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A Drought-Resistant Garden at LeConte

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday August 27, 2009 - 12:50:00 PM
LeConte parent Carly Strouse and her son Marlow Buettner—wearing a Superman cape—rake mulch in the school’s new garden Friday.
Riya Bhattacharjee
LeConte parent Carly Strouse and her son Marlow Buettner—wearing a Superman cape—rake mulch in the school’s new garden Friday.

When LeConte Elementary School students come back to school Sept. 2, they will have a brand new garden—one that is drought resistant, saves water and attracts plenty of butterflies. 

Last fall, a group of LeConte parents got together to redesign the school’s front yard, which had turned into quite an eyesore due to spotty maintenance. 

They decided to replace the overgrown weeds and a very high-maintenance water-soaking lawn with a low-maintenance garden that could also be used as an outdoor classroom. 

Help arrived in the form of volunteers, a large number of donated materials, a $2,500 donation from the LeConte Parent Teacher Association and a $5,000 grant from the home improvement chain Lowe’s. 

On Friday, parents, students and community members met outside the school to help plant the first saplings and lay down mulch. 

“It’s also called the ‘butterfly-hummingbird-bee, drought-resistant, water-conserving garden’,” said LeConte parent Jim Smith, referring to what the school hopes to achieve through the project. 

Smith, who is a professional landscaper, spent hundreds of hours planning and designing the project, even meeting with Berkeley Unified School District officials to figure out the best irrigation method. “We wanted to provide something that’s fun to look at,” Smith said. “Earlier we had a rectangular grass patch consisting of virtually nothing but dead grass. We wanted to bring in native plants—over 90 percent of plants are selected because they attract butterflies.” 

The butterfly is LeConte’s mascot, and the school has a Butterfly Garden right next to the new one on Russell and Ellsworth streets, which draws species such as the West Coast Lady, Cabbage White and Anise Swallowtail. 

Smith said that local butterfly expert Andy Liu, who lives in the neighborhood and has created several butterfly nurseries, researched what kinds of butterflies frequented the area before suggesting the plants. 

“We removed everything except two plants and a couple of the trees,” Smith said, looking around the neat little piece of land, which looked ready for planting. “When you walked by it before, you would go ‘Gee, it would take a lot of work to make it look good.’ It was hard work all right, but we are glad we did it.” 

Smith estimated material costs to be anywhere from $20,000 to $30,000. Most of the early foundation work was carried out with the help of laborers donated by three landscape companies—Scott Parker Landscapes Inc., Kavalski Garden Works and Brende & Lamb Tree & Shrub—owned by LeConte parents or families of school district employees. Berkeley Unified replaced one of the old trees with a Raywood Ash tree and donated the irrigation material and hauling equipment, which removed 15,000 pounds of soil and grass. 

Basia Lubicz, the LeConte PTA’s vice president of fundraising and grantwriting, said the school had applied for the Lowe’s Toolbox for Education grant in light of the state cuts to education funding. 

A desire to extend LeConte’s Farm and Gardening program gave rise to the idea of a drought-resistant teaching garden that would provide a “hands-on” experience for kids, said Lubicz as she donned her sun hat and started digging. 

“The district has to maintain the area, send the mow-and-blow guys, so we thought, ‘Why not save them some water and money?’” she said. 

Lubicz said the project also fit in with the East Bay Municipal Utility District’s goal to conserve water during a particularly challenging drought season. The school consulted with the agency during the planning process. 

LeConte parent Carly Strouse and her sons Gus and Marlow Buettner were the first to arrive to help lay down the mulch. 

As a couple of Lowe’s employees from the South San Francisco outlet joined her, wearing their signature red uniforms, things started moving faster, and soon a part of the garden had three new drought-resistant plants. 

“We want to help the school and the community,” said Strouse, raking the earth as Marlow jumped on the mulch. “It’s great to save water, and it’s a great learning tool.”