"I really just wanted to do something different with it (the front garden), something really easy," Chesavage, a Master Gardener whose Middlefield native and edible gardens are featured on this year's Going Native Garden Tour on Sunday, April 21, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
So after remodeling her Palo Alto home six years ago, she turned to low-maintenance, low-water natives to populate her front yard.
Chesavage designed and installed the garden herself, beginning with one initial seeding, scattering poppies and elegant clarkia around the edge of the garden. Other plantings — a manzanita tree with delicate clusters of purple blossoms, salvias with tall shoots of purple among orange poppies, aster plants spreading green tendrils low to the ground — follow the border of the property toward the back yard. The front yard's central area, the risen mound surrounded by a flagstone path, is planted with three native lilac verbena plants.
Though Chesavage hand-watered the native plants at first, it was infrequent: once a week the first year they were planted, once every other week the second year and once every third week the third year. The fourth year? She didn't water at all.
Though the "going native" philosophy revolves around sustainability and ecological awareness, Chesavage is more about ease and simplicity.
"If I did water them, some of them would probably look a little nicer, but I'm all about not having to mess with them," Chesavage said.
The plants in the central mound grow from Chesavage's homemade compost. This year's bounty has bits and pieces of oyster shells, which provide a calcium boost to help plant growth.
Also essential to plant growth for the edibles on the mound is water. The mound is hooked up with bubble sprinkler heads that can be moved to distribute water directly where it's needed. They're currently placed near tomato plant bulbs, so the vegetables get enough water without over-watering the rest of the mound.
"It's kind of a low-water use way of doing vegetables," Chesavage said.
The key to a successful native garden is not putting too many plants in one spot, she added.
"When we first put in the garden we had a garage sale out front and there was this landscaper who came by and was like, 'Low plant budget, huh?'
"It went from looking kind of like a scrawny little native garden," she said. "Six years later, it's huge."
With wildflowers and natives, Chesavage has to weed a few times in the spring, but other than that, the garden is left to flourish on its own.
She said the end of March is when the natives are most "glorious," but many will be still blooming come tour time.
But the garden's plentiful sun exposure was begging for more than natives.
Chesavage refers to the prize sunny spots in her back and front gardens as "prime sun estate."
"Most front yards are like this — they have tons of sun," Chesvage said. "So if you can design a front garden that accepts edibles, even in the midst of things you wouldn't normally put edibles in the midst of, it works out great."
Chesavage propagates many of the plants herself in a small greenhouse in a back corner of her back yard. She's currently growing some of her favorite tomato varieties there, which will eventually head to warmer soil in the front yard.
The edibles in front are an extension of the entirely edible backyard garden, which will also be open on the day of the tour.
To the left of a small lawn planted with dwarf tall fescue, a low-water use grass, are wooden raised planter beds where lettuce, collard greens, beets, asparagus, strawberries and more grow. There's also an avocado tree, citrus trees, a passion fruit vine, three kinds of grapevine, an Asian pear tree and a charming 20-year-old apple tree that toppled over sideways in wet ground, grew at a 45-degree angle and is now perfect to pick from.
Beyond those plantings is Chesavage's greenhouse, worms and composting and a chicken coop that houses six friendly chickens.
The back yard is also home to a curry tree, a goji berry bush and a hardy kiwi plant that Chesavage ordered online because it's hard to find at nurseries.
One side yard is part-sun and part-shade, perfect for growing blackberries. The other side yard, which connects to the front native garden, boasts kiwis, blueberries, a "Nancy Garrison" passion fruit vine (propagated by and named for the founder of Santa Clara County's Master Gardener program, Chesavage's friend) and some lively neighbors — bees. A beekeeper from out of the area who sells honey at the Palo Alto Farmers Market keeps his beehives in the side yard. In exchange, Chesavage's family gets fresh honey.
Chesavage said her husband claims she's "'defected to the dark side' from being a front-yard native purist," but her gardens showcase the possibilities of native and edible coexistence.
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What: Going Native Garden Tour
When: Saturday, April 20, and Sunday, April 21, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Where: 62 gardens in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, including four in Palo Alto, two in Mountain View, one in Portola Valley, one in Woodside and five in Los Altos
Info: Go to www.goingnativegardentour.org to register and get a complete list of gardens on tour; registration closes April 21 at 3 p.m. or when tour fills. Once registered, visitors will be informed of the house addresses.
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