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Where to find inspiration on North Bay garden tours

May is the month people like to pack up their cars, and possibly a picnic, and hit the road. Their destination? The homes of strangers who, for one day, invite the public to ogle their homes and admire their gardens.

But this year, two longtime favorite tours have been canceled.

Food for Thought has decided not to hold its Spring Home and Garden Tour, a fundraising staple for the Forestville Food bank for many years. Karen Van Dyke, development director for the nonprofit, said the agency is shifting its fundraising model and putting more energy into Dining Out for Life.

“We have a lot of growing happening at the agency right now and decided to move in another direction for funding opportunities this spring. That’s not to say it will always be,” she said.

The Sonoma County Medical Association Alliance Foundation also suspended its spring garden tour. Foundation President Patty Lyn Tweeten said the organization already had decided to cancel the 2018 tour and resume it in 2019 on an every other year basis. But after the October wildfires destroyed so many homes in Santa Rosa and the Sonoma Valley, the association decided to delay the tour indefinitely.

“In the county 200 physicians lost their homes and one-fifth of our members lost their homes too. And our last garden tour was in Fountaingrove,” she said.

Of the seven gorgeous gardens featured in the 2017 tour, three were destroyed by fire and one was heavily damaged. Of the 36 Alliance members who volunteered for the garden tour last year or who served on the committee, 12 lost their homes.

In the near future the Alliance has turned its focus to helping county physicians displaced by the fire. She said the organization is looking at some other project related to gardens, perhaps by donating landscape plants to fire victims tasked with replanting their gardens.

Despite the cancellations there are still a few other home and garden tours taking place this spring on the North Coast.

Eco-Friendly Garden Tour: Learn water-saving strategies and gardening tips from other homeowners during the free Eco-Friendly Garden Tour, featuring 18 gardens throughout Sonoma and Marin counties. The California Native Plant Society will present five California native gardens in Santa Rosa, and the Laguna Environmental Center in Santa Rosa will feature a Residential Landscape Design Display. The tour is hosted by the Sonoma-Marin Partnership, a group of 10 water utilities in Sonoma and Marin counties. The self-guided tour is free, but registration is required at savingwaterpartnership.org/eco-friendly-garden-tour. For more information, email chad.singleton@scwa.ca.gov.

The Healdsburg Homes Tour: This is a chance to check out some of Healdsburg’s historic homes, including a settlement-era cottage built in 1864, and a gabled cottage built in 1866. Six homes are featured this year on the tour, put on by the American Association of University Women. 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. Cost is $45 in advance or $50 the day of the tour. Tickets can be purchased at Copperfield’s and Levin & Co. in Healdsburg. Check in is at the Healdsburg Museum, 221 Matheson St. Healdsburg.

Sea Ranch Architectural Tour and Wine Tasting: The Sea Ranch is world renowned for its environmentally-sensitive architecture and design. This annual self-guided tour put on by the Soroptimist of the Mendocino-Sonoma Coast features a number of significant homes both in Sea Ranch and along the North Coast. It ends with a wine tasting and silent auction at the Gualala Arts Center. 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. May 12. Tickets are $60 in advance and $65 the day of the tour. Tickets can be purchased at Brown Paper Tickets, https://bpt.me/3349786.

Mendocino Coast Garden Tour: This year’s tour put on by the Mendocino Art Center includes hideaways from Albion to Fort Bragg, including a unique rock garden, the gardens at Digging Dog Nursery and a garden with views of the Albion Bridge. Ravens Restaurant at Stanford Inn by the Sea serves a benefit lunch the day of the tour from noon to 2 p.m. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. June 30. $20 for lunch. 707-937-5818, ext. 10, or 800-653-3328, ext. 10. Mendocinoartcenter.org.

Fifteen years ago, a front yard like Natasha Granoff’s might have elicited whispers and anquished complaints from the neighbors concerned it would hurt their property values.

Back then, social propriety dictated that a responsible homeowner keep up apperances with a neatly trimmed and well-watered lawn. But over the last decade a revolution has taken place in home landscaping. And now, a yard like Granoff’s that is densely packed with tall perennials and native grasses and even includes a few raised beds filled with vegetables and herbs, is no longer an outlier but an object of admiration. So much so that it is worthy of being included on a spring garden tour.

