Gardening where the sidewalk ends

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

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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?


Fossil Leaf from Dino Day March 17, 2009

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A few Saturdays ago, it was raining like crazy and there was no chance of a non-soggy park visit, so my mom suggested the Burke Museum‘s Dinosaur Day as a possible diversion. I was too sick to go, so the rest of the crew headed off to join the mob scene at this annual Seattle event.

My daughter’s not a real dino nut like some of the kids in attendance, but she still had fun checking out the bones, fossils and other related stuff and getting to chip away at some rocks in a bit of pretend paleontology.

Her favorite part was the chance to take home a free fossil, courtesy of Stonerose,
a dig-your-own fossil site and interpretive center in Republic, WA.  This may be a potential future field trip for the whole family – I’d love to do a little digging and maybe find some cool fossils. For a small fee, you are directed to a likely “find” zone and get to keep up to three fossils as long as they are not deemed historically significant.

From a table of botanical fossils, she chose one of a small leaf. It was identified as an Alder (Alnus), from the Betulaceae (Birch-Alder) family, hailing from the middle Eocene period (i.e. over 50 million years old).

Aspen leaf fossil close-up

I don’t have a lot of experience with fossils, but something about this little leaf (it’s maybe an inch long) was very powerful to me. The idea of it sitting around in the rock for so many millenia, finally being discovered, then ending up in a tray of freebies and brought home to our house – it just provided an amazing connection to the past and a reminder that our plant friends were here long, long before we arrived on the scene. There aren’t any alder trees in our neighborhood that I’m aware of, but I feel like I need to go and find one and bring the fossil (and my daughter) along for a comparison.  Has this species evolved since the Eocene, or are our alders basically the same? Yet another reason I need to take a botany class!

Among other possible fossils she could have chosen, as I can see from a list she brought home, I would have been very curious to see Umbrella pine (Sciatopytis), grape (Vitus), willow (Salix) or some of the extinct stuff. “Unknown fish parts” and “loon vomit,” not so much!

Anyone have fossil stories to share?


Field Trip to P-town February 27, 2009

My family made a whirlwind trek down to Portland, Oregon last weekend and one of the top things on my list to see if I could locate a neighborhood with a lot of parking strip gardens. I know, I’m obsessed. In a previous post, I had received a few helpful comments about this. So, with only a few minutes to spare during our brief time in town, I did my best to find a few.

On a hot tip, we headed to Northeast Portland to a neighborhood known as Irvington, home to many large and lovely Craftsman houses and fabulous gardens, plus this really spiffy looking club that I would probably be denied membership to even if I could afford it (ha). Not a lot in the way of parking strip gardens, though, that I was able to find.

Irvington Club Sign

This house had a really mind-blowing ornamental/conifer/topiary thing going on, I guess it’s kinda famous. I got a chuckle when I saw it, since I recognized it from this post of Nestmaker’s.

WackyPortland House & Garden

Irvington has lots of stately trees, though, so maybe that’s more the vibe and people don’t like to mess with the established tradition. Here were some crocuses that looked as if they’d naturalized in the understory.

Drifts of Crocus in Portland Parking Strip

This garden was a real exception to my general findings. It had obviously been planted with love and care, and although it might have been fairly new, contained some great stuff like reticulated iris and a lovely reddish witch hazel, maybe the currently hot cultivar ‘Diane’?

Nifty Portland Parking Strip Garden

Closer View of Portland Garden

Screamin' Orange Crocus

Dwarf Iris

Red Witch Hazel - 'Diane'?

What I didn’t find in the way of street gardens was more than made up for by the beauty of the houses and the amazing color palate used by their inhabitants. Here in Seattle, we seem to be afraid of color – grey, beige, white, sage green, dusty blue and mushroom brown predominate. But in Portland, I saw everything from deep forest green to crazy orange to this one, a funky and friendly combo that I’d never seen before.

Funky Portland Paint Job

Even the streetcars are more colorful in Portland. Sorry for the from-the-car pic, we were on the way out of town and I realized I hadn’t taken any of the trollies.

Portland Streetcar

We took public transit pretty much everywhere, but the reason for the trip was that we had the loan of a pretty vroomy car, a Chrysler 300C SRT8. Since I usually tool around in a 20 year old Volvo wagon, this was a comparatively cushy ride. Not great on the gas mileage, but surprisingly better than our Subaru, from our calculations. Looks pretty good with a backdrop of bamboo, I think.

