California's native plants are giving the classic lawn a run for its money.
Native plants save water, are low-maintenance, pesticide-free and support local ecology and wildlife.
One way to learn about native plants is through the Going Native garden tour, a free tour of more than 20 native-plant gardens in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. The self-guided tour, which was started in 2003, takes place on Sunday, April 19. Another 30 gardens mostly in south Santa Clara County can be toured on April 18.
Cindy Holstrom, a Los Altos resident, was already interested in native plants when she went on her first Going Native tour eight years ago. This year, for the first time, Holstrom is showing her garden.
"I like things in their natural places, and I liked the challenge of doing native plants," she said.
Gardeners of all levels of experience and expertise attend, she said. When she was ready to volunteer her garden for inclusion in the tour, representatives from the California Native Plant Society (Santa Clara Valley Chapter) came to make sure she had enough native plants to qualify.
Holstrom has done her own native-plant-garden renovations in segments. Her front yard, originally full of ivy and evergreen shrubs, was replanted five years ago. She did her backyard this last year, which once had a classic lawn.
The garden now is full of native plants and trees like Big Leaf Maple (Acer macrophyllum), Hummingbird Sage (Salvia spathacea), Wild Ginger (Asarum caudatum), Deer Grass (Muhlenbergia rigens) and Needle Grass (Nassella). She bought most of her plants from Yerba Buena Nursery in Half Moon Bay, Las Pilitas Native Plant Nurseries in Southern California, Summer Winds Nursery in Palo Alto and an online store called Annie's Annuals and Perennials (also in Richmond, California).
In the front yard, a path winds around a center mound of native plants, which can be seen from a red Adirondack-style bench. The center of the backyard, which is surrounded by a patio, a sandbox and a treehouse, consists of a mounded area for native plants that will eventually resemble a Californian meadow.
Holstrom said she expects her garden to hit full bloom in spring, in contrast to what she calls "East Coast gardens" that hit blooming peak in the summer.
At this point almost all of her garden is native plants, except for three 20- to 30-year-old redwoods, an apple tree and one of the original rose bushes. Though she is excited about native plants, she said it doesn't make sense to destroy beautiful plants or trees that are surviving.
Holstrom explained that native-plant transformation begins with placing cardboard or newspaper on top of a lawn or other existing plants, then piling soil, compost and mulch on top. This has multiple purposes: The suppressed lawn will die and enrich the soil. And the mulch will both keep the water in the soil and prevent seeds from neighboring gardens blowing in and growing.
Holstrom got her soil, mulch and compost from Lyngso, a garden store in Redwood City. She said that the main expense was the delivery of the materials. Santa Clara County offers a rebate for converting high-water-using landscape to low-water-using landscape. If the rebate is taken advantage of the native plant renovation pays for itself, she said. She decided not to use it, because of how long the process takes.
Eventually, the cardboard or newspaper will disintegrate contributing to the soil enrichment. A big part of appeal of native plants is that since they are in their element, they do not require much maintenance. Holstrom, at this point, does not water the mature plants in her front yard. The only exception is if a mature native plant is potted because the pot can heat up and dry the soil out faster.
The newer plants, in the back, require water in their first couple of years. Mostly, she waters when she thinks they look like they need it, recalling the last time they were watered and what the temperature has been lately. She might use a water meter, which resembles a large thermometer and is stuck into the ground to measure whether the soil is dry or wet, or just poke her finger in the soil. Holstrom usually waters her newer plants just before the meter indicates the soil is dry.
"I have a little bit of that principle of live or die on your own a little bit. If this is a good place for you to live as a plant ... whatever survives is in its right place," Holstrom said.
What: Going Native Garden Tour
When: Sunday, April 19, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Where: Gardens in Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Menlo Park, Mountain View, Palo Alto, Portola Valley, Redwood City and Woodside
Sponsor: California Native Plant Society (Santa Clara Valley Chapter) and UC Master Gardeners
Info: Pre-registration is required; register online (and get map) at Going Native Garden Tour