Back around last November or so, Barry and I signed up to put his house on the Gardens Gone Native Tour, an annual native plant garden tour in the Sacramento area that happens every April. (My own house is too far out in the middle of nowhere to be eligible for the tour.) We had been intending to sign up since the previous spring, and planning to get various garden-improvement projects done over the summer, but the time sneaked up on us as time tends to do. We didn't get much garden-improvement done over the summer. But we signed up for the tour anyway, in November. A woman came out in early December to look at the garden; I wasn't there at the time, but Barry said she was enthusiastic about the plants but recommended that we install more paths for people to walk on and maybe collect a few pictures showing earlier versions of the garden and wildlife seen in the garden. All right, we can get around to that before April, right?
Well, very soon it was March, and I was rather frightened by how much wasn't done. We had bought some pavers in January and February to lay more paths, but I hadn't actually laid all the pavers, because there were plants in the area where the pavers needed to be laid, and I wanted to take the time to transplant the plants elsewhere. Alas, many native annuals do not transplant very well, especially if they're dug up from the ground rather than tapped carefully out of a pot, so my time-consuming efforts at transplanting them were largely wasted. So by early March, I gave up on further transplantation attempts and asked Barry to lay the rest of the pavers without attempting to save any more plants. (I asked Barry to do it because it pained me too much, emotionally, to ruthlessly murder so many plants myself.) I focused my own efforts on frantically pulling a hundred thousand weeds (cheeseweed, chickweed, bur clover, sourgrass, I could go on . . .) and was forced to admit to myself that I couldn't finish that either. There would have to be weeds there on tour day. So as tour day approached, I increasingly focused my weeding on the most visible areas, around paths, and on trying to create a new dirt path or two, in addition to the paver paths. Meanwhile, all the paver paths had vanished under floppy mounds of flowers, and even the formal cement walkway leading to Barry's front door became virtually unwalkable as flowers flopped onto it from both sides. Barry said he figured he could use an electric hedge trimmer to carve out the paths again on the day before the tour. But California poppies and other floppy annual wildflowers are not a hedge; if you trim a bunch of them back, the ones next to those just flop over to replace them. It's very difficult to carve out a path without ruining the look of the place. Rather than using an electric hedge trimmer, I decided to carve out the paths myself during the several days immediately preceding the tour. I removed an incredibly huge volume of plant material that week that wasn't even weeds - it was all very desirable flowers, but there just simply wasn't going to be room for people to walk unless we removed all those flowers. So I gritted my teeth and got it done.
Meanwhile, Barry had his own major preparations to make. He was laser-engraving 150 aluminum signs to label all the plants in the garden! I sent him the information I wanted on each sign and told him how many signs to make for each species, and he made me 150 beautiful aluminum signs like the one you see below. (You can hire him to make some for you too, if you want!)
It wasn't easy for me to figure out where to put all the signs. When I went on the tour last year, all the gardens I saw had small, isolated plants that could be clearly labeled, like the small corner of our garden below. But most of the rest of my garden at Barry's house is not like this. In most places, the plants are falling all over each other, with no bare ground visible between them. How can people tell which sign goes with which plant in such a situation? This one area is different only because it is very recently planted, because part of it isn't really Barry's property at all. His next-door neighbors expanded their driveway within the last year, paving over an area that had previously been a lawn, and they left an awkward sliver unpaved because it had a bollard in the way. The neighbors weren't doing anything with the remaining sliver, so during the month of March, Barry talked to them for me and got their permission for me to plant things in their awkward sliver for them. (These neighbors also came over to tour our garden on tour day.) The plastic barrier running vertically through the middle of this photograph marks the property line, and everything to the left of it was planted during March. Those are almost all annual plants.
In addition to creating all the signs, Barry also created a laser art picture of California poppies. He hung it on his garage for the tour. It is paint and stain on birch wood, engraved with his laser.
Meanwhile, I went through some garden photos from the past couple of years and ordered prints of some of them online. Late on the night before the tour, as I was trying to figure out how to mount and label them on some sort of backing paper at the last minute, Barry asked what I was trying to do and volunteered to whip up some custom picture frames for me in the single hour or so we had left before bedtime. The frames came out beautifully! He even added some white color inside the engraved lettering. I grouped the pictures on tables outside for tour day: pictures of the front yard on a table in the front yard, and pictures of the back yard on a table in the back yard. Each group started with a "Before" picture that I downloaded from Zillow, from just before Barry bought the house. The remaining pictures showed how the garden has looked in different seasons over the course of the past year, from the hot pink Clarkias in the front yard last May and the ten-foot sunflowers in the back yard all last summer through the sparser look last October when all the annuals had died off.
