The Loma Prietan - January/February 2010

Gardening Green

Spread the Word—and the Plants

story and photo by Arvind Kumar

Native Hill, the native plant garden at Foothill College, is maintained entirely by volunteers.
Native Hill, the native plant garden at Foothill College, is maintained entirely by volunteers.

What can a home gardener do to help the environment? There are things you can do in your own garden: plant locally native plants, conserve water and energy, eliminate synthetic chemicals, and create habitat for wildlife. But environmentally friendly gardening is much too important (and fun!) to be limited to your garden alone. How can you spread the message of sustainable and earth-nurturing gardening to the wider community?

Ten years ago, I took a guided tour of a small garden called Native Hill at Foothill College. It comprised a large collection of native plants, many suitable for the home garden, maintained by volunteers. It was my first introduction to plants adapted to our climate and soil, that provided food and shelter to birds and wildlife naturally: it seemed like a novel idea at the time! I returned to Native Hill again and again to observe and to help me choose plants for my own garden.

Demonstration gardens such as Native Hill play a critical role in educating us all about landscaping alternatives. Wouldn't it be wonderful to have native plant demonstration gardens in every neighborhood? You, the environmentally aware gardener, can help bring this about by joining, supporting, even initiating such projects. Here are some ideas.

Parks: Does your local park contain a native plant garden? If so, join the volunteer team that maintains it. Some examples from the South Bay: Ulistac Natural Area's Butterfly Garden (Santa Clara), Lake Cunningham Park's Native Garden, Overfelt Gardens' California Wild Garden, and Guadalupe River Park and Gardens (San Jose).

Libraries: Visit the Woodside Library to see a stellar example of a native plant garden that is beautifully designed and maintained by volunteers from the local garden club. Can you picture something similar at your local library? Use your gardening knowledge and environmental credentials to help get something like this going at your library.

Schools: Schools make excellent sites for native plant gardens. The Seven Trees School in San Jose, Oak School in Los Altos, and Hacienda School in San Jose are examples of existing school gardens where you can volunteer. If there isn't such a garden at your child's school, consider starting one! At the next PTA meeting, ask if the school would consider a native plant garden, and see what you can do to help.

Landscaping: Volunteers maintain the native plant landscaping at the offices of the Wildlife Center (San Jose), Youth Science Institute (Alum Rock Park), Audubon Society (Cupertino), Peninsula Conservation Center (Palo Alto), and Morgan Hill City Hall. Volunteer your time with one of these native landscapes.

If there isn't a native plant project in your neighborhood, think about how to initiate one. It can be something as simple as a small bed by the entrance to a public facility. Budgets everywhere are stretched thin, and authorities welcome volunteers who can help with beautification and maintenance. If you do a good job, you may inspire other volunteers from the neighborhood to join you.

The Lake Cunningham Native Garden got started in 2002 with a small patch of land and some wildflower seeds. Today it has grown to over an acre and attracts several hundred student volunteers, not to mention a variety of wildlife.

Native Garden Tour: The Going Native Garden Tour showcases gardens in which native plants are prominent. Volunteer docents give free guided tours and answer questions on tour day. The time commitment is just five hours, once a year, and you can help educate hundreds of visitors about the value of native plants to the environment.

Public Talks: The California Native Plant Society presents talks on various aspects of native plant gardening at public libraries. Would you like to see such programming at your local library? Contact me to find out how to make this happen.

What special skill do you need for these volunteer projects? Your interest in native plants and the environment, combined with a desire to make a difference. If you've discovered something helpful and meaningful in this column, help spread the message. Get involved!

Sierra Club life member and California Native Plant Society director Arvind Kumar grows native plants in his Evergreen garden. Reach him at