Vroomy Chrysler

My other garden-related coup was to convince my family that they needed to let me go to the Portland Classical Chinese Garden, also a tip from Nestmaker, who has posted often about her visits there. That’s going to have to be a whole separate post, since it was breathtakingly amazing, I took about 13 hundred pictures, and learned a lot about what I should have planted in my garden if I wanted it to look nice in winter!

I wished I’d had more time and maybe a couple of cross-streets to check out for the hell strip greats in town, though – maybe someone will comment here and suggest some for my next visit?


Mission High Gardens Update December 30, 2008

Not long after I posted a bit about a wonderful street garden I’d seen on our recent trip to San Francisco, I was fortunate to hear from the mastermind behind it all, Gideon Kramer of the neighborhood organization SafeCleanGreen Mission Dolores. Since I had made a few incorrect assumptions about the garden, he was kind enough to sit down and write a piece describing the genesis of the gardens and his reasons for putting in so much hard work to transform a formerly neglected space into something truly delightful. So, without further ado, here it is (first-ever guest blogger)!


“Mission High School, a landmark school built in 1915 by renowned architect John Reid, has over 600 linear feet of planter bed frontage around the south and east perimeter of the school on 18th St. and Dolores St.), ranging in depth from 30 inches to about 10 feet.

Until 2001, the beds were utterly neglected, nothing but trash, weeds, glass shards, encrusted debris, an occasional IV needle, compacted soil, and a few hardy but beleaguered plants that survived despite it all.


Having lived in the Mission Dolores neighborhood for many years, and having a strong interest in gardening and community beautification, I was surprised that no one at Mission High felt motivated to do something about the blighted appearance. “Did none of the faculty or administrators see the connection between this perpetual eyesore outside the school and the quality of the education inside; what kind of message was this sending to the students and the neighbors?” I so often wondered to myself.

Repeated efforts to convince the then-principal to do something fell on deaf ears. So, I decided to take matters into my own hands. Within a few weeks, all the planter beds had been rehabilitated, soil turned over and amended, and a slow program of new planting and regular care began. Only two existing plants–Acanthus and African Daisies–that had clung to life came back quickly once cared for. There had been no way to properly water the plants since all the hose bibs had been disabled or damaged over the years, and there were no hose reels or hoses. Worst of all, there was simply no one willing to take responsibility, (“when everyone is responsible, NO ONE is responsible” ). SafeCleanGreen Mission Dolores, the neighborhood assocation ( I co-founded in 2003, helped to fund the necessary infrastructural improvements. Also, a new administration at Mission High, under the leadership of a new principal, Kevin Truitt, broke with the past and gave enthusiastic moral and funding support to this renewed effort. I and SafeCleanGreen now take responsibility. Not only are the gardens maintained, but litter and graffiti abatement is done on a daily basis as well. The idea is to send a message to  students, faculty and the community at large that beautiful gardens and a clean and healthy streetscape are vital school and community assets that have a great deal to offer.


As we installed young, new plants, we experienced a rash of thefts. Hard to believe that there are people who would simply rip out plants from the ground, but such was the case. In response, I designed and installed bilingual signs spaced out every 75 feet (see photo above, at top left) urging respect for the gardens. I’m glad to say that  between these and the Litter-Me-Not signs installed years earlier, littering, thefts and vandalism have gone down dramatically.

The work at Mission High has not gone unnoticed. A teacher at adjacent and equally beautiful Everett Middle School–a passionate advocate for environmental awareness and campus beautification–was so enthusiastic about the transformation at Mission High that she lobbied for a similar program at her school.


Long story short, we are now starting a program known as the “Everett Middle School Gardening Collaborative” that has already begun to make a difference. And a third school in our immediate area, Sanchez Elementary School, already has its own volunteer advocate. So we’re very hopeful that we are gaining a “tipping point” for a movement in the Mission Dolores neighborhood that will be unstoppable.

More on this in the future. If interested in learning more, please contact Gideon Kramer at or call 415-407-1206.”


When I asked Gideon if he was a professional gardener, he said “…not really. I’ve just been gardening most of my life and do it mostly ‘seat of the pants’. I  could use a lot more technical knowledge , but ‘intuitive gardening’ works. Rich soil, appropriate watering, regular maintenance, and an eye for where things thrive (or if they don’t, move them to a better location), experiment, etc. works for me.”

