This year, the 17th annual Bringing Back the Natives Garden Tour took place online to accommodate pandemic safety, as it did last year. This year, however, there were four days of tours, two more than last year, and garden owners and designers presented narrated slide shows or pre-recorded videos of their gardens and followed their presentations with live Q&A discussions.
The four Sunday sessions, on April 25 and May 2, 16, and 23, were packed with beautiful and inspiring examples of gardens full of California native plants. Garden locations included the bayside cities of Alameda, Berkeley, Castro Valley, El Cerrito, Fremont, Oakland, Richmond, and San Pablo, and the inland cities of Clayton, Concord, Livermore, Moraga, Orinda, San Ramon, and Walnut Creek. With such a wide range of locations, there were gardens with a wide range of habitats, sizes, and styles.
The tour website is a gold mine of resources, including a detailed description of each garden, generally with a plant list and lots of photos. Some garden descriptions include before and after photos that show incredible transformations. The website includes useful Find a Designer and Find a Nursery sections. And there is a tour YouTube channel that includes all the presentations from this year’s and last year’s tours, The keynote presentation this year was “Nature’s Best Hope” by Doug Tallamy, author of the books Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens, Nature’s Best Hope, and The Nature of Oaks. Tallamy gave a hopeful and inspiring talk about how planting natives in home gardens can help restore ecosystems.
One of the recurring themes among the gardens was the way planting natives has increased each garden’s populations of birds, native bees, butterflies, and other insects and thus increased the biodiversity of that local ecosystem. In an ecosystem, biodiversity equals resilience.
On April 25, our CNPS East Bay chapter’s own Native Here Nursery offered a presentation on local keystone plant species, plants that tie the ecosystem together because they offer many resources to pollinators and other insects and wildlife. The presentation covered many garden-worthy options including oaks and associated oak-understory plants; shrubs from the scrub plant community, which is characterized by open areas with many shrubs; and understory plants less than three feet tall that fit well between trees and larger shrubs.
There were several gardens on the tour devoted to butterfly habitat, including the Alameda Butterfly Habitat garden at Bay Farm Elementary School in in Alameda.
On May 23, members of Friends of Sausal Creek gave a presentation entitled “Life and Death on Milkweed” based on observations at the Bridgeview Pollinator Garden in Oakland. The presentation described in detail the life cycles of the many insects (in addition to the monarch butterfly) that are found on milkweeds. The presentation was illustrated with great photographs and included the fascinating story of the orange oleander aphid that attacks milkweed and is then consumed by predatory insects like ladybugs, predatory wasps, and mayflies.
Also on May 23, Robin Grossinger, senior scientist at the San Francisco Estuary Institute (SFEI), gave a presentation based on SFEI’s Making Nature’s City project. Robin described how “urban ecological science can provide a powerful tool to guide cities towards more biodiversity-friendly design.” In addition to outlining useful biodiversity-supporting ideas in SFEI’s guidelines, Robin told the story of how introducing native plants to the sidewalk planting strip in front of his house led to a community effort by his neighbors to create habitat in all the other planting strips on the block. There was a lively discussion in the Zoom chat following Robin’s talk about how others had similar experiences of their own native gardens leading neighbors to convert their gardens to native plants.
The tour’s YouTube channel includes 30 hours of viewing, 20 hours from the 2021 tour and 10 hours from 2020. It might take a while to work through it, but the wealth of information in the videos as well as on the main Bringing Back the Natives Garden Tour website is well worth the time spent exploring. Kathy Kramer and her team, along with the garden owners and designers, produced a varied and inspiring collection of information about how to create a garden that can help heal our ailing ecosystems.
— Robin Mitchell, Recording Secretary, CNPS East Bay Chapter