Around the eco-savvy Bay Area, the many benefits of using native plants are already a part of many gardening guides. Gardeners boast that native plant gardens are pesticide-free, conserve water and provide habitat for wildlife. But another important factor shouldn't be forgotten.

"California native plants are beautiful," said Kathy Kramer. "These lovely gardens display a sense of place that is uniquely Californian."

And Kramer should know as she has once again organized the eighth annual Bringing Back the Natives Garden Tour, set for May 6. On this free, self-guided driving tour -- its chief sponsors Alameda County Flood Control and Water Conservation District and the Contra Costa Clean Water Program -- participants have the opportunity to view 43 gardens and listen to 50 talks offered throughout the day. On May 5 and 6, gardening enthusiasts can shop for unique, hard-to-find native plants at several nurseries and at some of the tour gardens.

This year's gardens represent 21 cities, including Orinda, Walnut Creek, Pleasanton, Livermore, Antioch, Concord and San Ramon. Garden sizes range from large hill lots to small front yards and display designs by professional landscapers and individual homeowners. Their common thread is that all contain at least 60 percent native plants.

Each year Kramer surveys registrants about what they want to learn from the tour. "Most say they want to learn how to select native plants," she said. "The next category want to learn how to conserve water."

Erik and Shellie Jacobson wanted to replicate their favorite hiking landscapes in their Walnut Creek garden in a less-is-more design. They chose 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.


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In Lafayette, the small back yard 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.

Several of this year's hosts have said their water bills have dropped by half and many will display water bills as positive evidence.

The first step toward participating in this year's tour is to visit the website and view the gardens. Each garden preview contains an extensive description and photographs. The website also lists landscape designers and native plant nurseries. Most importantly, it contains the registration form necessary to receive the garden guide, which provides tour tickets, garden addresses and directions. With increased interest every year, Kramer advises early registration.

One garden listed in the guide is Michelle Minor and Milt Friedman's of Alameda. Minor replaced her front lawn with natives because she loves California's natural landscape. She also used her yard to fulfill an assignment in a designing with natives class at Merritt College. Minor planned her design with a specific intention in mind.

"I wanted to sit in my living room and feel like I was sitting in nature," she said. "The focus was to really bring nature in."

Now Minor's windows overlook a native plant palette of red and purple with wide, curing pathways, a burbling fountain that hummingbirds love, sun-loving penstemon and fuchsia, several sages that attract bees and Santa Cruz buckwheat.

Even after eight years, the tour remains a vital part of spreading the native plant word, and Kramer notes that every year so far 50 percent of registrants are new. "That's 3,500 people that are just getting exposed to native plants," she said. "I hope to continue educating people about the many values that native plants provide."

Michelle Minor is a true convert and is looking forward to sharing her garden with viewers. "There's a special quality that feels so connected," Minor said. "It's interesting year-round; then as spring approaches, plants start to bloom, change and grow; every single day there's something new to see."

'Bringing Back the Natives' garden tour
WHEN: May 6, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
WHERE: Twenty-one East Bay cities, including Lafayette (two gardens), Walnut Creek (one), Moraga (one) and Orinda (one)
For information and registration visit www.bringingbackthenatives.net