Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - April 13, 2012

Show and tell

Two home tours promote sustainable gardening with native plants

by Eric Van Susteren / photos Veronica Weber

With its organic design and a miniature "meadow" filled with tall, overgrown-looking grass, Christine Holland Cummings' garden is a dramatic departure from the previous owner's sharp-lined lawn and classically cut hedges.

The plants in Holland Cummings' yard are mostly California natives — the tall tufts of grass are purple needle grass, California's state grass, and the majority of the flowers, shrubs and saplings surrounding it are also native to the state's biome.

Holland Cummings' yard and garden will be part of this year's local Going Native Garden Tour on April 21. The tour, which is organized by the California Native Plant Society's Santa Clara Valley Chapter, focuses on gardens that aim to use native plants to mitigate environmental damage caused by humans.

"The tour name is 'going native,' but the subtext is really 'environmentally friendly,'" said tour organizer Arvind Kumar. "Ninety percent of pollution in urban creeks comes from gardening chemicals — pesticides and herbicides running off gardens and ending up in the waterways."

Kumar said native plants don't need fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides. They also conserve water and provide habitat value for local fauna in the form of food, shelter and building material.

"It's a net plus for the environment — a different kind of gardening that positively contributes, not negatively impacts," Kumar said.

The tour has grown over the years so that it now encompasses two days, April 21 and 22, and a much larger area, stretching from south of San Jose to north of Palo Alto.

The focus of the tour is similar to that of the Bay-Friendly Garden Tour, which takes place in Alameda and Santa Clara counties on April 29. This tour promotes general sustainable gardening practices, such as using mulch and compost, and employing rainwater catchments and greywater systems.

"We really try to make the connection that what you put in your backyard eventually ends up in the bay," said Jennifer Ketring, the tour's regional organizer. "What you're doing should have a positive, rather than negative influence on the environment."

Holland Cummings' garden is specifically designed to hide and feed local fauna, such as birds, insects and voles.

The valley oak that casts a shadow over much of her backyard houses noisy acorn woodpeckers. Countless insects inhabit the tall grass in her backyard, which serve as snacks for her garden's voles and birds, such as the California towhee and the Rufous-sided towhee. The yard is also a haunt for the neighbor's cat, which likes to stalk the tall grass.

Though water conservation wasn't necessarily a goal, Holland Cummings said her plants don't take a lot of water to maintain. Holland Cummings also keeps a small, stone-lined depression that fills with rainwater for animals to drink. When the water dries up, it leaves behind salts that are useful "because everyone needs minerals."

Kumar said native plants conserve water because they're suited to California's dry, Mediterranean climate. The ubiquitous green-grass lawns in the United States are poorly suited for the California environment.

"That style of gardening is more appropriate for the East or the South, where the precipitation comes 12 months of the year," he said. "If you look at the weather patterns, all the water comes in three or four months of winter."

Aside from the grasses there are California poppies, the state flower; California buckeye; various types of manzanita bush and California myrtle, to name a few.

Not all the plants in Holland Cummings' garden are native. White roses hang from the trellis above her "poetry bower," where she and her husband sit in the shade and write. A pungent rosemary bush and a bed of edible plants — chard, fava beans and various herbs — line each side of her yard.

"There's some compromise," she said. "But mostly, anything not native goes in a container."

She said she tries to spend 15 minutes to a half hour each weekday weeding and might spend anywhere between an hour and six doing projects on the weekends.

Although a professional landscaping company designed most of her backyard, Holland Cummings created her front yard, which she said still needs some work before the tour starts.

"You can really tell the difference between the pro's work and mine," she said. "It's a valuable contrast for the people in the tour to see between the homeowner's work and the designer's."

Though she's long been interested in gardening and the environment, Holland Cummings said her original interest in restoring habitat to damaged areas attracted her to native-plant gardening.

"The people who do native gardening fill in the habitat in these enclaves. The philosophy is kind of to bring plants back where you can. Not only save water, chemicals and fertilizers but to provide shelter and food for animals," she said. "There are all kinds of ecological benefits from a tiny native garden."

What: Going Native Garden Tour

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, April 21

Where: Palo Alto, Los Altos, Mountain View, Sunnyvale and north

Cost: Free, self-guided tour

Info: www.goingnativegardentour.org

What: Bay-Friendly Garden Tour

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday, April 29

Where: Alameda and Santa Clara counties

Cost: $10 for a tour guidebook alone, or $35 for a guidebook, plus Bay-Friendly membership

Info: www.bayfriendlycoalition.org/GardenTour.shtml

Editorial assistant Eric Van Susteren can be emailed at ericvansusteren@paweekly.com.

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