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Stages of Urban Gardening: Water-wise, Habitat-supporting, and Finally, Natives

We are very excited to partner with Dolby Laboratories for a special Nature in your Neighborhood project for Dolby Cares Week. A time when Dolby brings art and science together to inspire the next generation of innovators, and address the most critical needs in their communities. Thank you for contribution to Sutro Stewards!

By: August Wood

Gardens are always good things, aren’t they? If you ever met someone who said they didn’t enjoy a garden you’d be more likely to think there was something wrong with them rather than the garden. Whereas with a yard, you wouldn’t necessarily be shocked to hear someone say they found a yard rather boring even if it was a very good yard. You might be offended if it was your yard and you’d put all your effort into maintaining a great deal of grass, but otherwise you might be likely to agree that grass can be a bit monotonous.

Some people have gardens and some people have yards. I had to look up the distinction between the two and found that at my house I don’t properly have one or the other. When I purchased the place, the previous owner had decided that low-maintenance landscaping was a selling-point and had outfitted the front lawn with a swath of sharp white rocks and the back with an expanse of wood chips. I bought the house on its other merits and later found myself wondering what the heck I was going to do about all those rocks and wood chips.

I wasn’t in this endeavor alone. I have a partner and he is a native son, Oakland born and bred. I am a transplant from the eastern shore of North Carolina, an area prone to hurricanes that turn streets into rivers, whereas my partner to this day showers with a bucket to catch excess water due to experiencing drought in his formative years. With his guidance, one of our early considerations in altering our landscape was water conservation. Our first additions to the space were hardy sun-lovers that could go weeks and weeks without a drop of water. We plopped succulents and salvias into the ground and promptly neglected them in favor of our leaky roof and dodgy foundation, which suited the plants just fine. They thrived while we lined the pockets of various contractors.

Later on, with the foundation and roof fixed and pots and pans back to use for cuisine rather than rain catchment, we got back to the landscaping. Not the ground though. We went vertical. Our backyard ends in the concrete wall of a neighboring building. It is industrial chic for sure, but we felt it to be a tad oppressive. Our solution was a row of cedar trellis and a variety of vines. We didn’t put a lot of thought into our selections beyond what was available at Home Depot that day. We brought home trumpet vine because we had seen a lot of it around and thought it likely to thrive, jasmine because it smells nice, passionflower because the flowers are hella weird, and black-eyed susan because it was pretty and cheerful. Sadly, the black-eyed susan didn’t make it, but the other three thrived. Or we so we thought.

At one point, we noticed the passionflower was getting munched on by caterpillars. A lot. We were worried. We didn’t want to lose our pretty, alien-looking plant, but we knew it would be wrong to harm a pollinator. We looked up our hungry new guests and learned they were Gulf Fritillary caterpillars. We are at the top end of their range, and the passionflower we had planted without thought is their nursery. Turns out having baby Frits does no harm to your passionflower vine. It comes back stronger every year, and you get to have mating butterflies dance around your yard.

We were pleased as punch to have the Frits around and started looking around for other ways to be better hosts for beneficial insects. We made little bamboo bee hotels, put in a water fountain for the birds, and let the space run wild with nasturtiums and marigolds for the butterflies. Which all sounds very good, because gardens are always good, right? Our garden, such as it was anyway, the wood chips and rocks are still here to ensure you will never ever be tempted to go barefoot, was intended to be good. It didn’t waste lots of water, never saw a drop of pesticide, and it was trying to be a little oasis for birds and butterflies and bees. It just didn’t occur to us that not a single thing in it was native to the area. It took us ten years to seek out and buy a California native.

Still, late is better than never, or so I will tell myself until climate change rather definitively demonstrates that there is in fact such a thing as too late. Until then, right after fire season ends and I can go back into the yard, I will be hopefully monitoring the progress of our latest addition, the California pipevine. I had come across a story about Tim Wong, an employee of the California Academy of Sciences who made it his mission to bring the California pipevine swallowtail butterfly back to San Francisco, where it had become very rare due to habitat destruction. It is an inspiring story, and I figured my Gulf Fritillary friends won’t mind the company. After a little poking around I found a list of nurseries that sell the pipevine plant, including East Bay Wilds, which turned out to be so close to my house it was practically under my nose. Please say hello to my little friend:

Between my experience at East Bay Wilds, and the Sutro Stewards volunteer session I got to experience through Dolby Cares, I now know that a key aspect of a “good” garden, as in good for the environment, is the inclusion of native plants. Sutro Stewards taught me how to identify them and value them, and East Bay Wilds will help me plant them. I can’t wait to see my pipevine grow up and am looking forward to what else I can get. Maybe some Buckwheats? Leafy Reedgrass? Ceanothus or Manzanitas, or Iris? There are a lot of beautiful options, and since my partner does all the digging and weeding and watering, planting and taking care of them is a breeze.

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