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Laura Spain, of Concord, stands in front of her California native garden at her home in Concord, Calif., on Friday, March 30, 2012. Spain states that her garden is 80 percent native. Spain's garden will be part of the 8th annual Bringing Back the Natives Garden Tour. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Staff)

When clocks are switched to daylight-saving time and days lengthen, warm temperatures and new green growth lure us back outside. Walks in East Bay Regional Parks adorned with spring wildflowers and budding shrubs turn our attention to creating something similar in our own outdoor spaces.

Kathy Kramer, organizer of the eighth annual Bringing Back the Natives Garden Tour, would love to help homeowners toward a new type of garden, one that is pesticide free, conserves water, provides habitat for wildlife and contains 60 percent or more native plants.

On Sunday, May 6, Kramer's free, self-guided driving tour will feature 43 Contra Costa and Alameda County gardens. Among those, 15 are in Central and East County, from Antioch to Livermore and Orinda to San Ramon.

Between garden visits, questions to homeowners and more than 50 talks offered throughout the day, participants will learn to select and care for native plants; lower water bills and design low-maintenance gardens that attract butterflies, birds and bees.

"The tour is inspiring and educational. People are exposed to different garden designs and uses of native plants," Kramer said. "It's a really fun day."

The tour website is an ideal starting point. Here one can view the tour gardens and look over lists of native plant nurseries and designers. Those who complete the online registration receive the 80-page garden guide necessary for tour participation.


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Contra Costa residents looking to lower water bills may be interested that several garden hosts will have their water bills on display. Along the same water conservation lines, the Concord garden of Laura Spain is a result of the Contra Costa Water District's Lose the Lawn and Grow a Garden program. Spain received a $500 rebate to remove her lawn and plant natives.

Several native plant nurseries will have plant sales Saturday, May 5, and Sunday, May 6, including Middlebrook Gardens Nursery in Pleasanton.

"When asked what they want from the tour, 75 percent say they want to learn how to select native plants," Kramer said. "Secondly, 55 percent want to learn how to conserve water."

The 15 Contra Costa gardens range from large hill lots to small front gardens and include those designed and installed by professionals and homeowners.

In Antioch, Valerie and Harry Thurston's concern about the environment led them to have Michael Thilgen transform their 1,200-square-foot front yard into a wildlife haven of purple sages, sea lavenders, penstemon and red-flowered native fuchsia. A burbling fountain is a focal point as are manzanita and coffeeberry that flow down a gentle slope.

In Concord, Judy Sherwood chose a natural design for her large garden, one that includes several attractive water features and a dry streambed. She selected plants as potential bee, bird and butterfly habitats and food sources.

"I got into native plants for the ecology, but it is also less work," she confided.

Laura Spain's Concord garden also was designed to attract wildlife, and her milkweed plants draw hummingbirds, bees and Monarch butterflies. Wide garden beds are bordered by rocks and flower colors flow from pink manzanita, creamy yarrow and red fuchsia to bright orange monkeyflowers.

Erik and Shellie Jacobson wanted to replicate their favorite hiking landscapes in their Walnut Creek garden in a less-is-more design. They choose grasses, rushes and rosy buckwheats for their sunny front yard. With additional manzanita, redbud, madrone, coffeeberry and sages, the Bay Area natural landscape was complete.

Two Pleasanton gardens are neighbors and one, that of Ward and Pat Belding, provided inspiration for Colleen Clark's garden. The Beldings replaced their 1,700-square-foot front lawn with hot-climate manzanita, coffeeberry, fuchsia, buckwheat, California lilac and three fountains that are bird favorites.

Next door, visitors to Clark's garden will feast their eyes on spring annuals that include buttercups, cream cups and clarkia, and perhaps spot a hummingbird visiting monkeyflowers or cooling off in the fountain's tumbling water.

In Lafayette, the .3-acre backyard of Claire and Bill Gilbert has progressed in stages since 2000. Its parklike setting contains an oak-bay garden on a slope and natives arranged into chaparral, oak woodland and riparian areas. A three-tiered waterfall, pond and nearby bog attract a wide variety of birds and other wildlife.

The Lafayette garden of Mary and Michael Jennings was designed by son, Michael, into a peaceful oak-bay woodland where mulched paths end at Old Jonas Creek. Honeysuckle, mugwort and ferns share the garden with a variety of berry plants that attract birds, while toads, frogs and salamanders enjoy secluded niches.

Kramer notes that every year 50 percent of her 7,000 registrants are new to the tour.

"So that's 3,500 people who are just getting exposed to native plants," she said. "I hope to continue educating people about the many values that native plants provide."

if you go
WHAT: Free Bringing Back the Natives Garden Tour in Contra Costa and Alameda counties
WHEN: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday, May 6
INFORMATION: For details and registration, visit www.bringingbackthenatives.net