As winter heads toward spring with little sign of rain, gardeners' thoughts turn to how to cope with drought conditions and how California native plants can be used in light of water-challenged seasons.

A good place to turn for suggestions and advice is the Regional Parks Botanic Garden in Tilden Regional Park in the Berkeley hills, where new manager Bart O'Brien has ideas for East Bay gardeners.

O'Brien has been on the job since Dec. 2, previously working as director of special projects for Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Southern California and having a long experience with native plant horticulture and conservation.

The garden has long attracted O'Brien, in part because its small 10-acre size does not reflect its diversity.

RPBG juniper lodge  seabluff  photo by Steve Edwards (2).jpg
RPBG juniper lodge seabluff photo by Steve Edwards (2).jpg

"This garden's site, collections and design make it a beautiful, compelling garden," O'Brien said. "There are more California native plants here and more types than just about anywhere else."

Having such a repository of low-water possibilities for the home makes the botanic garden a resource and O'Brien and staff have plans to increase the delivery of information to visitors.

First is the creation of a new, larger visitor center, one that will provide more space for its popular lecture series and will add new exhibits on interpreting plants in the collection. "There's not a lot of interpretive panels or big display boards in the garden. That makes the visitor experience more direct with the plants, but it also doesn't tell people as much as they could know," O'Brien said. "The increased size of the visitor center will provide people with all that additional information so they can get more out of their visit."

Another plan is to inventory the entire collection and augment where needed; in particular, focusing on rare and endangered plant species, particularly those of the local region.

"In California one-third to one-quarter of all our native plants are endangered at some level and we also have the greatest plant diversity in the nation," he said. "So this is a good thing to be focused on."

With stewardship of such an important part of California's flora, the garden's staff has been watering over the past few months, attempting to simulate winter rainfall that native species are accustomed to, winter being the time plants absorb and bank water to get through long, dry summers.

O'Brien recommends the same procedure for home gardeners, explaining that often untrained eyes may fail to notice plant stress from lack of water.

"A lot of trees may be stressed and that enables plant pests or pathogens to move in and kill them off," he said. "Sometimes plants won't flower or flower very little and then won't set any seeds. Others will produce lots of flowers and set lots of seeds because they realize that this is likely it."

Seeing this drought year as a sign of climate change, O'Brien speaks up about the benefits of native plants for landscaping in our dry Mediterranean climate, noting that California has more than 6,000 natives and 8,000 garden cultivars, totaling 14,000 plants to choose from.

Kathy Kramer, organizer of Bring Back the Natives Garden Tour, wholeheartedly agrees and recommends replacing all or part of a lawn with native plants as the number one way to conserve water, adding that some water districts may offer a $500 rebate.

"Native plants are water-conserving, hardy, don't require pesticides and attract birds, bees and butterflies to your garden," Kramer said. "Also consider hiring a landscape designer, even a one-hour consultation can help make choices that will save money in the long run."

Kramer also suggests browsing the Bringing Back the Native Garden Tour website to view photos of water-conserving, native plant gardens, see plant lists and nurseries that carry native plants and register for the free garden tour on May 4.

Regional Parks Botanic Garden is an accessible resource, merely coming for a visit, taking part in a docent-led tour or signing up for one of the many classes offered.

"Just come by and look and there's so much to see and to choose from," O'Brien said. "The garden is also just a good place to look at things from a general or design standpoint. Looking at the massing of plants gives an idea of how to go about creating a vista that is attractive."

If you go
  • Regional Parks Botanic Garden, Wildcat Canyon Road and South Park Drive in Tilden Regional Park, 510-544-3169, www.ebparks.org. Free docent-guided garden tours 2 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m., 2 p.m. Sundays. For information on classes and events: www.nativeplants.org. Annual plant sale Apr. 19, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., admission free.
  • How does your garden grow? With California native plants, including unique and drought resistant varieties, on April 19 at the Regional Parks Botanic Garden. Details: www.ebparks.org/features/Annual_Native_Plant_Sale
  • Bringing Back the Natives Garden Tour is May 4 at sites around the East Bay. Registration now open at www.bringingbackthenatives.net.