Free lawn conversion program starts in Rohnert Park, Cotati

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David Grundman was determined to do away with the 1,600-square-foot lawn behind his Rohnert Park home, but the size of the job, not to mention the cost, was daunting.

“It’s gonna be a lot of work,” he thought.

Then came an email announcing a free lawn conversion program offered to Rohnert Park and Cotati residents and funded by the Sonoma County Water Agency, coincidentally Grundman’s former employer, and he signed up.

On Tuesday morning, Grundman stood on his backyard deck as a crew of seven able-bodied young men dug up turf around the lawn’s perimeter and spread wheelbarrow loads of mulch and dark brown compost over the grass surrounding a large mulberry tree.

“No cost sounds good to me,” the retired engineer said.

Grundman was the first beneficiary of a new, multipronged mission to save water and reduce fire risk undertaken by the Sonoma County Youth Ecology Corps, a jobs program administered by the county Human Services Department that partners with dozens of local public agencies and nonprofit organizations.

In addition to the landscape conversion program, corps workers will provide the muscle for a wood- chipping program to eliminate brush that rural residents have cleared from around their homes and help county parks crews clear dead wood and brush along trails and roads.

The parks work will start after fall rains dampen Hood Mountain Regional Park, followed by work next year at Stillwater Cove and the following year at Shiloh Ranch park, said Bert Whitaker, county parks manager.

Rural residents who qualify for the wood chipping program have been sent postcards and those who have not received one may apply online at sonomacounty.ca.gov/FES/Fire-Prevention/Chipper-Request/.

The new programs were authorized by the Board of Supervisors, which also acts as the Water Agency’s board of directors.

Landscape conversion involves the “lawn lasagna” technique to kill the grass while creating a nutrient-rich mulch for planting drought-tolerant vegetation. Hauled in from two piles on the street in front of Grundman’s home in Rohnert Park’s D Section, the workers spread a 1-inch layer of compost over the grass, then covered it with two layers of recycled cardboard that arrived in 250-foot rolls.

The cardboard — which acts as the lasagna “noodle” — blocks light, killing the grass and vastly reducing the amount of turf to be dug up, hauled away and replaced with new topsoil, said Kellen Watson, project manager with Daily Acts, the nonprofit group collaborating with the Water Agency. Atop the cardboard went a 3-inch layer of mulch, which gave off steam as the workers shoveled it up.

Doing some quick calculations on her smartphone, Watson said the back yard, with drip irrigation applied to water-thrifty plants, would save 19,200 gallons of water a year compared to a conventional lawn.

“That’s great,” said Ann DuBay, a Water Agency spokeswoman who came by to check out the program’s first job.

The agency earmarked $75,000 for the lawn conversion pilot program’s first eight weeks of work, which quickly registered 35 Rohnert Park and Cotati residents and now maintains a waiting list, DuBay said.

Grundman said he was happy to see the grass get buried. “I don’t use it other than to mow it,” he said.

About 18 months ago, he replaced his front lawn with drought-tolerant landscaping, doing the job himself.

The work done Tuesday involved about $1,000 worth of compost, cardboard and mulch and would have cost about $3,000 if done by a commercial landscaper, Watson said.

What Grundman plants in the yard after it starts to rain is up to him, and DuBay said that the UC-sponsored Sonoma County Master Gardeners program would provide a free consultation. The conversion program includes capping of most lawn sprinkler heads, leaving only the ones that would be connected to a drip system.

Calvin Bartholow, 20, one of the ecology corps crewmen wearing a bright green hard hat, said he appreciated his role as one of the program’s 140 workers, age 16 to 24, who are paid $9 to $11 an hour, depending on skill and experience.

“I needed a job,” said Bartholow, who attended Maria Carrillo and Ridgway high schools and is enrolled in a computer science class at Santa Rosa Junior College.

The Youth Ecology Corps, started in 2009, had employed 1,325 young adults through last year.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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