One of the many many garden-themed blogs I follow is called Gardens in Unexpected Places. A couple of days ago I got to take a tour of some gardens in unexpected places myself, and thought it would make for an interesting post.
Every day on my way to and from work I pass such a garden. Or, series of gardens, really. At the end of the block from Flora Grubb Gardens is the Southeast Water Pollution Control Plant. Big, fancy name for the sewer plant, basically. It’s much more than just that, though. Here in San Francisco, we voters approved a bill in the 1990′s to protect the waters of our glorious bay by treating all waste water. Before this bill, our sewage was treated and pumped out to sea, but our street runoff ran directly to the bay. Whenever there was rain, anything that was in the streets, including leaked oil and gas and the chemicals from people scrubbing sidewalks, was washed into the gutters and storm drains, and straight out to the bay or ocean. With the voters’ approval, infrastructure was put in place to capture all that water and treat it before it was released to the wild. Now, all sewage and storm drain runoff goes through the same pipes, to be treated at this Bayview facility, or others out by the SF Zoo and up at Fisherman’s Wharf.
When our nursery opened, there was a bit of an effort to beautify the immediate surroundings, including plants for the parking area at the irrigation store next door, plants along the sidewalk along Innes Avenue on the back side of the nursery, and a rehash of the sidewalk gardens at the sewage plant. There’s a big push in this town for water-wise plants, especially when it comes to municipal spaces, and the sewage plant’s cherry trees and roses were replaced with cordyline and succulents. More recently, the head gardener there, Jima Brown, brought in the nursery’s own Patrick Lannan, who’s designed many gardens I’ve installed, to help re-envision the streetside gardens. In conversation we recently discovered that she, like so many gardeners in San Francisco, has taken the same classes as I have at City College, and was an early student of my own friend and teacher and garden cohort Charmain Giuliani. I love our little town.
The reason Jima needed Patrick’s help over there was an interesting one, and quite atypical in a garden. It’s very much an industrial neighborhood, and up Jerrold Avenue a few blocks is the SF Produce District, where the majority of fresh produce that comes into town changes hands in the wee hours of the morning on its way to market. That means there are lots of big rigs. Where there are big rigs, there are long-haul and short-haul truckers. Where there are truckers, there are prostitutes. (My dad tells me they’re called “Lot Lizards” at truck stops, because they appear from dark crevices when headlights appear.) Say what you will, but it’s a fact of life. The problem at the sewage plant, er, “Wastewater Treatment Facility”, is that it’s one of the few places with thick plants along the street. It provided hiding places for nocturnal trade, not to mention outdoor bathroom opportunities and space for junkies to shoot up and discard needles. We’ve all heard of SoHo. I like to call this a “NoHo” garden. Jima was looking for a way to not only discourage such activities, but to do so with panache. She could simply plant the foundations with Agave americana, but there was opportunity to do so much more.
Patrick envisioned a colorful and elegant garden for the space. “Jima doesn’t like purple,” as she will readily tell you, always referring to herself in the third person like the queen-of-her-domain that she is. “Jima wants color.” The garden along Phelps Street is mounded, and dips down towards the back as you near the building. Perfect hiding space from prying eyes at streetside. Patrick chose California native flannel bush (Fremontodendron californicum) to be planted along the walls, because its namesake fuzz is a skin irritant. It won’t stop someone from going in, but it will likely keep them from coming back. It will ultimately provide a roof-high wall of golden yellow flowers, and lives off the natural rain cycles. Aside from that, other plants were chosen for their resistance to dog pee and for their blends of yellows, oranges, and reds. No purple for Jima, except what was already there. And that’s being phased out bit by bit, though she can be talked into leaving a specimen here and there. The real show-stoppers are some GORGEOUS silver palms that went in last year – Brahea armata var. clara. I mean, srsly. And the whole area was mulched in the same ginger rock gravel that we use at the nursery. The color is great at setting off the silvers and reds and golds in the plant choices. Mmm, tasty.
I was taking pix of the NoHo garden, when it occurred to me I could do a walk-by and shoot a video of it. It’s funny to hear a recording of your own voice, isn’t it? I sound weird to myself, and smack my lips altogether too frequently. So it goes. I didn’t want to redo it. The video cuts off suddenly at the end, because my phone rang just then. But I was literally a few words from ending, anyway, so whatever.
Anyhoo, back to my special tour. The other day, Jima wanted to show me where all of these plants I’ve been ordering for her have been going in, and to ask me questions about care and replacement issues with some of them. I got to go behind the scenes, into the fortress itself, to see the works. I got to see the lab, where their staff scientists measure water samples to best apply chemicals and enzymes and bacteria to digest pathogens in the incoming flow. I got to see various gardens and plants around the facility. I got to hear how, when it was designed, the Landscape Architects had made exceptionally poor plant choices for the landscaping. But, that’s what Landscape Architects are infamous for: choosing the wrong plants based purely on looks, without ever really studying plants or even consulting someone who knows what they’re talking about. Monterey Pines towered over the whole facility at one time, dropping their cones and needles into the settling tanks and clogging the works, causing millions of dollars annually in taxpayer costs. Where they didn’t plant pines, they had planted Acacia melanoxylon and Lombardy poplars, with highly invasive roots to bust through the foundations of the settling tanks. Now, all the trees have had to be cut out, and a barren wasteland remains around the tanks.
I totally got distracted as we toured the entire grounds, on both sides of Jerrold Avenue. The northern portion, with the settling tanks and labs, covers five blocks long and two wide. The southern portion, with digesting tanks and grease recycling (into Biodiesel) and methane heat power production (for the neighboring greenhouse ranges) and fertilizer production (yes, that’s an end-product of the sewage treatment), is two blocks wide and four long. It’s vast. I even convinced Jima take me places where Jima has never been, climbing ladders and staircases to get on roofs and up steam towers so I could take pictures from places I’d looked up at on my walks to the bus. It was fascinating to see that there are numerous gardens that can only be appreciated by the employees. Perks for people whose jobs require them to slog around in poop. I’m sure they’re hardly conscious of them, but they appreciate them whether they’re aware of it or not. It’s great to know there’s a Jima there, making the place nicer to look at and caring about the ecology of the plantings.
Here are my “artsy fartsy” shots from the bowels of the sewage treatment plant, botanical and otherwise:
I’m very appreciative of the personal tour Jima gave me. I love getting behind the scenes, even in places like this. So eye-opening!