On Sunday, May 1, the Bringing Back the Natives Garden Tour will open 50 gardens in the East Bay for free tours. Tours include guides, who along with the garden owners can answer questions and point out subtle features of the gardens; at some gardens, plants will be available for purchase or for free. The gardens are maintained with minimal supplemental water—some get no irrigation at all, just our usual winter rain—and also minimal or no pesticides. This fosters a lively ecosystem; many gardeners have long lists of the wildlife they encounter in their gardens, from mammals to birds and butterflies. Thirteen of these gardens are in Berkeley, and for an example of the range of possibilities in a California native plant garden, here are three.
Barbara Thompson lives in a house in Claremont; flowing through her front yard is a good stretch of Harwood Creek, and she has some mature liveoaks too. Owning such a piece of ground carries with it certain responsibilities, and she is living up to them—and honoring her creek, oaks, and living system. She’s had native plants installed in lots of the yard—and gone organic in her garden care, which natives makes easier, as they’re adapted to the place where they live and at least the native insect population there. This reduces the pollution load washing into the creek. And there are plants on the steep banks, the ones that aren’t city-built retaining walls, to control erosion. Most are natives, so they prosper without a lot of watering or feeding.
The effects of all this care include healthy populations of dragonflies and Pacific chorus frogs. These can, paradoxically enough, work against each other, as the dragonfly larvae eat tadpoles. So Barbara has pressed a nonworking aquarium tank into service, shading it and screening it from dragonflies and raising a batch of tadpoles to froghood.
The contractor who built the garden’s street fencing included windows so passersby can have a look at the creek and its life—including one window at a height suitable for children or wheelchair riders.
West of there, in my own flatlands neighborhood, are two gardeners with different approaches, and I like both. They have yards of roughly similar sizes, and they’re both named Schneider, though they aren’t related.
Christine Schneider is a landscape architect who knows her plants, and her birds, bugs, and other critters too. Her day job is about wildlands restoration, and she applies what she’s learned there as well as back in architecture school to her home landscape.
Behind a pre-existing boxwood hedge is a pleasant gravel surround for a big native grass clump, set in a raised circle of stacked flagstones like an arrangement in a vase. The gravel, an illusory pond that replaced a real, too-shallow pond, is bordered by native grasses, poppies, iris, and other droughty greens, and native shrubs including a favorite of mine, fuchsia-flowered gooseberry, against the house. These mesh well with several scattered fans of German iris in a striking shade of blue, all propagated from her original plant.
Through the back gate is a visual surprise, as it opens onto a yard that looks acres-deep because of Christine’s eye for rhythm and illusion. To the right is her “token lawn,” an Italian stone pine, and fruit trees, backed by a couple of veggie beds whose wooden sides are hidden by the mass of flowers, native and not, in their curved bed. A wisteria reached over the fence from a neighbor’s yard; other wisterias drape the cottage in back and the deck on the house. To the left, running up to that deck, is an oval bed of bluish grass mounds—native and not watered in summer—and their mostly-native border of monkeyflower, iris, ceanothus, manzanita and more. There’s a young alder, planted by the deck for gentle visual screening and for a more practical purpose: A finger of Derby Creek runs under the yard, and Christine has hired the tree to suck up excess water.
“This is the barbeque ‘room’,” she said, gesturing by the edge of the bunchgrass oval. “And over there is the sipping-wine-and-watching-the-sunset ‘room.’” Her natives dominate the yard, while harmonizing with the few exotics she’s planted because she just plain likes them. “They all play well with others,” she said, laughing. They also bloom in sequence, so there’s always some color happening. It’s an inviting space—to local wildlife as well, the finches and butterflies that pass through as we stroll the garden. And of the whole thing, it’s only the right side of the backyard—and a few pet Japanese maples—that get summer water.
A few blocks north, Glen Schneider has a garden with a completely different look, one oddly familiar to those of us who take off for the parks and wildlands when we can. Behind a white fence, his front yard is a perfect example of a wild East Bay meadow: bunchgrasses, Douglas iris, several grand cow parsnips, a couple with flower stalks starting up. Cow parsnip is that big soft green plant with white umbels of flowers like giant Queen Anne’s lace, over mapley-shaped leaves. It’s a signal of place—our place. Tangled among the iris leaves are a rambling California rose, some native currants, poppies, and a scatter of other denizens of Berkeley’s wild spots.
Beside the house, next to the former driveway, is a small veggie garden, and a thornless raspberry is trained along the fence. Glen has a bed at the end of the yard with five kinds of garlic, too; he’s no purist ascetic. The back yard is another meadow, just a bit sunnier, with clarkias, more grasses and meadow flowers, sagebrush, and blue elderberries. Behind the shed is a ramada topped with dried leafy branches, a picnic table and a ten-by-ten patch of California forest understory under the bordering Lombardy poplar. A monster manroot and a native grape climb the poplar, and more woods plants nestle in the space.
There are a couple of soaproots out in the sun, and I’ve rarely seen them this big. This is a quietly nifty plant, with long wavy-edged leaves rising from a bulb that the pre-European folks here used for food, soap, and—dried—for brushes. It has a central stalk of little white flowers that most of us rarely see, because it blooms at night—actually, it’s “vespertine,” Glen tells me, blooming from about 5 p.m. till past midnight.
Now, that’s something most of us have to spend the night in a tent to see. And quite a bit of the insect life and the 44 bird species in this yard’s list need some sitting quietly, just being there, to see. Aside from wanting to see what the lost parts of the East Bay once looked like, the deep-soil flatlands of which so little is left undisturbed, Glen has arranged this space as a sort of permanent field trip.
In a mere three of this tour’s 50 gardens, we can see three completely different looks, feel three contrasting moods. Barbara Thompson has saluted a bit of original California flowing through her garden. Christine Schneider has extended her house by two or three welcoming outdoor rooms, bringing herself and her family out to a bit of local Nature. And Glen Schneider has brought local Nature to his doorstep, where he can sit on the steps with breakfast and be in the real world.
Register for the free tour—you need to register to get the maps—at www.bringingbackthenatives.net/ or for more information, call Kathy Kramer at 236-9558 between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m.