Over the past two weekends, we had a fantastic job of planting a design for Patrick Lannan of Flora Grubb Gardens. I always enjoy projects I’ve gotten that are his designs, and love it that people are coming to me more and more to plant them! This happened to be a neighbor of someone I already do gardening for. Sweet! Interestingly, I’ve actually done several patio and balcony gardens in this row of buildings now.
This place is a little street-level patio in a long row of mid-rise condos, South of Market. Several large buildings in a row stretch along Mission Creek, ending at the SF Giants’ ballpark. It’s an exciting and dynamic part of town! Between each building are wide plazas that all connect the street to the creek-front promenade and park behind them, that stretches from the ballpark and hosts SF’s last stand of houseboats. This particular patio opens directly onto one of these inter-building plazas. It’s basically a little cage of metal bars, but with many people constantly passing by to access the creek park, the client felt a lack of privacy. Plus, after a year of living there, they were ready to invest a little in beautifying their outdoor space to create a relaxing place to sit outside.
The first component of the project was the potting. Patrick designed the bulk of the plants to provide a view from inside, and a screening for the windows from outside. Screening windows with plants doesn’t have to be as dense as you might imagine. The fact of having something, anything really, in front of a window makes the passerby’s eye stop there. Even if you really can see through, you’d have to stop and focus to do so. Otherwise, your eye is halted by the immediacy of the plant. The HOA plantings for the plaza include hedges of bamboo (Phylostachys aureosulcata, or yellow groove bamboo, to be specific) that already screen the views into the living rooms of the condos, but the spacing leaves a weird little fifteen by five rectangle of gravel as the fairly useless outdoor space. Patrick chose some pots in orange and green to add some pops of color, and repeated on the patio area itself. The gravel area pots had an aloe tree and some sago palms. The farthest pot from the patio got the tallest plant – the tree aloe (Aloe barberae) – to screen the view into the neighboring mirror-image patio. Around the base of that we planted Sedum hispanicum ‘Aureum’ for a bright base. The two nearer pots have sago palms, or cycads (Cycas revoluta), planted under with black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’). On the patio, we potted another tree aloe relative, Furcraea macdougalii, into a space-saving oval orange pot, with the same chartreuse stone crop as the first tree aloe. A couple of low troughs planted with variegated striped rush (Machaerina rubiginosa ‘Variegata’) provide subtle screening between this and the neighboring patio on the other side. Nice!
The second part of the project came a week later. Patrick’s design called for a pair of vertical garden panels to hang on the bars of the patio to screen the view from the plaza, and planted with Senecio ‘Fish Hook’. Aside from the dimensions I was given, the only other specification was that they had to be black from the patio side (to blend with the low troughs next to them), and grey from the back side. They needed to be grey on the back so they would be camouflaged. We all know how HOA’s can be when it comes to someone trying to be individual with their personal real estate, and the client wanted to be as surreptitious as possible about their vertical gardens.
That created a fun challenge for me. I created some wooden panels in the specified sizes, using plywood for the base and 1×4’s in simple pine for the framing, and painted them with outdoor enamel paints to hold up to weather and watering. The sizes wouldn’t work with a prefab product, such as Woolly Pockets, so I had to make something custom. Some trial-and-error made me decide that simply stapling fabric into pockets directly into the framing wouldn’t work: the staples looked too cheap, and weren’t sturdy enough for the quality I wanted in the finished product. What I ultimately did was drag out my expertise from former jobs in home decor sewing and upholstering. I used heavy-duty felt weed cloth and sewed it. Yep, really. It works wonderfully. I made crisp, tailored pockets, in rows. Three shingled triple-pocket rows for the larger panel, and three shingled double-pocket rows for the smaller. I nailed them into place with some black upholstery nails, and I could tell the client was impressed, even before they were hanging and planted. I sunk eye-screws into the tops of the panels (long ones, drilled down the back edge so that they’d nest into the plywood backing for extra stability), and used those to suspend the panels with vinyl-coated cable strung over the tops of the bars.
We had a bunch of 6-inch hanging pots of the Fish Hooks, and I divided them all up into small plugs of strands. I filled the pockets almost to the top with medium, and slipped the plugs in one by one, starting at the bottom. The end effect is exactly what Patrick had called for: two panels with a cascade of blue-green senecio, to look almost like a waterfall down the bars. Fantastic! From outside the patio, you can’t even tell anything is there unless you’re looking for it, but from inside it makes a phenomenal statement. The client has a chair on order that’ll be positioned to view these panels. A job well done.