Going Native

Creating Urban Paradise

    Diane Fagan will not only tell you about the birds and the bees, the flowers and the trees, the butterflies, the crickets and the sharp-shinned hawk that likes to breakfast on unsuspecting sparrows. She will also show them all to you in her garden.
    When she bought her house in 2000 in an unassuming neighborhood near Children’s Hospital Oakland, it had what she calls “a nondescript flat lawn requiring regular watering.” Then she called in native-plant expert Pete Veilleux.
    “We came up with a plan together and made hills and mounds and wildscape,” says landscaper and nurseryman Veilleux. “We brought in rocks and a little soil, but mainly we used what was there.” They jackhammered existing concrete paths to rubble, which was then used for drainage. Such was the scope of the revamp that some days neighbors pulled up lawn chairs to watch.
    Fagan, who is a nurse, wanted to create a flower- and plant-filled haven pulsating with life, abuzz with bees and other flying creatures. Conserving resources was essential, and she didn’t want to waste water on lawn maintenance. An avid birdwatcher, Fagan says attracting birds and butterflies was important to her. “Habitats are becoming increasingly restricted and survival more threatened, what with climate change and development,” she says. “I’m not saying my small garden is the solution, but I wanted to provide a habitat for birds, butterflies [she’s counted a dozen species] and insects.”
    “Natives automatically attract a lot of birds and butterflies,” says Veilleux. “Within three weeks of installing a garden like Fagan’s, you can also expect to hear crickets chirping and frogs croaking.” He encourages these domains with leaf mulch he collects from blocked drains and roadsides.
The first few summers Fagan lived in the house, she needed to water twice a month, compared with 2006, when she watered twice all summer.
    Fagan had Veilleux create her front garden. She did the backyard herself. “I have a lot of natives but also vegetables, bulbs and succulents; a South African honeysuckle the hummingbirds love; some lemons and limes. And I allowed myself one rose bush. I call the back ‘my experiment,’ ” she says.
    Three years ago San Pablo environmentalist Kathy Kramer launched what has developed into an annual tour that includes more than 60 East Bay native gardens. Called Bringing Back the Natives and held in early May, the tour was spurred by the challenges Kramer confronted when she decided to landscape with natives, which she defines as “plants that existed within the geographic boundaries of California more than 300 years ago—before the arrival of the Europeans.”
    “There are more than 5,000 native California plants,” says Veilleux, who encourages the do-it-yourself approach. A good way to choose plants that will thrive, he suggests, is to carefully note the direction of the sun in your garden (use a compass if you’re not sure) as well as the extent of the shade and other physical features. “Then head for the hills and find a place with a
similar aspect and shade features,” he advises. “The parks in the Oakland and Berkeley hills are great places to explore. Take a camera and photograph plants you like.” That way you know what to buy. “Doing it yourself is usually a little hit and miss. But if you’re not killing plants, you’re not challenging yourself,” says Veilleux.
    Science teacher Christine Erskine, who lives close to Sausal Creek, and stay-at-home mom Christine Meuris, a central Berkeley flatlands resident, have both gone native in their gardens—and done it all themselves.
    Erskine’s goal was to create a natural-looking garden that didn’t need much watering, and she wanted to attract birds and butterflies. “We have a lot of cats in the area, so I have had more success with the butterflies,” she laughs.
    For Meuris, learning about natives was an awakening. Once she began to identify individual plants to see how they fit into their separate ecozones, she began to appreciate smells and sounds she’d never noticed. “Now, when I walk through my garden at different times of the year,” she says, “the smells and everything I see are ‘California’—and I love that.”
    The dense garden that came with Erskine’s house was filled with the type of moss that grows when things are cold, wet and dark. “There were no flowers. There was nothing native,” she recalls. She was a keen gardener, but admits she knew little about natives until she met with
the Friends of Sausal Creek group (, and members referred her to an article. It spurred her to read more, and she was inspired. She started off by trial and a lot of errors. “If it said ‘native’ and looked interesting, I bought it. Quite a few didn’t work out. I was buying for a shady environment.” Once she and her husband started pruning and removing foliage, the garden opened up, and the damp and dark gave way to sunshine.
    These days, in the summertime, the garden is awash with color and texture, and alive with buzzing things. “You sit out there to have breakfast and the birds are chirping and you’re watching the butterflies—I’m very proud of it,” she says. The soft tufts of grass her cats liked to lie on and squish have been replaced with spiky tufts. Her two rabbits provide fertilizer.
    Meuris’ introduction to natives came by chance. “I had resisted native plants, thinking it was sort of fringy,” she admits. But while taking a required class during a landscape horticulture course at Merritt College, she says, “Suddenly the landscape around me made sense. I realized how inattentive I’d been to differences. I could perceive the systems and the seasons.” Seeing her environment with new eyes was magical.
    Meuris took about a year to landscape her backyard around the majestic buck-eye tree that came with the place. The buckeye attracts many anise swallowtail butterflies. It also supports a child’s swing and provides inspiration when Meuris paints. She has a hammock in the garden, plus a playhouse for the children. She also made sure to create lots of “secret places” for her daughters to have fun in. “But to my consternation,” she laughs, “they seem to prefer to sit on the cement steps on the front porch. I think they like the traffic.”

—By Wanda Hennig


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