Weeds as Mindset

By Lauren Lewis

A weed is simply a plant growing where it is not wanted. But there’s nothing inherently ugly or unpleasant about garden weeds as a category; in fact many are quite lovely, and not so different from their relatives that we plant on purpose.


On the left is oxalis pes-caprae, likely dominating your garden at this very moment. On the right is oxalis vulcanicola, a dainty, colorful addition to borders and containers.

Weeds are only unwanted because their impressive growth characteristics allow them to spread quickly in places they haven’t been invited and outcompete more desired plants. They are plants that have evolved to be the earliest, fastest growers after a disturbance in the environment. A disturbance could be a fire, a flood, a fallen tree that leaves newly exposed soil, the planting of a garden. Weed seeds are fastest to germinate, and their seedlings grow quickly, collecting more resources than their non-weedy neighbors. Weedy plants typically flower faster than other plants, and many have seed characteristics that aid wide dispersal, such as parachute shapes (like dandelion puffs) or hooks for velcroing to fur and pants (burrs).

All of these characteristics mean that weeds can dominate a disturbed environment soon after the disturbance. In a typical garden the disturbance is constant, which means the weeds are also constant. But in a natural environment following a single disturbance event, the pioneering weeds slowly change the environment in ways that encourage growth by the next types of plants- shrubs, small trees, etc. The weedy growth builds organic matter in the soil, the roots change soil structure, the plants can change the soil’s pH and mineral composition.

Weeds provide these crucial services to recovering natural environments, and despite their bad rap they also provide various under appreciated services to humans. For example, weeds and their roots protect our urban, oft-disturbed soil from erosion during rain. In a garden setting mulch can provide some of that same service, but weeds are substantially more effective since they are tethered to the soil by their roots.fullsizeoutput_28a4

Grasses are a massive category of weedy plants that provide humans with another crucial service: grains as a food source. Grasses are highly adaptive and dominant in habitats everywhere except Antarctica, with fast growth and a low growth point that lets them survive trampling and grazing. The earliest agriculture was cultivation of grasses for grain, and today grasses account for the majority of agricultural crops (wheat, rice, corn!).

For these reasons and many more, some creative folks are trying to give weeds a boost in reputation, using a variety of interesting methods. Spontaneous Urban Plants is a crowd-sourced mapping and research project aimed at noticing, understanding and celebrating the various benefits of the weeds growing in New York City. Weeds catalogued by the SUP project are categorized by the particular benefits they perform, including urban heat mitigation, carbon sequestration, food, wildlife habitat and many more. The project aims to subvert the negative assumptions about weeds in a way that can positively influence urban design.

Mona Caron is a muralist and photographer who is using her art to raise weeds up a notch. She happens to be San Francisco-based, and you’ve likely noticed some of her iconic murals around the city (above). Caron views weeds as under appreciated in their beauty, so she paints murals of giant healthy weeds, allowing her subjects to demand the attention she thinks they deserve.


Ribwort plantain in San Francisco. Photos via monacaron.com


At the small scale of a single garden, one can carry out the same kind of garden rebellion by simply questioning the decision to remove a weed. Is it preventing another plant from growing? Using fresh eyes, how does it look to you? Some plants that previously would have been pulled automatically might hold a new form of appeal. And even if you can’t find their beauty, you can boost the health of your soil by cutting weeds off at the ground level instead of pulling. Cutting the weed off and leaving the roots intact helps maintain soil structure and avoids the soil disturbance that patient weed seeds are waiting for. By keeping all or part of our weeds around, we can create healthier and maybe even more interesting natural spaces.


The literal power of flowers

By Lauren Lewis


Flowers are the garden’s showstoppers. Even the least botanically-inclined can appreciate their color and fragrance, and for Valentine’s Day they’re a near requirement as a sign of your love. For the plant itself, the flower allows for reproduction. Most flowers contain both pollen (the male contribution to reproduction) and ovules (like eggs) that accept pollen and turn into seeds. The colorful petals have evolved to attract critters like us, though more accurately insects and birds, who visit the flower and unknowingly carry the pollen to another flower. Plants rely on the beauty of their flowers for their continued existence.

In an urban environment, we can can use our love of flowers for a good cause. You’ve probably seen press about honeybee population declinewhich is concerning because of its impact on agriculture, but you may not have heard about the same problem happening among native pollinators (honeybees are originally from Europe). Hundreds of native pollinator species -bees, butterflies, moths, hummingbirds- are threatened by lost habitat, chemical use, and other factors. The good news is that we urban residents have some agency over the survival of those diverse pollinators depending on how we choose to use our open spaces, and especially how we incorporate flowers.

In one study of bees in urban parts of California’s central coast, researchers found that bee diversity and abundance were higher in gardens with more abundant flowers, more plant diversity and more open ground as opposed to mulch. The flowers provide bee food, and the authors theorize that plant diversity and open ground likely provide nesting habitat for varied bee species. The authors found that these garden-level factors were more strongly associated with bee population health than larger scale factors such as how developed the surrounding land is. This finding illustrates the potential power that a garden owner can have in the effort to protect pollinators.

