Click photo to enlarge
Tiven Racioppo, left, of Concord, Nancy Clancy, center, of Walnut Creek, and Arti Kirch, right, of Concord, all volunteers at the Markham Nature Park and Arboretum in Concord, look over all of the native plants, as they get ready for the "Bringing Back the Natives Tour" this spring in Concord, Calif., on Tuesday, April 1, 2014. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Bay Area News Group)

While taking a garden design class, landscape designer Kelly Marshall once heard a professor say, "There will be wars over water someday."

That stuck with her over the years.

Marshall, owner of Kelly Marshall Garden Design, has been removing her thirsty lawn, in stages, since 2005; now it is entirely gone.

"We wanted to transform our boring, thirsty front lawn into a water-conserving, native plant haven for wildlife," she recalled. "The challenge was to come up with something that still fit in with the neighborhood."

Marshall selected a hardy and colorful array of natives that could take Clayton's hot summers, added a fountain and strategically placed seating areas and paths, and the front garden became a place enjoyed by everyone in the family, and even the neighbors.

Wanting more planting 'real estate' and disliking the water-hogging back lawn more and more, Marshall recently convinced her husband, Mike, to finally let the lawn go. In its place she created a drought-tolerant meadow of bunchgrasses and flowering native perennials.

"I believe it's easy to have a low water consuming, sustainable garden here in California, if you choose the right plants to begin with," she said.

Registration is open for the free Bringing Back the Natives Garden Tour, which will take place Sunday, May 4, at various locations throughout Contra Costa and Alameda counties.

Participants on the free, self-guided event can choose from 35 showcase native plant gardens, and purchase plants from a dozen native plant nurseries.

More than 50 talks will be offered throughout the day. Registrants can learn how select and care for California native plants, lower water bills, design a low-maintenance garden, attract butterflies, birds and bees, and garden without using pesticides.

Inspired by the gardens they had seen on the tour, Clayton residents Karen and Jeremy Amos decided to sheet-mulch away their large, water-hungry front and back lawns. Much to their delight, they discovered that doing so cut their water bill in half. Marshall designed their new low-maintenance, water-conserving garden.

"We were thrilled to receive a $500 rebate from the Contra Costa Water District's 'Lose the Lawn and Grow a Garden program,'" said Karen Amos. "And since we installed the new garden ourselves, the cost of transforming the garden was pretty reasonable."

Carpenter bees are attracted to the sages in the Amos' new garden, while other native bees gravitate to the local milkweed.

"A family of quail live in the back garden," Karen Amos pointed out. "Our family loves watching the chicks parade along the boardwalk, then forage for seeds under the native shrubs."

The quail are protected from neighborhood cats by the family's dog, and a thicket that provides them with shelter.

The more than 100 species of native plants in Marshall's garden, the sound of splashing water, ample pond, and the diversity of seed-, berry- and pollen-bearing plants attract a variety of wildlife, from quail, owls, woodpeckers, bluebirds and more. To keep the birds safe, the family cat is kept indoors.

"It's paradise," said Marshall, whose garden is just two miles from the Amos stop on the tour. "I never thought our garden could be so beautiful, and also so easy to maintain."

IF YOU GO
WHAT: Bringing Back the Natives Garden Tour featuring gardens that are pesticide-free, water-conserving, provide habitat for wildlife, and contain 60 percent or more of native plants
WHEN: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday, May 4
WHERE: Self-guided at 35 locations throughout Contra Costa and Alameda counties
COST: Free with donations requested. Preregistration is required and will close when the tour reaches capacity, on or about April 26
INFORMATION: bringingbackthenatives.net

tour additions
Garden talks & music
  • Saturday, May 3, Markham Arboretum, 1201 La Vista Ave., Concord
    10:30 a.m. -- Top 10 plants for a native plant garden" by Kelly Marshall of Kelly Marshall Garden Design
    noon-1 p.m. -- Michael Thelen will play guitar and sing songs from '60s and '70s, like The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Neil Diamond, John Denver
  • Sunday, May 4
    Karen and Jeremy Amos' garden, Clayton
    11 a.m. -- "Save money, save time, and save water: How to lose your lawn, get a garden -- and get paid for it, too!" by Chris Dundon, water conservation supervisor from Contra Costa Water Conservation District
    noon -- "How to maintain a native plant garden" by Karen Amos
    Kelly Marshall's garden, Clayton
    "How to transform your front garden into a place that is beautiful, water-conserving, and acceptable to the neighbors" by Kelly Marshall, of Kelly Marshall Garden Design
    Native plant sale
    extravaganza
    May 3-4. Visit Preview the Gardens at bringingbackthenatives.net to read garden descriptions, view photos, download plant lists. Workshops offered throughout spring