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 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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How could you not want to sit in this chair? It’s a worthy addition to a funky, artsy garden, hand-constructed from reclaimed metal parts and with a grill from a Jeep giving it a quirky personality (assuming a chair can be said to have a personality). This piece was found at Renga Arts,, a gallery in Somona specializing in art made from recycled and reclaimed materials.