This Land Park neighborhood is going native.
It didn’t happen overnight. But gradually, one homeowner after another ditched traditional front lawns for something different.
Red-barked manzanitas and western dogwood found prime spots near bright purple redbuds. California lilacs and fuchsias attract a bevy of bees and hummingbirds. In the spring breeze, graceful grasses dance with golden poppies.
Like smiles, native gardening must be contagious.
Along two blocks of Ninth Avenue just north of Sacramento City College, several front (and back) yards have converted old lawn areas to river-friendly spaces brimming with color and wildlife.
That includes three next-door neighbors who will be featured on the eighth annual Gardens Gone Native Tour on April 14.
Organized by the Sacramento Valley chapter of the California Native Plant Society, this free self-guided tour will feature 21 gardens in Sacramento and Yolo counties including nine first-timers. Each garden is at least 50 percent native plants. For folks who can’t imagine life without lawn, the tour can be inspirational, say its organizers.
With relatively small front yards, the Ninth Avenue neighbors created a patchwork that illustrates the diversity of native plants. Their gardens are very different, yet complement each other. Each has its own distinctive beauty and personality.
That native transformation also came with plenty of positives: Less maintenance, lots of color, more wildlife and water savings.
“My yard now is much easier and less expensive to maintain than it was when it was covered in lawn,” said Dan Castleberry, one of the Ninth Avenue neighbors.
A love of wildlife – particularly birds and bees – prompted Dan and Joan Castleberry to create a native oasis around a large valley oak in their front yard.
“I have always enjoyed spending time outdoors enjoying nature, especially native wildlife,” Dan Castleberry said. “Growing native plants is the best way that I can help support native wildlife.”
Castleberry centered his front garden on that valley oak, the iconic Sacramento Valley tree. He chose other native plants that thrive in the oak’s shade. (He also planted more oaks.)
“I use the leaves from the oaks in my yard as mulch to help create as natural an environment as possible,” he said. “Using the leaves from the trees in the yard saves water, recycles the leaves and nutrients from the trees, and I don't need to buy mulch.”
It’s like bringing the oak forest to your doorstep.
“Joan and I enjoy watching our native plants grow and the wildlife that visit,” Castleberry said. “It helps us connect with the natural woodlands we like to visit in and around the Central Valley.”
Next door, Mary Lynne Vellinga, communications director for Mayor Darrell Steinberg, and her husband Tim Kirn, who is a copy editor at The Bee, got inspired, too. After watching the Castleberrys’ oak habitat develop, they removed their front lawn in 2015.
“We had an awful lawn, a hideous salad,” Vellinga, who is a former Bee editor, said. “We had two trees: a Chinese tallow tree and a decrepit cypress held together with chains. It was real scary.”
A big windstorm did them a favor, she noted. It knocked down both trees. That opened the opportunity to do something different.
A California sycamore from the Sacramento Tree Foundation’s shade program replaced the tallow tree. Then, Vellinga started adding other natives such as manzanita, salvia and ceanothus.
“I designed (the garden) and did all the planting,” she said. “It’s way easier to take care of it. Basically, I haven’t done anything in months. … We essentially don’t water, maybe every few weeks in summer when it’s gone dry. When I do, I water completely by hand.”
Improper irrigation can doom a native garden, said Vellinga, who recommends using a nozzle that mimics gentle rain.
“They hate drip,” she said. “They need indirect water. When you first plant them, they need a fair amount of water to get established. They’re not drought tolerant immediately.”
Like her neighbors, Vellinga has had her garden on this tour before. The most asked about feature is subtle: A soft green groundcover with little purple flowers that defines the garden’s edges.
“It’s Lippia repens and blooms almost all year,” Vellinga said. “It’s my garden highlight. People are so interested in it. It has totally sweet little flowers that are covered with bees from April to October. It thrives with almost no water. Only five plants covered that whole area.”
That ground cover has another plus: It acts as a barrier to bark mulch that surrounds nearby shrubs and perennials. Without it, the bark tends to roll out of the yard and down the sidewalk.
“It keeps the bark in the yard,” Vellinga said. “It’s an effective border.”
Starting in the backyard, Jeb and Kate Bjerke started transforming their landscape in 2012.
For Jeb, the decision was only natural. He’s a botanist, specialized in California wildflowers.
“The wildflowers and other native plants in our part of California are simply magical in March, April and May when the hills and valleys are still green,” Jeb Bjerke said. “After I learned about the native plants of our area, I looked forward to the spring bloom every year.”
By comparison, city landscapes seemed boring.
“Most of the landscaping plants used in the Sacramento area today are like marble statues – interesting to look at, and good in small quantities, but they don't actually interact with the natural world around them,” Bjerke said. “I had to leave Sacramento to find remnant pockets of natural vegetation to admire. I finally decided to try and bring some nature to me.”
Bjerke dug out an old Bermuda lawn and a hodgepodge of tired shrubs, replacing them with ceonothus, redbuds, woolly blue curls, paintbrush, penstemons, sages and more. In April, a sea of California poppies covers the garden with a neon orange blanket.
“Now, everything that's in the ground in my backyard is a California native plant,” Bjerke said.
That’s fine with Annie, the Bjerkes’ mini dachshund, who doesn’t seem to miss the backyard lawn.
“Our little dog Annie loves exploring the native garden, and all of its sights, smells and secrets,” Bjerke said. “She often smells like sage after a long adventure beneath the shrubs and between the wildflowers.”
Eventually, Bjerke tackled the front yard, too. He left a red oak in place along with some Mediterranean bulbs, a Japanese maple and a few other drought-tolerant non-native holdovers. Besides their beauty, these plants are all easy care.
“I am a lazy gardener,” he said. “Native plants require very little maintenance, which suits me just fine. For the most part, I don't water the native plants in the backyard at all, and I only water the plants in the front yard infrequently.”
While native plants tend to go dormant in summer, spring is spectacular.
“I love the spring fireworks display of flowers in the backyard,” Bjerke said. “The show begins in January with early-blooming shrubs, followed by poppies, poppies and more poppies in March and April, then the finale with purple and pink woolly blue curls and foothill penstemons and Gilia and Clarkia in April and May – all buzzing with bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.”
During the tour, hosts and native plant experts will offer advice on how to make native gardens work.
“Get started; it's not hard,” Castleberry said. “Spend some time developing a vision and seek advice on what's likely to grow well in your area under the conditions in your yard.”
“Plant in the fall,” added Bjerke. “Wildflower seeds are fun. Embrace the seasonal cycle. If it dies, it is probably not the right plant for that spot!”
Eighth annual Gardens Gone Native Tour
What: Free self-guided tour of local gardens with 50 percent or more California native plants
Where: More than 20 homes and gardens in Sacramento and Yolo counties
When: 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. next Saturday, April 14
Details: Register at http://gardensgonenative.eventbrite.com. Upon registration, attendees will receive an email with links to the tour brochure including maps and other resources.