Well, if I could take only a tenth of his technical knowledge and a 20th of his energy, I’d still have a better home garden than what’s out there now! Thanks so much to you, Gideon, for caring about the kids, the neighborhood, and the gardens!  You are doing such great work – I hope you have many hands to help you in your efforts to keep going on your list of street beautification projects. Maybe next time I’m in SF, I’ll come pitch in for a while!


SF’s Mission High Garden December 2, 2008

During our visit to San Francisco, I was keeping my eye out for sidewalk gardens. On a rainy day, walking down to the packed-to-the-gills Bi-Rite Market (independent fancy food store) the day before Thanksgiving, we passed by Mission High School. Located on the beautiful palm-lined boulevard of Dolores Street, Mission High is the oldest high school in SF, dedicated as it was in 1897. In fact, it’s the oldest comprehensive high school west of the Rockies, something I didn’t know until looking at the school’s web site just now.

As we walked along, I noticed that a tiny (maybe 18 inch) width of the sidewalk adjoining the school had been planted with a somewhat sparse but tidy array of perennials, underneath the otherwise prison-esque gray wall and chainlink fence that encloses the school’s parking lot.

Mission High Gardens

Then I saw this sign:

Mission High Gardens sign

Seems like it’s a partnership between the community and the school. Nice!

There was not a single piece of trash or wad of gum to be seen, which is a real marvel outside ANY high school. Maybe signs like this help remind people to be kind to the garden (if not necessarily to the sign):

Litter me not

I’m going to have to take a complete pass on plant ID, these are not familiar to me. Anyone want to take a gander?

Mission High Gardens II

Quite a variety of leaf shapes and sizes, lots of nifty bright colors to jazz up the street.

Mission High Gardens III

All in all, a delightful find and one I hope to return and see again as the plants fill in.

Rainy day at Mission High Gardens


California Goodness December 1, 2008

You know, I truly love Michael Pollan, but I always get a little annoyed when he talks about eating seasonally and locally, living as he does in Berkeley, CA. Easy for him to say! Here in Seattle, the locally grown stuff is waning fast to a winter pittance, and if all we ever ate was local produce, we would never taste even a bite of one avocado, banana, grapefruit, lemon, lime, orange, mango, papaya, etc etc and the list goes on.

I’m not advocating against making good-for-the-planet choices and being mindful of where our food comes from. I just wonder if Mr. Pollan would be so quick to advocate for localvore-ness if he lived in, say, Manitoba.

A recent visit to the California Avenue Farmers’ Market in Palo Alto proved illustrative of this point. Here we were, the Sunday before Thanksgiving, strolling around in the sun. It was in the 60sF, so a lot of people weren’t even wearing jackets.

Strolling the market

Palo Altans have not one, but two Markets to choose from when they wish to buy direct from producers. The other, on Saturdays in downtown Palo Alto, has been around longer (since 1981) and is therefore more established. They are run by different entities, not sure what’s up with that. We flew in on Saturday evening so we only had the Sunday market option.

Here is just some of the goodness that was on offer. Root veggies and squash, pretty standard anywhere at this time of year.

Loads of fall veggies

Biking to the market, also possible elsewhere depending on your climate and personal hardiness.

Bike to market

But then things started to get a little more interesting. Fresh raspberries in late November, anyone? Pricey, but I had to have some to share with family and friends. Won’t have any again until next summer, so it was worth it.

Mmmmm, raspberries in late November

The raspberry ladies were also selling flowers. I loved their pumpkin vase, I’m going to have to remember to try this next year for a Halloween centerpiece.

Pumpkin vase for fall flowers

Organic lemons and limes for $2 a pound, now I was almost crying with joy. And right next to them, tiny little perfect Hass avocados. I bought some of everything and made guacamole. I wondered if the avocado pits would be proportionally large for the fruit, but they were tiny and perfect too. I should have saved one to sprout indoors back home.

Lemons, limes and baby Haas avocadoes

Pomegranates are almost at the top of my all-time favorite food list. They are $3/each for organic ones at my Seattle food co-op, so they are usually a once-a-year treat. Here they were super cheap, ditto persimmons. Into my bag they went.

Pomegranates and persimmons

My daughter is not big on tasting new things but even she had to agree that the Fuyu persimmons were tasty. There sure were a lot of options for sampling!

Citrus and persimmon tastes

Oh man, I forgot to mention the pineapple guavas. I’d never even heard of those, and I consider myself a foodie! And yes, they were organic and grown locally. They tasted more like a flower than fruit, and are the little green lime-looking things at the top of the final photo, below.

