OAKLAND -- This year, it seems like everyone is talking about the drought.
People are aware of their water usage, acknowledging that a major portion goes into maintaining their lawns. What better way to consider reducing or eliminating lawns than by attending the Bringing Back the Natives Garden Tour on May 4.
Thirty-five gardens will open their gates to demonstrate water-wise, beautiful alternatives for East Bay gardeners.
During the free, self-driven tour, attendees will learn how to select and care for native plants, design low-maintenance, pesticide-free gardens, attract butterflies, birds and bees and lower their water bills.
The gardens, spread throughout Alameda and Contra Costa counties, all contain 60 percent or more native plants and range from large hillside properties to small lots in the flats.
As in past years, more than 40 talks will be offered at various garden sites throughout the day, and a two-day Native Plant Sale Extravaganza will be held at various nurseries that carry large quantities of hard-to-find California natives.
East Bay Wilds in Oakland will participate on May 3 and give a garden talk on using greywater in the garden.
New this year, in honor of the tour's 10th anniversary, is Music in the Gardens.
At 16 gardens and nurseries, attendees will be treated to Appalachian dulcimer, lutes, flutes, banjos and guitars; Renaissance and folk music; and the a cappella Berkeley Community Chamber singers.
Tour organizer Kathy Kramer advises tourgoers to preregister early and use the website to do their homework in choosing which gardens to visit.
"If people take the time to look at the garden descriptions and their locations and the photographs, plant list, they can make good choices about which gardens are going to help provide them with the best advice for their own gardens," Kramer said.
"If people do their homework in advance, they can really find the gardens that will either be of the most use or most interest to them."
Six of the Alameda County gardens are in the Oakland hills and range from established gardens to those newly installed.
Sisters Sue Duckles and Cherie Donahue have worked on restoring their two adjacent lots since 1951, creating a shaded back garden with oak, redwood, eight types of fern and local natives appearing on their own.
On tour day, flute duets will fill the air and Duckles will give a talk about transforming an ivy juniper garden to native plants.
Holly and Joe Maffei's native garden got its start in 1999, being installed in stages.
Today, the colorful back garden boasts curving flower beds that border a local native sod meadow; a bubbling fountain, chaparral plantings and a woodland area.
Renaissance music will be performed and several talks will be given including one on turf replacement and another on transitioning to a native plant garden.
Carol Baird and Alan Harper began restoring their 5-acre hillside garden in 2003 and it's now 100 percent natives in an oak woodland and stream restoration trail.
A must-see garden for those who have oaks, the garden teems with wildlife including lizards, butterflies, snakes and various birds.
Wildlife and humans will enjoy blues and folk music in the garden as well as talks on sudden oak death, oak-bay understory plants and restoring a native stream bed.
Central Coast Wilds will have native plants for sale.
Judy Schwartz and Rod Miller faced many challenges when they began installing their native plant garden in 2005, including the removal of 19 trees.
Today, their back garden includes towering oaks, Douglas iris, flowering currant, and coral bells, with narrow pathways leading to a gazebo with beautiful views of Mount Tamalpais.
A talk will be given on coping with clay soil and the couple will be accepting donations for native plants they have grown.
The garden of Tai Moses and Michael Kerner includes an entry, back and side gardens, installed in stages starting in 2010.
In the back garden, a native meadow is surrounded by a tapestry of California natives and Mediterranean plants while a low garden wall of repurposed terra-cotta chimney flutes are planted with a diverse collection of succulents.
Tourgoers can wander the garden to the background of banjo music and also hear a talk on designing with native plants.
The most recently installed garden is that of Carrie Knapp, whose 7,000-square-foot back garden was installed in 2012 in a sequence of garden spaces.
Under the shade of redwood and oak trees grow ferns, coral bells and currants, while a sunny slope contains a vegetable garden and small fruit orchard.
Baroque music on original instruments will be played and a talk on selecting an irrigation system will be presented.
When the tour first began native plant gardens were rare.
Ten years later, it is more accepted.
"With between 5,000 to 7,000 people on the tour every year, that means more than 50,000 people have been exposed to native plant gardens," Kramer said.
These people, among others, recognize their benefits and their qualities that display a sense of place that is uniquely Californian.
Bringing Back the Natives Garden Tour: May 4, free (donations requested), preregistration is required, registration will close when the tour reaches capacity, or on April 26, whichever comes first, http:/bringingbackthenatives.net.
Native Plant Sale Extravaganza: May 3-4; on May 3, there will be an 11 a.m. to noon garden talk on "Greywater for your Garden" by Christina Bertea of Greywater Action at East Bay Wilds, 2777 Foothill Blvd.