Here in the East Bay of California, the Bringing Back the Natives tour held each May is one of the most popular garden tours around. Not only is it free, but unlike the expensive, professionally designed and installed gardens that are the hallmark of other fund-raising tours, most of the gardens were designed and installed at least in part by the homeowners themselves. Tour-goers are as interested in asking “how to” questions as they are in admiring the beauty of a California native garden in spring.
This year, I was particularly impressed by a homeowner who turned her water-guzzling front yard into a mostly native, wild life habitat garden—and all in the space of only three years and on a budget of a few thousand dollars. So what exactly were the secrets to her success?
Study up, but remember that a little professional help goes a long way
Diane took classes from the Bay Friendly Coalition, and as a Bay Friendly Qualified Landscape Professional, I can vouch for the caliber of instruction offered. In addition to learning some of the skills she would need to create a habitat garden, she met designer Terrel Brand, who was willing to visit her site and advise her on a plant palette appropriate for her cultural conditions and lifestyle goals. Diane believes the modest design fee she paid not only saved her money in the long run, but also the frustration and lost time that can come from poor plant choices.
Linanthus grandiflorus, a stunning, long-blooming annual that self-sows readily, is an example of a less common California native an experienced designer can introduce a new gardener to.
Be patient – think small when it comes to plants
For most of the plants in her garden, Diane opted to purchase the smallest-sized containers available. She also relied heavily on seed. Not only is this an economical strategy, but smaller plants are quicker to establish, more likely to thrive and usually catch up to their beefier cousins in the span of a few years.
Native Sisyrinchium establishes easily from one gallon containers
Look for opportunities to save
Sheet mulching was the primary method used to get the garden ready for planting, and Diane relied on cardboard scavenged from dumpsters to keep material costs down. (Hats off to Diane on that one – I know from experienced how hard mismatched sheets of cardboard can be to deal with. My contractors and I go the less fuss but more expensive route and purchase cardboard in rolls.) She chose to remove the sod rather than sheet mulch on top of it, and instead of having the excess sod hauled away, it was used to create the berms. No hauling fee plus less soil to purchase means a double savings. Finally, Diane took advantage of the rebates being offered by her utility company, and received a check for almost $400 to help defray costs. I’ve benefited from similar rebate programs when making my own small garden more water efficient, and always encourage clients to find out what is available before removing any of the old landscape.
The bottom line? If you’re willing to put in some elbow grease and ask for a little help, turning an under-used lawn into a wild life haven doesn’t have to break the bank.