Spring is here and the time has come for the Bringing Back the Natives Garden Tour on May 5. This is the 10th year for this free, award-winning tour, and it's interesting to note how in that time, native plant gardens have gone from a rare sight to an accepted garden choice.

With more than 50,000 visitors on the tour over the past 10 years, it's not surprising that people are enthusiastic about gardening with plants that are adapted to our soil and climate, easy to care for and attract bees, butterflies, native birds and other wildlife. And in this year of drought, gardens that are drought-tolerant and that can lower water bills are another plus.

The Redbud, a native California plant, grows in the garden of John Alcorn in Brentwood, Calif., on Friday, April 11, 2014. Alcorn’s home is one of
The Redbud, a native California plant, grows in the garden of John Alcorn in Brentwood, Calif., on Friday, April 11, 2014. Alcorn's home is one of many homes throughout the area that will be part of the Bring Back the Natives Garden Tour. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Bay Area News Group)

The self-drive tour offers the opportunity to visit a range of 35 gardens throughout Alameda and Contra Costa counties that display a range of styles and sizes for every interest, from large parcels in the hills to small lots in the flats. All are pesticide-free and contain 60 percent or more

On tour day more than 40 talks will be offered throughout the day with topics that range from selecting California natives to tips on how to lower your water bill.

This year, as a celebration of its 10th anniversary, the tour has added a Music in the Garden component in 16 gardens and nurseries where visitors will be treated to Appalachian dulcimer, lutes, flutes, banjos and guitar; Renaissance and folk music and the a cappella Berkeley Community Chamber singers.


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Native garden enthusiasts will also be able to purchase plants at the two-day Native Plant Sale Extravaganza on May 3 and 4 at various nurseries with good selections of native plants and knowledgeable staff on hand.

Tour organizer Kathy Kramer recommends that tour-goers do their garden homework prior to May 4, with registering as the first step and previewing the gardens on the website as the second.

Huechera Old La Rochette, a native California plant, grows in the garden of John Alcorn in Brentwood, Calif., on Friday, April 11, 2014. Alcorn’s
Huechera Old La Rochette, a native California plant, grows in the garden of John Alcorn in Brentwood, Calif., on Friday, April 11, 2014. Alcorn's home is one of many homes throughout the area that will be part of the Bring Back the Natives Garden Tour. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Bay Area News Group)

"If people take the time to look at the garden descriptions and their locations and the color photographs, plant list, they can make good choices about which gardens are going to help provide them with the best advice for their own gardens," Kramer said.

"If people do their homework in advance they can really find the gardens that will either be of the most use or most interest to them."

Once gardens are selected, Kramer suggests printing out the plant lists to take on the tour and look for plants that are doing well in gardens similar to their own.

Two East County gardens are featured in the tour, one in Brentwood, one in Oakley. Two others are nearby in Clayton.

John and Fran Alcorn's Brentwood garden was inspired by the Bringing Back the Natives Garden Tour and installed in 2006.

The lawn was reduced and is now enhanced by wide, curving garden beds planted with natives selected from the chaparral community.

There's also a peaceful meditation garden under a redwood grove that's planted with shade-lovers such as ferns, coral bells and others. Planted by John Alcorn, the garden is a haven for birds, attracted to berry-bearing plants, as well as native bees, butterflies, and the occasional toad and lizard.

In Oakley, Carolee James' garden is a relatively "new"garden, installed in stages beginning in 2011.

Her back garden is now home to a variety of native plants able to tolerate Oakley's hot, windy summers, including flannel bush, California lilac, toyon and red-twigged dogwood, as well as a wide variety of perennials, grasses and shrubs.

A small meadow boasts a spring-time display of wildflowers and hummingbirds and native bees are attracted to desert willow and sages that border the back of the house. James will give a talk on lowering your water bill at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. on tour day.

Kelly Marshall and Mike Weidner wanted to replace their Clayton front lawn garden with native plants that would fit into their neighborhood and, beginning in 2005, came up with a hardy and colorful array that could withstand hot summers.

They added a fountain, paths and seating areas to create a lovely front garden that is attractive to people and wildlife.

The last vestige of lawn was finally replaced by a meadow of bunchgrasses and flowering native perennials. Marshall will speak on transforming your front garden at 4 p.m.

The second Clayton garden, belonging to Karen and Jeremy Amos, is one where the owners sheet-mulched away their large, thirsty lawn and replaced it with a variety of manzanitas, California lilac and lots of blooming blue perennials. Their project reduced their water bill by half and was paid for, in part, by a $500 rebate from the Contra Costa Water District's Lose the Lawn program.

Two talks will be presented on tour day, an 11 a.m. discussion on how to lose your lawn and another at noon on maintaining a native plant garden.

Native plants gardens are more accepted today than they were 10 years ago. "With between 5,000 to 7,000 people on the tour every year, that means more than 50,000 people have been exposed to native plant gardens," Kramer said.

"These people, among others, recognize their benefits and their qualities that display a sense of place that is uniquely Californian."

In addition, there is a Native Plant Sale Extravaganza will be May 3 and 4. See

Also, a Spring Workshop: "Mow No Mo" or how to remove your lawn, is set for April 26 in Pleasant Hill and May 24 in Livermore. Cost $30, limit 30 participants.

Go to www.bringingbackthenatives.net/select-tours.

If you go
What: Bringing Back the Natives Garden Tour
When: May 4
Where: Throughout the East Bay
Cost: free, but donations taken
Registration: Preregistration is required; registration will close when the tour reaches capacity, or on April 26, whichever comes first.
Info: http://bringingbackthenatives.net/
Native Plant Sale Extravaganza takes place May 3 and 4. Visit Preview the Gardens at bringingbackthenatives.net to read garden descriptions, view photos, download plant lists. Workshops offered throughout spring.