Finally, on Saturday morning, April 14, no matter whether we were ready or not - it was tour day! We set up a folding table in the driveway and moved two swivel chairs from the back patio. The California Native Plant Society had given us a yard sign, a sign-in sheet, some bookmarks to give away, and various photocopied handouts, including one that listed the species in our garden. We supplemented the list of species with one that we photocopied ourselves, because the official list was due a month ahead of time, and a month before the tour, I omitted a lot of the species I had planted because it wasn't clear yet whether any of them had actually sprouted or would be here to show off on tour day. By the time tour day arrived, a lot more of the annuals had bloomed and thereby made their presence noticeable - and besides that, I rarely, if ever, go a month without planting new plants. So we had one page listing the plants I'd known were there a month earlier, and a supplemental page listing the plants I'd discovered or planted within the past month. The second list was nearly as long as the first. The California Native Plant Society also gave us a glass with their logo on it as a thank-you gift.
I picked out the perfect dress to wear for my garden hosting duties - complete with embroidered acorns. (The book is Barry's. Barry also kept us well supplied with water bottles full of ice water throughout the day.)
Mostly, I ended up stationed in the back yard while Barry remained stationed in the front yard. Periodically I emerged to sit on the front porch whenever the crowd dispersed, but whenever we had visitors, I showed them around the back yard because the back yard seemed to require more guidance and explanation than the front. People had to be encouraged to actually walk across the admittedly narrow paver paths that the flowers were still encroaching upon somewhat, and I had to explain how the water-loving natives were grouped around hoses and in pots with no drainage holes, while the planter boxes were for the non-native vegetable garden but also contained a few native edibles (Pacific blackberry, tarragon, and miner's lettuce).
One thing to know about showing off a garden is that gardens are rather unpredictable. Their appearance can change significantly with the angle of light throughout the day, or with rainstorms a week or two before tour day. Here is a picture of the flowers north of the driveway on tour day.
And here (below) is the same area two weeks earlier, before a rainstorm. It's a bit hard to tell from the angle of these photos, but the rainstorm knocked the flowers down quite noticeably, and they never stood as upright as before after that. You can see it best by comparing the position of the purple flowers in the foreground of the pictures above and below. The weirdest part is that, although I was rather distressed when the rain first knocked the flowers down, I now think they actually ended up looking better in the picture above than in the picture below. I suppose it's all about the angle of the photo. In person, looking straight down at the flowers while standing directly above them, the knocked-down flowers exposed a lot of the "leggy" underside of the poppies that might have been better kept hidden. Even so, it didn't matter terribly much.
(Also worth noting: If you look at how far those poppies are stretched out across the driveway in the picture above, you can get an idea of just how thoroughly the poppies blocked the path to Barry's front door until I hacked them back in the days just before the tour.)
We must have gotten about 60 visitors over the course of the day. The very first visitor was one of the garden organizers, who sent me some pictures she took of the garden first thing in the morning. Here's one of them, with the poppies not yet fully opened in the morning light.
For contrast, this is one I took from the same angle later the same day, in the afternoon.
Here is one she took in the morning.
And one I took from a similar angle in the afternoon.
In short, the garden doesn't ever retain the same appearance for even a few minutes. It's constantly changing. Here are three more of our first visitor's pictures.
Another view of the front yard:
Syrphid fly visiting a lacy scorpionflower (Phacelia tanacetifolia):
Me with another guest on the back patio:
Here are some of my own pictures of the back yard.
This is the newest paver path, which we didn't finish installing until March, and which I had to hack a bunch of plants back away from to try to make it visible and usable for tour day. I took this picture a little before tour day, before the final hacking back of the plants, so you can see how the path sort of disappears into the foliage at both ends.
And here is the back patio, also photographed shortly before tour day, with the swivel chairs on it as they usually are, rather than out in the driveway as they were on tour day.
I've been distinctly less happy with the back yard than with the front yard, but when I look back at the picture below from one year earlier, I can see that I'm making real progress at filling in the bare spots and establishing some shrubs. It does not look as sparse as the picture below anymore!
Here are a few more pictures I took of the front yard on tour day.
One of the visitors saw wind poppies on our list of plant species and asked me whether the different-colored California poppies were wind poppies. I said no, the wind poppies weren't blooming yet. Shortly after she left, I discovered that actually, one of them was indeed blooming, with four flowers on it! The wind poppies (Papaver heterophyllum) are in the center of the photo below, surrounded by California poppies (Eschscholzia californica). The California poppies are usually orange as shown here, but we also have a lot of pink, red, yellow, and white ones that are bred to have unusual colors. Those are still the same species as the usual California poppies; they're cultivars sold under various names, often combined together in the 'Ballerina' and 'Mission Bells' seed mixes.
Also visible in this photo are a few baby blue eyes (Nemophila menziesii) and birds' eye gilyflowers (Gilia tricolor).
Here's a closeup of some Chinese pagoda flowers (Collinsia heterophylla). These are also California natives, just named for their resemblance to Chinese pagodas. Also visible are California poppies, one hot-pink mountain garland (Clarkia unguiculata), and one yellow-and-white common meadowfoam flower (Limnanthes douglasii).
Here's a closeup of a lacy scorpionflower (Phacelia tanacetifolia). Also visible are California poppies and Chinese pagoda flowers.
Here's one last picture of your tired (and sunburned) garden host at the end of the day (with bonus cat, Calliope, in the window).
And one final picture of the garden!