Finding bliss in the garden
Palo Alto landscapes to be featured in Going Native Garden Tour
"I'm trying to create these sacred spaces around my yard."
That is how Palo Alto resident Jocelyn Alexander describes her gardening approach. Two a half years ago, Alexander began to fill her front and back yards with native plants — a process she said awoke her love of gardening and has made her feel "closer to nature."
Alexander will be able to share that mindset with like-minded visitors on April 18 when her Lincoln Avenue home will be one of many stops on this year's Going Native Garden Tour. For the tour, 68 home gardens highlighting native plants in 12 Peninsula cities will be open to visitors who want to learn about native gardening.
Alexander's front yard is bisected by a brick path leading towards her doorstep. On either side, two slightly elevated areas are covered with various grasses, gently flowering bushes and small trees. A bench sits amidst these plants on one side, and a flagstone patio with a table and chairs sits closer to the house on the other one.
Steady sunlight has made the plants in her front yard grow faster than those in the back, Alexander said. She gave two particular examples of this growth — a recently added California Red Bud tree that is already beginning to show small crimson flowers and a tall patch of native grass stalks she said looks "just beautiful" swaying in the wind.
Alexander replaced her front-yard garden with native plants in order to "make it more natural looking," she said. The yard looked quite stereotypical beforehand, she said, with a flat, grass-covered lawn, "colorful, thirsty, non-native plants" like roses and hydrangeas and a white picket fence in front of the driveway.
This non-native garden brought her unwanted attention from neighbors — namely, hungry raccoons that repeatedly dug up the lawn in search of grubs, she said.
"I was feeding a family of raccoons! At first, I thought it was 'crop circles' from Palo Alto High School because my kids had just started there," she said.
Thankfully, the native plants made the raccoons lose interest and attracted her actual neighbors: Passersby often stop to talk about the garden or ask for clippings of her plants, she said.
A flagstone path passes underneath a large redwood tree on its way from the front-yard patio to the eastern side of Alexander's house. Forest-loving ferns, yerba buena and wild ginger have spread across the woodchips beneath that tree.
The path continues past her house into the back yard, where smaller plant beds are separated by straight concrete walkways. Many of the planted areas lie in the shadows of a large oak tree and a wooden veranda.
One of these planters contains California strawberries and California grapes. Several of the latter's vines have crept up and around one of the veranda's support posts and have begun to arch over the patio beneath. These fruits are just beginning to come into season, Alexander said.
"That's the wonderful thing. You get to watch these plants come back to life," she said.
Alexander is currently working a part of her back yard without any plants. Beneath the oak's thickest branches, a short stone wall surrounds a large, rounded, gravel-covered expanse. Inside the enclosure, smooth, palm-sized stones outline part of a maze, or "labyrinth," which Alexander said will eventually fill the entire enclosure.
Labyrinths Alexander had seen on vacation inspired the project, she said.
"I really wanted a labyrinth that I could walk around and meditate in ... I had this odd-shaped area in the back where the grass was way too soggy. I had kind of an 'ah-ha' moment," she said.
Visitors who complete the miniature maze will find a small bell to ring and several statues, she said.
"It should be done in time for the tour," she said.
April 18 will be the second time Alexander's garden has been on the Going Native Garden tour. More than 600 tour participants visited her garden last year, she said.
"They were the nicest, gentlest people. The energy of the people who came through — they want to appreciate the plants, and get ideas for their gardens at home," she said.
This year, she has enlisted her friend and neighbor Debra Szecsei to help display the garden to tour participants. A fellow native gardener, Szecsei's house was a stop on last year's tour. The two also share a landscaper, Alexander said.
Alexander hopes tour participants who visit her home will "just find peace and enjoy themselves," she said, but she also hopes they will be taken by "the beauty of native plants.
"People have an association of drought-resistant plants as being dry and unappealing ... There are times when it goes pretty dormant, (but) that becomes a special time when the plants go into themselves and rejuvenate," she said.
Overall, native plants have had a positive effect on her garden, she said. They require less water than normal plants — which has reduced her water bill — and they do not make soil too compact like typical lawn grass does.
"The great thing is my soil is getting better. In a couple of years, the worms will love it, the plants will love it," she said.
She also appreciates the garden's similarities to surrounding ecosystems, she said.
"It attracts so many different types of birds and butterflies. It's beautiful," she said.
Alexander spends about six hours per week maintaining the garden, she said. Young native plants often require plenty of attention while they adjust to their new environment, she said, but after two and a half years, her biggest challenge is learning to let her plants develop at a comfortable pace.
"I'm trying to be patient, but I'm really looking forward to watching everything grow. There is a lot of structure and form in the garden that ... will take a lot of time to mature," she said.
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What: Going Native Garden Tour 2010
When: Sunday, April 18, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Where: 68 Gardens in 16 cities, including 11 in Palo Alto, two in Mountain View and two in Menlo Park
Tickets: Register online at www.goingnativegardentour.org/php/reg1/php.
Info: Visit www.goingnativegardentour.org.
Editorial Intern Martin Sanchez can be e-mailed at email@example.com.