When Alex Von Feldt and her family moved to Portola Valley in 2001 they loved the big lawn that came with their house -- that is, until the water bill arrived.
Local residents can learn how Von Feldt and her family cut their water bills in half by replacing much of their lawn with native plants, and how to do the same thing themselves, at workshop sponsored by Acterra in Palo Alto's Foothills Park on Jan. 16.
The class will also include information on rebates offered by the Santa Clara Valley Water District to help pay for replacing lawns with native plants.
A few years after moving to Portola Valley, and after spending many hours hiking in the Peninsula's nature preserves, Von Feldt decided to swap some of her lawn for less-thirsty native grasses she had admired on her hikes. With her husband pitching in, she removed sod and planted plugs of native grasses.
The project was so successful that two years later she replaced a much larger section of lawn with a meadow of grasses, perennials and shrubs -- all natives.
"After studying nature for a while and seeing what type of meadows I enjoyed I tried to replicate it as much as possible," she said. "After the second summer, we basically didn't have to water at all."
She also said goodbye to her gardening service. "Since I've replaced my lawns I've been able to do all the maintenance in my yard myself," she said. Her two young children, now aged 6 and 8, and her dog love to play in the meadow as well, she said.
Von Feldt, who is on Acterra's board of directors, will speak at the four-hour hands-on workshop. In addition to hearing about the advantages of native plantings over lawn, participants will tour Acterra's native-plant nursery. They will also get their hands dirty planting natives into a section of former lawn in the park and use wood chips and cardboard to sheet-mulch another section of lawn so it can be converted in the future.
Information will be available on how to water and maintain a native garden and how to plant "native lawns" using local grasses and non-grass species such as yarrow that conserve water and reduce pesticide and herbicide use.
Deanna Giuliano, manager of Acterra's native-plant nursery, and another workshop teacher, said participants should go home with a wealth of knowledge. "They can learn which natives local to our area they can use. That way they can bring beneficial insects to their gardens," she said.
That's exactly what happened after Von Feldt transformed her yard.
"Its just amazing the amount of insects that come to it," she said. There are native bees she'd never seen before, butterflies and more.
The insects that appear after planting natives can also help existing plantings remain healthy, Guiliano said. "Natives and vegetables can work really well together because you're actually bringing in beneficial insects for the garden," she said. "If you get the insects you'll also get the birds."
There's more. Guiliano said native plantings can help with erosion control. "Native bunchgrasses also help sequester carbon," she said. Even plant junkies who worry natives might prove boring can rest assured, she said, promising "quite an array" of interesting flashy natives in addition to basic plant choices.
Another workshop teacher is William Mutch, Acterra's chief preserve steward and an expert on permaculture, which Mutch describes as a "toolbox of sustainable living techniques." Mutch will show how sheet mulching allows a lawn to be replaced without digging it up and disturbing the underlying soil ecosystem.
"You have this thing, a lawn, that could be seen as a problem; and when you apply the principles of permaculture, it becomes part of the solution," he said. "It essentially turns the lawn into compost."
Arnie Thompson, who is director of Acterra's San Francisquito Watershed Project will also help lead the workshop. Thompson said replacing lawn with local native plants offers many benefits to the local ecosystem. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which often end up in the local streams and the bay, are not needed. Native plants local to our areas also thrive because they are well adapted to local conditions, Thompson said.
Participants in the workshop will see Acterra's native plant nursery, which is normally open to the public by appointment only. More than 20,000 plants are grown in the nursery each year, almost all of them native to the surrounding watershed area. The nursery, which has slowly been expanding since it moved into Foothills Park in winter 2003, now not only provides plants for Acterra's restoration projects but also grows natives for other public agencies such as the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District and local farmers. Plants from the nursery are also sold at the twice yearly California Native Plant Society sales held at Hidden Villa.
Workshop participants will also learn about the rebate programs being offered by the Santa Clara Valley Water district. Homeowners are eligible for up to $75 per 100 square feet of lawn replaced with specified native plants or with permeable hardscape such as gravel pathways. The water district is also offering rebates for the installation of water-conserving irrigation equipment.
The city of Palo Alto and some other communities will double some rebates. The program ends June 30, 2010 or earlier if funds are exhausted.
In the end, however, despite all the advantages to the environment and for the pocketbook, Von Feldt said she has an even more simple reason for loving her native garden.
"It is just so much more beautiful and enjoyable," she said. "It is what California is meant to be."
What: Lawn Conversion to Native Landscape workshop
When: Saturday, Jan. 16, noon to 4 p.m.
Where: Acterra Native Plant Nursery, Foothills Park, 3300 Page Mill Road (The nursery is located off the end of the road past the interpretive center in Foothills Park, near the Oak Grove Picnic area.)
Cost: $30 ($15 for students, $20 for Acterra members)
Info and registration: Call Acterra at 650-962-9876 ext. 311, or visit Acterra; more information on the Santa Clara Valley Water District rebate program is available at Landscape Rebate Program. Bring lunch.