Seattle’s Pollinator Pathway is a fantastic example of people using their power of garden design to support pollinators. Founded by Sarah Bergmann, the Pollinator Pathway is a mile-long, 12 inch-wide stretch of curb gardens planted with plants picked specifically to attract pollinators. It connects a college campus with an urban forest, in an effort to support movement of small pollinators, who often can only fly short distances at a time. Through Sarah’s effort, the owners of these tiny flowered plots collaborated to create something greater than the sum of its parts.


Photo credit: Matt Ziatunich

Here in San Francisco we have the Green Hairstreak Corridor, a series of small habitats in the Inner Sunset, intentionally designed to support the Coastal Green Hairstreak butterfly. This Nature in the City project focuses on the single butterfly species, but with the same goal as the Pollinator Pathway of providing a series of habitats that support insect movement, rather than a single oasis of appropriate flowers. This type of effort is inspiring in its ability to bring neighbors together toward a goal that goes beyond the beauty of their individual outdoor spaces.

Our gardens as part of the urban landscape

By Lauren Lewis

Cities exist in their particular locations because at the time of their formation the location itself offered something vital for their earliest inhabitants. Space to build shelter on, trees to build with, wildlife to eat, and above all: water. At a city’s inception city dwellers depended on these features of their environment for their lives and livelihoods, and if the features weren’t robust enough to support a growing population, a city wouldn’t form in that spot.

Do we still depend on these features? In a purely survival sense we do not. As San Franciscans we use water from the Sierras, our food comes from the Central Valley and beyond, our building materials are sourced planet-wide. But we do depend on these natural features for livability and identity of the city. Many of our neighborhoods, which give us a sense of home within the large urban landscape, are defined by geographic features, most notably hills and valleys. And certainly our open spaces big and small and all the benefits they offer us, are dependent on natural elements. Our open spaces, from our patio gardens to our regular walking routes down the Panhandle, connect us to the natural elements that have shaped life in the city for every single San Franciscan.

Version 2San Franciscans are very familiar with the city’s hills. We know the hills by the vistas they provide and the varying strenuousness of our daily walks, but what’s normally hidden from view is how the hills determine water flow below our sidewalks. Arroyo Dolores and Old Arroyo Dolores used to flow eastward down our current 18th and 14th streets to where they joined up into Mission Creek, around the north side of Potrero Hill and out to the bay. The east Mission neighborhood is low lying and was likely marshy in the past, and now when we’re lucky enough to get a heavy rain, there can be serious flooding on Folsom St.

What this means for us at Small Spot Gardens is that we are powerfully guided in our design and plant choices by the water that has historically flowed or avoided the ground under your particular space. When starting a new garden project we can refer to maps of old San Francisco (for example http://explore.museumca.org/creeks/1640-RescMission.html) to predict whether plants in the garden are likely to reach underground water with any ease. When we choose plants with this in mind we’re tying your garden into the space and history that surrounds it.

Old blog

Once upon a time we had a blog here and it was a little different from what we’re doing now. Might be fun to glance at but we’re focusing more on the nature – city connection now 🙂 All the old posts are below.

Garden Party


Everyone in the City is so busy 24/7, right? We can barely “make time” to see friends, much less to, say, totally re-do a medium-sized backyard in a mere day. See where the permaculture adage, “The problem is the solution” might come in handy here? A garden party!


In this case, Elisa’s friends had recently bought a house near Duboce Park. After doing some necessary prep work – mowing and mulching, mainly – the day before, they invited about 20 people over to build and beautify their new outdoor space.

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There was a project for everyone, from laying ground cloth and painting outdoor furniture to planting and spreading a lovely layer of shredded bark.

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The transformation was quick, fun, and dramatic. Stock a cooler of refreshing beverages, grab some tools, and call your friends.

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File under: Cool Things To Do with Sticks

One time I found a burgundy-colored Manzanita branch lying on the corner of Page and Clayton in the upper Haight. I nailed it to my wall, hung dozens of pairs of earrings on its delicate branchlets, and inadvertently created the most commented-upon piece of functional art in my room for the next three years. The lesson here? Sticks and branches have a ton of character, as both these towel hangers and this arbor will attest.

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They’re simple, striking, and free, and can create a structure in itself (the arbor) or liven up a wall with texture and dimension (the hangers). Note the tiny lights woven throughout the arbor, creating a whimsical nighttime sculpture.

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Modern Support

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These sturdy black columns were made by pouring concrete into columnar forms. Though these ones are part of a building in Potrero Hill, it’s not hard to imagine them as supports for a modern-styled arbor or trellis in a garden needing some verticality. Or, similarly, in a small grouping as a sculpture; add water flowing up the center and tumbling down the sides for a fountain. Simple and supportive, but with a big statement.

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