against your water bill, so you can't count on cash "up front" to help pay for materials.
Check into EBMUD's lawn conversion program to see if it will work for you. Now is the best time of year to take advantage of the free rainfall irrigation and also an excellent time to plant since most shrubs are going dormant for the winter - putting their efforts into building a hardy, healthy root system that will support a plant ready to thrive when the Spring rebirth occurs!