Gardening where the sidewalk ends

The Street(garden)s of San Francisco – Part I of a Series August 17, 2009

Filed under: field trips — greenwalks @ 10:58 am
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On my trip to San Francisco in July to attend a dear friend’s wedding, I had a few time windows for just wandering around on my own. Since I lived in the city for 8 years in the 90s, there is a lot of nostalgia involved whenever I visit, but also these days an intense curiosity about what people are doing in terms of visible gardening.

Since most of the houses in the city proper are literally shoved up against each other, side gardens are practically nonexistent and back ones are invisible from the street. Parking strips generally do not exist (although you can get a permit from the city’s Department of Public Works to cut out gardening space on the street if you want to) and unless there is a small hole cut in the concrete for a tree or shrub to grow from, there is not much chance to dig in the dirt. Many residents have taken to container gardening on the street, and there was such an explosion of plantings that it literally took my breath away at times. I hope to feature a number of these in a series of posts as time allows.

One exception to the “no patch of visible dirt to garden in” rule was this corner apartment-house garden just down the street from where I was staying with a friend, on the hill between the Castro district and Noe Valley. It featured many plants which cannot grow where I live in Seattle, so please forgive the lack of botanical or even common names. If you know them, feel free to comment and help me out with IDs!

Walking down the hill from my friend’s place, I stopped in my tracks when I saw the height of these poppies. I wonder if they could be Matijila poppies? They were easily 6 ft. tall and their pure white petals contrasted so beautifully with the fried egg centers.

Tall white poppies (Matilija?)

White poppy with yellow center

This was one of the largest cactus specimens I had ever seen outdoors in the city. It looks like it had just finished flowering.

Giant cactus in SF street garden

There were a few of these spotted, spiky succulents, which I believe are aloes. I have read that they are supposed to be green but can turn purplish in poor soil or low water conditions.

Spotted aloe

One had a flower stalk covered with these coral-pink, alien-looking blooms:

Alien aloe flowers

One of you agave fanciers can probably tell what species this one is:

San Francisco street agaves

And this one… it was a regular Danger Garden!

SF street garden with agave

The shaggy silver bark of the tree which towered over the entire garden begged to be touched.

Shaggy silver bark

I wonder which came first, the apartment house or the tree?

Tree with silvery bark

I also wonder if the people who live there appreciate the garden, or do they just walk past it every day without looking? If I had a Bird of Paradise out my front door, I think I’d have to visit it at least every few hours.

Bird of Paradise

This succulent looked kind of like a jade plant but with the wrong colors. Gorgeous.

Super SF succulent

This is just the tip of the iceberg – I think I took over 600 photos in just a few days. I won’t put them all up here by any means, but hope to celebrate at least some of the great efforts people have been putting in for all to enjoy.

When you visit a town that has a lot to look at in terms of plant life, do you forgo other types of sight-seeing just so you can ogle gardens?


8 Responses to “The Street(garden)s of San Francisco – Part I of a Series”

  1. A danger garden call out! I am flattered! And awed by this whole post. Simply gorgeous. SF is a favorite city, I didn’t know you used to live there! I came very very close to doing so. I would love to hear any tips and must see’s you have as we will be visiting there in October. Any hotel advice?

    Ok back to your post. The unknown agave…I think it might be Agave americana ‘glauca,’ and I am so in agreement with you about the Bird of Paradise! I think the aloe is Aloe saponarias. And to your question… the gardens DEFINITELY the gardens who cares about the other stuff! (kidding, sort of). In fact we are basically planning our vacation this year around plant life. I am lucky to have a like-minded husband!

    I look forward to more SF posts!

  2. Hugh Says:

    Yay! I’m looking forward to the series. I also lived there in the 90s (in the East Bay, but worked one day a week at the California Academy of Sciences). I love walking around SF. The gardens there (and in the East Bay) were eye-popping to a northerner.

  3. Nicole Says:

    Wow-we must have both been visting SF at the same time and very close too-I stayed with my friends in Noe Valley.
    I agree with the ID’s of danger garden. I came back like a pack mule with succulent plants and cuttings.

  4. I’m so with you on the bird of paradise…what a cool flower! I can’t wait to see your whole series! Kim

  5. Alice Joyce Says:

    I thought I picked up on a vibe that Karen was nearby.. :~)

  6. Catherine Says:

    San Francisco, my favorite city after Seattle. I think you were in my BIL’s neighborhood. His front yard is all cement, but the neighbor’s across the street from him had an beautiful garden that I tried to spy on through their fence. It’s amazing what you can find growing there squeezed in some very small yards.
    Can’t wait to see what else you found growing there.

  7. Georgia Says:

    I’m a park/garden/street tree ogler!

  8. Megan Says:

    What a fantastic garden, lucky you that you were stationed nearby. Yes, garden ogling is definitely the way to travel, I like to leave the tourist hot spots to the rest. The spineless agave is a. attenuata, I am in love with it.

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