Serendipitous SF gardening

Urban Nature

A corner of my San Francisco garden in JulyMY GLEN PARK BACK YARD IS defined by frustration. Isn’t that the gardener’s lot ? Thankfully, tenacity is another trait of those who grub in the dirt. Understanding that happenstance plays a big part also helps.

Year after year, bit by bit, my garden has taken root. Successes have replaced 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 what works in my yard could cause headaches even nearby. In my garden, for example, it’s useless to plant anything during the June-September dry season— a period of extreme dormancy.  It’s during the October-May rainy season when the plants rebound. Lemons grow, robust calla lilies reappear after dying back in June and other perennials reassert themselves. Garden glimpse - 1

There are some things common to any gardener looking to tame SF’s soil. Three times a year, around each plant or tree, I work a couple handfuls each of organic steer manure, compost and peat moss. 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 clip dead blossoms, prune stems or collect fallen leaves from deciduous trees in the yard 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 add store-bought mulch around plants— it only molds in the night dampness, affecting plant health.)

The always-plentiful unearthed stones and rocks are piled to border flower beds. Part of the garden on a hill 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 to maintain and costly to water. Instead, on the flat portion of the yard I’ve created a patio area from bags of pea-size gravel. There are also two six-foot long vegetable beds where in the fall-spring I cultivate 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.)

Lettuce thrives in San Francisco's cool climate, but not in the summer.

Learning from 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 ignore advisories in the summer dry season and regularly water you’d fail with plants that normally thrive where it rains in the summer. Such garden standards— 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 sunny-then-foggy climate.

My garden’s best friends are succulents that need little-to-no water. 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 delights without fuss.

There’s a soaring Prickly Pear Cactus anchoring the sunniest part of the yard. 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 are now in large clay pots.) A shady patch is filled with ferns that began as a jettisoned cut-flower arrangement that took root among earlier yard mess.

A stalk of fragrant pink Rose Geranium is a non-succulent standout. Other successes bought as plants  include perennials: 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 an annual ground cover but in SF a tall perennial topped with mustard yellow flowers in tight clusters; and shade-loving white Alyssum ground cover, another traditional annual that blooms year-round.

Meyer lemon bounty - 1Two Meyer lemon trees and their fragrant blossoms are hummingbird magnets. Autumn through spring we turn dozens of lemons into preserves, chutney, tarts, lemonade and cakes.Meyer lemon cake - 1

There’s an old scarlet Bougainvillea that climbs up a retaining wall next to a long-established pale pink climbing Sweetheart Rose with an abundance of blossoms that regularly succumb to 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.Jasmine in July - 1 I’ve created a long and tall bamboo screen for a neglected jasmine vine crawling on the ground. It now  climbs with abandon with eye-catching, fragrant blossoms.

Around November orange and yellow nasturtiums spring up everywhere to create splashes of color and earn the age-old gardening moniker of “volunteers” because they reseed themselves. By May they’re thinned to encourage and prolong flowering before finally fading in July.

Neighbors thinning their front garden gave us an offshoot of Agapanthus. It’s a stalwart California garden staple that’s flourished into several clumps with their floppy elongated leaves from which purplish blue pom-poms on long stems emerge in late 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 lily varieties shrivel in the summer they’re left on the ground to form a painterly matte . This natural earth-tone mulch promotes new growth when the plants reemerge in the fall from underground tubers.Giant calla lillies in our backyard 19 Elk St San Francisco

Sometimes my failures are unexpected. 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 . For example, I doubted articles bemoaning the difficulty of raising tomatoes in SF’s year-round temperate climate of 50-80-degrees.  I was certain to prove otherwise. 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.)

Kangaroo lillies and sedum - 1Embracing 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 few 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 boost of manure, peat moss and compost. I 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— or I hope since there’s always the chance the Bay Area will slide back into a cycle of drought. Yet even with a little rain the garden manages to reawaken as does my enthusiasm and effort.