Granoff’s garden is one of 18 included on the Eco-Friendly Garden Tour on May 5. This is the eighth year that the Sonoma-Marin Saving Water Parnership — a consortium of 10 North Bay water utilities — has sponsored the tour as a way of showcasing ways homeowners can make their own yards more water-wise and friendly to wildlife. Unlike other spring home and garden tours, this one is completely free, although visitors need to register at savingwaterpartnership.org/eco-friendly-garden-tour.

Tourgoers can start their day with an irrigation controller programming workshop and a tour of the Sustainable Education Garden at Santa Rosa City Hall and then choose which gardens they want to visit, from Santa Rosa and Sonoma Valley to Petaluma, Novato, San Rafael and San Anselmo. Gardens are open to visitors from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Complete information and registration is at savingwaterpartnership.org.

Granoff’s Bennett Valley neighborhood is still in obvious transition. Built in the early 1950s, it features midcentury homes with midcentury lawn landscapes. But popping up here and there are other exuberant front yards where the only grasses are ornamental or native varieties that bear no resemblance to the green turf of yore. Instead, they are filled with flowering native and Mediterranean plants that are vibrantly alive with buzzing bees and fluttering butterflies.

Granoff bought her house 20 years ago. At the time, both front and back yards were covered with lawn, some rose and wild blackberry brambles. But in 2006 she embarked on a slow transformaiton, slowly giving her little ⅛ of an acre back to nature. Each year she added more native and more low-water using plants and more features so that now, it is a tiny wildlife habitat in the middle of suburbia. There are hummingbird feeders and water fountains for bees and birds that she made herself from pots and an old utility sink. She’s incorporated a pipevine because it’s the larval host plant for the pipevine swallowtail butterfly.

“I’ve always loved to garden. My mother loved to garden,” said Granoff, who is retired after years working in business development for wineries. “I grew up on the Monterey Peninsula, where my parents with involved with local planning and water use and development. My mother was a member of the California Native Plant Society, and I was too.”

One of the most significant investments she made in sustainability was a rainwater catchment system. She installed six 550 gallon tanks in 2009, along with a water filtration system, with the idea that she might use it for drinking water.

As as it turned out, she uses the water instead to water her annuals and perennials during the dry summer months. Her water use is pretty low, averaging only 1,000 gallons a month most of the year. The average family household by comparison uses 99,000 gallons a year, according to the Sonoma County Water Agency.

Granoff spent about $8,000 for the system, a price that included some gutters and other improvement as well as a required rain garden, a small area with a soil depression that can capture any additional runoff if or when the tanks fill.

Granoff hopes to tie the system into her home so that she can continuously use rainwater during the wet reason without reaching her storage capacity.

The garden is wildly crowded with plants that are both beautiful and serve a purpose. Cheerful little California monkey flowers, the daisy-like fleabane, waves of pink flower heuchera, sages, scabiosa, echinacea and tall and stately agastache native sedges, wildflowers like tidy tips and baby blue eyes and Phacelia tanacetifolia, beloved by bees and other beneficial insects.

She allowed a few favorites to remain grandfathered into the landscape, like a massive Incense Cedar that has overtaken a corner of the backyard. There are other Incense Cedars in the neighborhood, where, as the story goes, local schoolchildren back in the 1950s were given little seedlings to plant at home. Granoff keeps the logs of another dead cedar probably planted at the time, to serve as habitat for small critters like lizards, native bees and as a food source for birds.

In the spirit of recycling, she makes her own mulch out of cuttings from the yard,

Granoff has only a small food garden — three raised beds in the front yard where she grows primarily herbs and winter greens.

After years of planting, adding and changing up, she’s now in an editing mode, pulling things out here and there with the idea of creating more masses of plantings — better for birds and beneficials — than a visual cacophony of different plants.

She will be on hand to greet visitors on Saturday and answer questions. The Native Plant Society as labeled many of the plants so tourgoers can take notes of plants they might like to incorporate into their own yards.

“It looks like a lot of work. It actually isn’t, once you get it established,” she said of her natural garden, which needs cutting back but no fancy grooming. “It may look to some people like it’s a little messy, but we’re creating so much biodversity and forage and food.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com.

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