I’m definitely down with the eat-locally cause. I just know it would be a heck of a lot easier, and would have so much greater variety, if I still lived in California!

California November fruit goodness


San Francisco Street Plantings November 30, 2008

Part of our recent vacation to the Bay Area of California was spent in our old stomping grounds of San Francisco. We lived there from 1992-2000 in a never-quite-gentrified part of the city that was equal parts noisy, diverse, crazy and wonderful. We are lucky to have family members who live just a few blocks from our old apartment, so when we come to visit, it feels like coming home. Surprisingly little has changed in the past eight years, and the grocery store folks even remember us!

We were only there for about 48 hours this trip, much of it spent shopping for Thanksgiving fixings and then making the various dishes we were bringing to the feast (two kinds of stuffing, a sweet potato puree with pecan/brown sugar crust, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin ravioli in sage butter sauce for the vegetarians), but I tried to take a few photos of street gardens in the neighborhood. There aren’t really parking strips, at least not in that part of SF, so trees and any other greenery are forced to live in small containers or other gaps in the concrete. This row of trees in small, square planter boxes was installed by the builders of a spiffy condo complex a few years ago:

San Francisco street trees

I’m sorry not to know the tree variety. Any guesses? They have been nicely underplanted with succulents:

Box o' succulents

Further down the same short block is a thriving bottle brush (Callistemon), in full bloom here in the last days of November:

Bottle brush tree

That tree really says California to me (even though technically it’s from Australia), as does this one, Angel’s trumpets or brugmansia, located directly across the street:

Trumpet flower tree

There were Bougainvillea vines in full bloom everywhere in the city right now – I didn’t get a good shot of any but a purple one is visible peeking out from under the spectacular tree in this next shot (I should know what the tree is but have forgotten – again, any guesses?):

SF streetscape

I love that their pumpkins are still out and spiffy – ours all had to be dumped due to gigantic black rotten spots and/or squirrel destruction. The only wildlife we saw on the street was pigeons, and I guess they are not interested in eating squash.

Ah, SF… we love and miss you, but it was good to come home to Seattle too.


Hideous Hack Job November 16, 2008

The little family and I took a quick trip up to Bainbridge Island on Tuesday, since nobody had to go to school or work that day. We missed a bunch of ferries in the morning due to general chaos and inability to get out of the house, and needed to get back on the early side, so only ended up with a few hours to spend actually on the island.

Bainbridge is a 35 minute ferry trip (once you’re actually on the ferry – you can spend at least that long, as we did, waiting in line to board, but that can be kind of relaxing if you don’t get too steamed for having arrived just as the previous boat was pulling away from the dock) from Seattle, and many of its inhabitants make the daily round-trip from the island to work in the city. It still contains many wooded areas and one of the area’s most famous botanical gardens, the Bloedel Reserve. I had a feeling we wouldn’t have time to visit BLoedel this trip, and it requires a reservation in any case, so it will have to wait for another time.

Instead we spent most of our time at the island’s tiny but fun Kids’ Discovery Museum, which had an exhibit based on the “Arthur” children’s book series, plus a table full of craft supplies for making hand-tracing turkey pictures. What five year old could resist that?

There aren’t a whole lot of parking strips on Bainbridge, but I was kind of excited to see one as we were leaving the museum.

Pruning hack job IV

Then I got a little closer, and saw what has got to be the absolute worst pruning hack job I have ever witnessed.

Pruning hack job III

Ouch. But wait, there’s more! Take that, red twig dogwood:

Pruning hack job I

And that, royal purple smoke bush!

Pruning hack job II

It was truly painful to see. Not sure if the diner these were in front of requested the horrible pruning work in order to be more visible, you’d think their neon-blue paint job would do the trick. In any case, there should be a law against such plant-deforming atrocities! I wonder if any of them will even survive? I’m not the most expert pruner, but I’ve never done anything that ugly. Oh, the horror, the horror!

On an unrelated note, the Blackbird Bakery is a must-visit stop if you ever end up on Bainbridge. It’s right on the main street, Winslow Way, makes fabulous soups and incredible baked goods, and if you get a seat in the window you can learn a lot about island life. My daughter insisted on getting an elaborately decorated cookie which looked a lot like a certain garden nemesis of mine…

Squirrel cookie

Yes dear, of course it’s fine to bite the head off first!