A Horticultural Use of Native Plants

By Paul and Edith Bourbin


Paul is a polymath who has a penchant for old things.  Amongst those interests, are old radios.  In the mid-eighties, a friend of his suggested he join the California Historical Radio Society.  Soon after, the Society fell upon hard times.  Paul became President, and for five and a half years, worked to put the Society on a stable footing.  Once the organization was running smoothly, he turned the reigns over to others to continue its mission.  One of the major goals of the Society was to have an antique radio museum.  To that end, they leased a historic radio studio and transmitter building in Berkeley near I-80.  After a few years, the building was sold and the new owner had other plans.  The Society had to find a new location and realized that it should buy a building to ensure permanence.  Fortunately, they were able to purchase an historic building in Alameda.  The building was built around 1900 and was the original telephone exchange for Alameda.  In those days, one had to tell an operator who one wanted to call, so exchanges housed a number of operators as well as the necessary equipment.  As telephone service became more automated, the building was no longer needed and was sold to become a church.  Subsequently, it became a school.  Over the years, there had been many additions and modifications made to the building.  While the building was structurally sound, much work would be needed to make it a useful center and museum for the Society.  While the Society had many engineers and construction types to take care of the building, no-one seemed interested in the front garden.


The front garden had been ignored for many years and consisted of a large Japanese Maple tree, another almost dead tree, an unkept Privet hedge, a row of rose bushes, a few ferns, and lots of weeds!  In addition, there were big chunks of cement, boulders and scrap metal.  The space kind of looked like an overgrown junk yard.  Now, around the building are a number of Victorian/Edwardian and early century homes and churches; mostly with well-kept front gardens.  We were sure the neighbors did not like the mess in front of our building.  We decided that we would clear the area and make a nice garden.  However, 1) once the garden was established, we did not want to have to go from San Francisco to Alameda weekly to tend it so 2) we had to design the garden so that others could water it and we could tend it monthly.  It did not take us long to decide that native plants would be ideal for this situation.  We were already propagating and using them in our gardens.  They are adapted to our climate and, once established, require little care.  Also, since this was our gift to the Society and we were paying for the materials, we could save a lot of money using plants we already had.


This is what the garden looked before we began.

Photo by Edith Bourbin

The first thing we had to do was clear out the area.  We removed the scrap metal, removed or moved the boulders and cement to where they would be useful.  We then grubbed out the weeds.  We had all the usual suspects: Erharta, Oxalis, Dandelion, Chickweed, Herb Robert and an obnoxious, unidentified weed with a growth habit like blackberry.  Because it had been well established it had a thick mat of roots which would have choked anything that we planted over it. It had to go!  Fortunately, it was low-growing and had no thorns, but was still very hard to get out.

We made a start. Photo by Edith Bourbin

After the clean-up we decided to keep some of the original plants.  We kept the maple, pruned the roses and started trimming the hedge.  The almost dead tree was removed.  The area was then covered with weed cloth.   The planting then began.  Slits were made in the weed cloth for the plants.  We planted Seaside Daisy, Fringe Cup, Woodland Strawberry, Pink-flowering Currant, Salvia, Iris, Yerba Buena.  We then covered the area with shredded Redwood bark (aka Gorilla Hair).  Once the preliminary work was done, and plants started to become established, other members brought plants for the garden.  

The garden in May 2020. Photo by S. Kushman

Since it is the Society’s garden, not ours, we happily planted their contributions.  We were given Blue Fescue, a variety of succulents, that went with our theme of drought resistant, easy-to-care-for plants.  As time went by, we learned which plants did well in different parts of the garden and added more native plants. During our recent visits we also noticed more bees and other pollinators checking out our flowers. Now we have a garden that is pleasing to our members and our neighbors.  As you can see, natives can be good for horticultural purposes as well as habitat restoration.  Try it.

Our natives and donated plants from other members have been added. Photo by Steve Kushman
Paul and Edith at Radio Central. Photo by Steve Kushman


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Sutro Stewards is a project of the San Francisco Parks Alliance, a 501(c)3 California nonprofit public benefit corporation.