MY GLEN PARK BACK YARD IS defined by frustration, but isn’t that the gardener’s lot ? Thankfully, being tenacious is another trait of those who grub in the dirt, along with understanding how happenstance plays a big part, for good or bad.
Year after year, bit by bit, my garden has taken root. Successes have replaced dismal failures coaxing flora from San Francisco’s crusty rock-strewn soil. What I’ve achieved is a canvas of refined rustic disorder that seems suitable to the City’s rugged terrain.
It’s problematic writing about gardening in SF since each neighborhood has its own micro-climate with varying degrees of sun and fog. I realize my triumphs could be someone else’s headaches.
But there are some things common to any gardener looking to tame SF’s soil, starting with the barren dirt. Three times a year, beneath the soil around each plant, I work a couple handfuls of organic steer manure, compost and peat moss purchased at a gardening store. Year-round I do the same with coffee grounds and chopped up banana peels, picking plants on a rotating basis to bestow my kitchen castoffs on roughly a weekly basis. This further promotes leaf growth and flowering. Additionally, when I prune dead blossoms or leaves I use them as mulch below the plants or on nearby exposed soil—- through decomposition this adds more nutrients, gives beneficial bugs shelter, prevents erosion and is more visually pleasing than dry dirt. (I otherwise don’t mulch around plants— it molds in the damp weather, affecting plants.)
Unearthed stones and rocks are used to define flower beds, half of which are on a hill that I’ve terraced with long 2×4 lumber held in place by short pipes in the ground. There’s no lawn— it’s too time consuming, and a water guzzler. Instead, on the flat portion of the yard I’ve created a patio area from bags of pea-size gravel and flat stones for a border. There are also two six-foot long vegetable beds where in the fall-spring I grow cilantro, parsley, lettuce and radishes. (These are the only veggies that have succeeded, which don’t grow in the summer, another San Francisco vagary, or at least in Glen Park.)
Learning from my mistakes, I stick to drought tolerant plants. It’s a strategy as much for water conservation as it is to have a prosperous garden. Even if your were to be boorish and ignore save-water advisories in the summer dry season you wouldn’t succeed with plants that thrive where it regularly rains. Such plants— Zinnias, Black-Eyed Susans, Petunias, Violets, Primrose and Ranunculus come to mind—aren’t even amenable to SF’s October-May rainy season for reasons I guess are due to the soil and overall climate.
My garden’s best friends are succulents that need no water in the dry season. There’s the quickly spreading grandiflora that sends out dark pink flowers on a multitude of long stems. There are three kinds of flowering Echeveria— the genus has many varieties. My favorite is blue rose. Likewise, a type of ground-covering Sedum with yellow flowers carries its weight without fuss, and another with bright fuchsia flowers.
There’s a Prickly Pear Cactus anchoring the sunniest part of the yard with several branches at five feet tall. It started out as a couple-inch potted plant a previous tenant discarded in what was a mass of underbrush. I’ve encircled the cactus with a variety of dwarf Aloe Vera that sprouts tall orange flower pokers in late spring. (A couple other abandoned flowering cacti I put in large clay pots.)
A shady patch is filled with ferns that started out as part of a jettisoned cut-flower arrangement that took root among earlier yard mess. Similarly, I rooted a stalk of fragrant pink Rose Geranium in water that when planted grew bushy and which I’ve separated several times to fill in bare spots. It originated as a cut flower from a former weekly subscription farm box of fruits and vegetables.
Other successes include perennials bought as plants that include: Margarita Daisy; Golden Shrub Daisy; midnight blue California Lilac bush; silvery grass-like Society Garlic with delicate pink blossoms; clumps of Blue Fescue grass; profuse Rosemary, Oregano and Sage; white and pink ground-covering Dianthus; Lavender; yellow Sticky Monkey Flower, indigenous to San Francisco; purple Salvia leucantha with its long flowering arms; Dusty Miller, elsewhere a ground cover but in SF it grows tall with stems topped with mustard yellow flowers in tight clusters; and shade-loving white Alyssum ground cover.
Two Meyer lemon trees were here when we moved in. Their fragrant blossoms are hummingbird magnets. Autumn through spring we turn dozens of lemons into preserves, chutney, tarts, lemonade and cakes. Other longtime perennials are two generous clumps of giant Calla Lilies that die back during the summer, reemerge in late August and bloom anew in December. There’s an old and robust scarlet Bougainvillea that climbs up one end of a retaining wall. Another veteran is a pale pink climbing Sweetheart Rose that waxes with an abundance of blossoms or wanes from a type of mold, requiring a major pruning (and the one time I discard the cuttings). A large pink fuchsia bush anchors the yard’s center. At the back is an aged fig tree that’s gradually reemerging after a drastic pruning. I’ve created a long and tall bamboo screen for a neglected jasmine vine crawling on the ground. It now climbs with abandon, is eye-catching, fragrant and hides part of an unsightly fence. There are two large trees in the yard, one that in early fall sheds its leaves, which I gather and work into the soil as a great fertilizer.
Around November is when orange and yellow nasturtiums begin springing up to earn the age-old gardening moniker “volunteers” because they reseed themselves. They often pop up in different places and I let them meander around providing a splash of ground-level color. By May they’re thinned in order to encourage and prolong flowering and longevity. By July they finally fade in the dry season.
Neighbors thinning their front garden gave us an offshoot of Agapanthus. It’s a stalwart California garden staple that’s flourished with their floppy elongated leaves from which purplish blue pom-poms on long stems are broadcast in the summer. We were also given a bit of pink-leaved Echeveria, as well as a sprig of orange Kangaroo lily that now covers a large area toward the back. The lily has a similar growth-and-dormancy cycle as Calla Lilies. When the leaves of both varieties shrivel in the summer they’re left on the ground to form a painterly matt of earth tones. By autumn I chop up the spent leaves and keep them in place. This makes elbow room for the underground root stock to send up new growth.
Sometimes my failures are unexpected. To my chagrin the Bay Area native purple lupine and larkspur delphinium petered out after a couple weeks. (Shouldn’t local varieties be fail-safe ?) Other times my defeats are due to ignoring gardening advice picked up in reading. For example, I doubted why SF’s year-round temperate climate of 50-80-degrees isn’t hospitable to tomatoes. Reasoning that summer and tomatoes indisputably go hand in hand I was certain to prove naysayers wrong. It took three attempts before I gave up. Each year four plants flourished for three months only to fizzle when summer fog drew a cold curtain across the afternoon sun. The chill makes it near impossible for fruit to form. However, a couple dozen small flavorful tomatoes did struggle through, although they weren’t ready to harvest until October. (I had a similar experience with pumpkins— or pumpkin, as only one grew.)
Embracing my garden’s limitations I’m now perfectly content to buy juicy heirloom tomatoes at the grocery or farmer’s market. I also have grown to enjoy all the quirks of weather in the City by the Bay and how they shape the environment. For example, at this writing, in the midst of the dry and chilly fog season, there’s little for me to do—- the opposite of what people most other places face in the summer. Since there’s no rain, there are no weeds to pull. Growth is also arrested. Sometime soon I’ll get around to fertilizing plants— by August they start to flag and need a manure, peat moss and compost boost. I also continue to dole out the banana peels and coffee grounds. Every couple of weeks I water everything except the succulents. But come September or October when the rainy season starts— hopefully the Bay Area won’t slide back into another cycle of perennial drought— the garden reawakens as does my enthusiasm and effort. Greener and with renewed vigor, a different garden emerges.