Gardening where the sidewalk ends

Longing for a Tree Peony May 27, 2009

Filed under: flora,neighborhood gardens — greenwalks @ 4:54 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

Somehow, I went my entire life up until this winter without ever knowing about tree peonies. Then, suddenly, they were everywhere – Portland Classical Chinese Garden, blog buddies’ photos, nurseries, and on the street. I’m not sure I have the just-right space, but my longing for one is severe and I might have to make a good spot if one doesn’t already exist.

I saw this one hanging over a retaining wall the other day, not sure if I am IDing it correctly but regular peonies are just starting to get buds here so I wonder if this could be a short tree peony. What do you think? It’s a bit past its prime, but still pretty glorious. Sorry, full sun, hard to capture the beauty of the white blooms.

A little past their prime, still fancy

Tree peonies have such a following, apparently, that there is an entire nursery called Tree Peony Garden in Pennsylvania devoted to them. Click here to see photos of their numerous varieties or if you just want to learn more about this astonishing plant, native to China and cultivated there for perhaps as long as three millenia!?! According to this article, it pays to find a reputable grower and spend the big bucks for a good plant, otherwise you won’t have much success. Site preparation and proper conditions are important too. In other words, this isn’t my typical cheap/free/whomp-it-in garden addition, so if I get one, it’s going to be a major decision.

I had to put my hand on one of the flowers to show the scale. These really are immense! Please ignore the dirt under the fingernails, occupational hazard for many of us at this time of year.

Big big flower (tree peony?) on way out

Plants are litterbugs too! But nice ones.

Plants are litterbugs too

What new-to-you plant has captivated you this spring?


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!