OAKLAND -- By now, many Bay Area gardeners have caught on to the benefits of growing California native plants in their gardens. They recognize the common sense of a low-maintenance, low-water-needs garden that attracts wildlife, doesn't require pesticides and brings the wild-lands look into personal spaces.
On May 5, native plant pros and newcomers alike can widen their knowledge and meander through native plant gardens on the ninth annual "Bringing Back the Natives Garden Tour," a self-drive tour to 40 gardens scattered across Alameda and Contra Costa counties.
There's something for each lot size and budget, from expansive hillside parcels to small lots in the flats; and from gardens designed by professionals to those where homeowners have completed the steps from beginning to end. Garden styles vary from restoration gardens using local native plants to those with species from throughout California.
The process to participate in this free tour is easy. Registration is through the tour website, and organizer Kathy Kramer recommends doing that early in order to receive the garden guide. The next step is to check out the gardens you want to visit.
"Look at the photos of each garden, read the descriptions and look at the plant lists," Kramer said. "Make good decisions about what gardens to visit and print out the plant lists to take with you."
The tour represents an opportunity to learn as well as view. Throughout tour day, more than 50 free talks will discuss how to care and select California natives, lower water bills, attract bees, butterflies and birds and even design your own low-maintenance garden.
A two-day plant shopping opportunity, on May 4-5, will combine a plant sale extravaganza with the advice of knowledgeable staff at numerous nurseries around the bay, including Oakland's East Bay Wilds.
New this year are five select tours for gardeners who want an in-depth look in a specific area. Scheduled from April 6 through May 19, they include two hands-on workshops, removing a lawn by sheet mulching and installing a drip irrigation system; and a tour for gardening with nature in mind and a meet the do-it-yourselfers tour to three gardens.
There are four Oakland gardens on the tour. The Oakland hills garden of two next-door-neighbor sisters, Cherie Donahue and Sue Duckles, tells of a family history of appreciating nature and helping it to thrive.
Donahue purchased her childhood home from her mother and, 15 years ago, Duckles bought the house next door. Removing the divider fence created a two-third-acre hillside that is 100 percent native.
"What's really different about this garden is that it has been planted with genetically local native plants," Kramer said.
Before the hidden native species could begin to thrive, the sisters had to remove ivy that had totally invaded the land. "There was ivy up and over the slope and covering the crowns of trees; it had invaded everything," Donahue said. "But if you take off the ivy, guess what comes back? All of these natives."
Tourgoers will be treated to hazelnut, manzanita, California lilac and buckeye, eight different kinds of ferns, Douglas iris, redwoods planted by their father, and blooming red trillium, a favorite of their mother.
Sue Duckles has kept a log of every plant she has planted, many of which did not survive, and she considers the entire, ongoing experience one of learning and appreciation.
"Every spring time, it just takes my breath away," Duckles said. "I come out here and it's like a renewal; a renewal of our childhood and the whole cycle of life."
Even after nine years Kramer continues to advocate for gardening with native plants and with more than 6,000 expected tour goers this year, it's clear that the word is spreading across the Bay Area.
The "Bringing Back the Natives Garden Tour" will be from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. May 5. The event is free, but donations are requested at www.bringingbackthenatives.net.
Exclusive, guided tours of inspirational native plant gardens will be offered in April and May at $30 per person per tour. Those interested are advised to choose tours carefully because there are no refunds or exchanges. For more information about the special tours, go to www.bringingbackthenatives.net/select-tours.
Native plant sales will be held from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. May 4 at East Bay Wilds, 2777 Foothill Blvd., Oakland (the entrance is on 28th Avenue).