February’s plum blossoms have given way to March’s cherry blossoms and the streets and parks of San Francisco have put on their new spring outfits. Here at GFE, we have something to celebrate for the season; a beautiful new meadow installed in the outdoor classroom.
Last fall during the Get Up! program, one of the class projects was the removal of our small turf lawn. Although only 9 feet by 12 feet, our lawn demonstration has become obsolete in the 21st century. When originally installed, the lawn was a way to show San Franciscans that large lawns could be replaced with a small lawn and a combination of water-wise border plantings and patio areas for a big savings on irrigation requirements. Now, however, as climate change and population growth pressure our water resources, even a small turf lawn requires more water than we want to commit.
We built a new raised bed for food production with the old turf which had been cut up into squares for removal. First we excavated the new raised bed and installed gopher wire at the very bottom to prevent these rascals from stealing our crops. Next we laid the turf pieces upside down in the bottom of the bed to provide soil nutrients as they decomposed. These were covered with a sheet mulch of cardboard pieces with the edges well overlapping, to prevent the grasses from trying to grow again. The cardboard would also add to the decomposition process, adding nutrients to the bed. Finally we replaced the excavated garden soil, and covered everything with a thick layer of aged manure. This bed will provide a deep, fertile, and protected spot for growing edibles in the future.
Meanwhile, after some experimentation, we decided on a water-wise meadow as a replacement for the lawn area. The meadow would be created out of plants that could stand up to light foot traffic, and would include a pathway through the most walked-on route. We envisioned a combination of native bunch grasses, other grass-like plants, and a few tough groundcovers that would provide a sequence of bloom and color interest throughout the year.
Two of the students in the Get Up! class volunteered to follow through with the project, and the designing began. Renata Robinson and Sabina Nieto worked countless hours over the course of the winter, researching plants, attending lectures, poring over books, organizing brainstorming meetings with experienced designers, and talking to everyone who would be using the space to determine their needs and concerns. All that hard work resulted in a spectacular design for our space. With a budget of $300, Renata and Sabina went plant shopping, organized an installation date, and made the magic happen.
On the last weekend in March, as Renata and Sabina were putting the finishing touches on the new meadow, I had a chance to ask them about the experience. Here are some of the inspirational words I heard: “It’s a living design that you traverse… We’re trying to be smart about water and native plants… Birds and insects and wind move through it as well as people, so we tried to find a balance… We created multiple layers with different colors prevalent at different times of year, all in a very small space.”
Over the next few months, as the new meadow grows and knits together, it will receive regular watering and some protection from foot-traffic. By summertime, we hope that it will be able to stand up to light foot traffic, and less frequent watering. But by next year, most of the plants will need no additional summer water. To keep the whole meadow looking its best, and to help it thrive with the high usage it will get in the outdoor classroom, we will probably irrigate it on a schedule, perhaps once every two weeks.
This will be a huge water savings from a turf lawn that required much more frequent watering. It won’t need regular mowing and edging, nor will it require the constant fertilization that a turf lawn prefers. It will be sustainable for us and for the environment in a way that turf never could be. And it will add charm and seasonal beauties that turf never provides. It will inspire us by referring to the lovely meadows of Mt. Tamalpais and other nearby wild areas, and remind us that on our busy urban street corner, we are part of a much bigger web of natural life.
Many thanks to all the awesome students and volunteers who worked on different parts of this project, but especially to Renata and Sabina for an amazing new climate-appropriate, inspirational demonstration of what the GFE is all about.