Temple Beth Abraham Gets a Biblical Garden

Richard Applebaum donates his time and materials to create an Old Testament garden at an Oakland temple with curated notes on the plants’ biblical significance.


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Gardener extraordinaire Richard Applebaum, here at his Castro Valley residence, is building a biblical garden at Oakland’s Temple Beth Abraham.

Photo by Pat Mazzera

Richard Applebaum reckons that he has probably created “tens of thousands” of gardens, although there is no way of knowing for sure.

The 68-year-old owner of East Bay Landscaping has been around since 1969. He has planted gardens for major commercial developments including CitiBank and Bank of the West, while also working on individual projects at historic homes in Piedmont and an ancient garden he’s designing in Oakland’s Oakmore district.

He loves pretty much every garden he creates. But one that he’s designing right now just might be his favorite: A biblical garden. Designed to grace an outdoor courtyard at Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland, it will have 50 or 60 species culled from the pages of the Old Testament. Applebaum belongs to the temple, which is along the MacArthur frontage road off Interstate 580. He hopes to finish the garden sometime this year.

Applebaum’s plant world hookups give him access to citrus, fig, myrtle, papyrus, hyssop, English lavender, lupine, saffron, pomegranate, grape vines, and more. And when he’s done, he plans to label each variety with its name and reference in the Bible to educate the community about their historic past. And he’s donating all his labor and materials for the project.

“Richard is just about giving, and giving of himself,” said the synagogue’s Rabbi Mark Bloom. “And we’re just so excited about the garden.”

As for Applebaum, he is characteristically humble about the research and effort it’s taking to pull off such a feat au gratis. “I’m just doing the work I love to do,” he said. “I keep planting. And I hope to keep getting better. My best work has yet to be born.”

Applebaum was born into a family of planters. He loves to point out his mother’s name was Rose. As a teen he began hand-mowing Southern California lawns for $1.50 a yard. He noticed that when he didn’t catch the clippings in a bag but took the time to cut the lawn twice, finely chopping the grass and sending it back to the ground, the lawns grew much healthier. That back-to-the-earth idea has stuck with him ever since, and Applebaum’s organic method of gardening, including his “grasscycling” theory, can be spotted on several Stopwaste.org brochures dating back a decade or so.

Until last year, Applebaum was cutting the lawn on his Castro Valley property with an old-fashioned push mower, until he ripped out his lawn by hand and replaced it with a drought-friendly landscape.

Applebaum graduated in the 1960s from UC Berkeley with an undergraduate degree in landscape architecture, with special focus paid to plant pathology and forestry. His bachelor’s also includes degrees in Spanish and chemistry. He holds a master’s in traffic engineering.

His company is headquartered in Union City and employs 90 people throughout the state. His staff members not only design gardens, but also are called on to install drainage systems; find out why trees get sick; and maintain properties, such as figuring out how to shore up a sinking apartment building in Berkeley.

On the weekends, Applebaum gives tours on the Cal campus, where there are dozens of ancient trees, some planted by foreign professors who came to teach at Berkeley.

“Plants are just so important in our lives,” Applebaum said. “Our world is made of plants that nourish animals and contribute to oxygen. What we wear comes from wool, leather, and cotton, all of which need plants. Everything in this world is based in plants. We need each other.”

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