Promoting Beauty while Eliminating Waste

Having to go to the bathroom in the midst of a shopping day in San Francisco can be a frustrating hassle, often necessitating buying the cheapest thing on a café menu to be allowed to use the facilities, or weighing the grossness of the public stall against the pressure in your bladder. Contrast this scenario with the “coolest public bathrooms in the world”, which happen to be in Austin.

The structure is a spiral shaped by various sizes of metal rectangles — some taller, some shorter – that are spaced further apart from each other at the entrance to the bathroom (and the tail end of the spiral) and get increasingly closer together until they form a solid wall around the toilet in the center.  This design could be used in other scenarios, too, where privacy is the issue, such as around a backyard hot tub or half a spiral around a seating or changing area. The possibilities are dizzying.

Friendly Fences

Leave it to a garden designer to go to one of the world’s premier music and media conferences and return home with a ton of pictures of…..fences. This horizontal wooden fence is not only stylish in its simplicity and departure from the more common vertical alignment, it is also a “smart” fence, with two of the sides having gaps between the slats but the side shared with the neighbors being solid and allowing for more privacy.

This is another example of experimenting with openings to make a fence more fun. Again, a boundary is built but it looks more akin to art rather than an element of some strict, impermeable fortress.

The metal gate provides continuity by using the same rust color as the wooden fence but plays with the vertical dimension rather than the horizontal.

This shorter fence is almost like a sturdy lattice. The open squares allow the olive trees to be visible from the other side which, if you think about it, is a very efficient use of beauty!

On the [Planted] Road: Notes from Austin

A couple of months ago Elisa visited Austin, Texas for South by Southwest. Of course, amidst all the music, her eyes wandered toward creative uses of plants in small spaces. The following few posts contain a sampling of what she saw. –Katie

Contain Yourself! This is a Public Place…..


Arranging plants in containers is an easy way add more diversity to garden design. You can play with differences in height, variations in the materials and color of the container, or the idea of an instant mini-garden created by the boundaries of a pot. The rust-colored steel containers in this sidewalk strip allow the eye to pleasingly bounce through the small landscape. Moreover, sturdy containers help protect the plants. And note the plant selection as well: Succulents are great for sidewalk gardens because they hold their form and don’t require much water at all. (Contrast this to a common problem in San Francisco, in which neighbors get excited about installing and initially undertaking a sidewalk beautification project, but sometimes neglect to maintain it, leading to an overgrown mess and a magnet for trash.)


These hexagonal pillars add an artistic, sculptural element, with succulents poking out the sides like the drought-tolerant version of strawberries tumbling out of a strawberry pot. The shock of sword-like leaves crowning the top is a cool addition, as well.


These two matching but differently sized pots are a perfect example of paying attention to height to make a simple corner more interesting. With the succulents planted in the ground around them, it draws the eye to three levels, offering a sense of balance.


A Succulent Proposition

Recently, all sorts of inventive garden accoutrements have come out with the purpose of incorporating foliage into the vertical hardscape. Those fabric “pockets” that act as living awnings are probably the most familiar. But this design – on the wall at Folsom Street’s Stable Café, and built by Lila B. – wins the prize for the most artistic, practical, and recycled. The salvaged, multi-colored shutters now no longer serve to let in or block out the light, only to support succulents. These plants are famously drought-tolerant and low maintenance, perfect for rooting down in narrow spaces. Between the repurposed window covers and hardy hanging-on succulents, this installation is a testament to survival.

The Way We Roll

Planter boxes on wheels are becoming increasingly popular around café and shop entryways in the City. Have you noticed? The ultimate small spot – a container – that won’t be stolen or vandalized come nighttime, nor will prompt curse words to fly from the mouth of the person with the closing shift attempting to lug a heavy planter through the doorway. And how much cuter can you get than a Radio Flyer full of houseplants?

Or, for a more modern aesthetic, a recycled metal duct. But these are just two examples. The possibilities for moveable planters-on-wheels are pretty infinite.

Having a Ball….

A small space held together by moss-covered bricks, and filled with an array of green plants – sculpted tufts of Buxus, asparagus fern, Italian cypress, liriope. Very classic, sure, but this relatively simple design is catapulted into the realm of “way more interesting” by the simple addition of a ceramic ball (no, it’s not a giant puffball mushroom). This unadorned sphere adds a modern, sculptural dimension to a timeless garden palette.

A reminder that sometimes what is missing from a design isn’t another plant in another color, texture, or cultivar, but rather, an inanimate artifact to complement and enhance the living elements.

Sit on This!: Old & Board is New and Cool

What is a garden if not a refuge in which to relax, to contemplate, to chill? Reserving space for the “hang out and enjoy” area is an aspect of landscape design that should never be overlooked. The folks at the San Francisco-based furniture company, Old & Board, seem to think so too, only they factor in the concepts of beauty and sustainability in addition to functionality. All their custom-made chairs are crafted from reclaimed wood (sometimes even out of the ubiquitous pallet), and though some of their chairs retain evidence of the wood’s previous use, in others the original grain and luster of the wood is artfully invited back to life.

After admiring the vitality of Old & Board’s creations, it’s hard to imagine buying cheap outdoor furniture at a stripmall hardware store that will eventually end up in a landfill. And though they’re not tacky and plastic, their chairs are far from über chi-chi. As they put it on their website: “We love imperfections. Nail holes, wood knots and discoloration – that is what makes these chairs unique. If you are looking for clean lines or a contemporary look, these pieces most likely aren’t for you. Just being honest.”


Best of Both Worlds: Desert by the Beach

When people think of succulents, they often envision the scorching, sandy environment of the desert southwest. This garden, on the other hand, is adjacent to San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, famous for its swath of fog and salty air. Though it utilizes almost 100 percent succulents, from agaves and aeoniums to fan aloes and cotyledons, nothing about this design really evokes images of New Mexico or rattlesnakes, to me at least.

Perhaps it’s the addition of warm, dark wood, or the sculptural brush strokes of the cypress trees, which also serve to offer a touch of deep evergreen amidst the cool blues, silvers, and corals of the succulents.

There is also no sense of harshness here – the plants spill out, inviting, from the between the rock edges, and the diversity of form is complementary and inclusive. (and note the urbanite wall and the sleek horizontal fence!)

Vital Veggies….Anywhere!

Within the past several years a lot folks have decided they want to start growing their own food in urban areas. This is a wonderful resurgence, for both the personal and the planetary. And guess what? Vegetables can thrive even in San Francisco’s odd little spots, and even in a mild, often foggy climate. This brick planter is along a driveway in the notoriously chilly Outer Sunset. It’s packed with kale, chard, collards, bok choy, arugula, favas, turnips, leeks – an amazing variety for a tiny space.

In a backyard in Noe Valley, this was built last summer by Small Spot Gardens, sited under an old pergola that was too small to be really be used as a sitting area. The perfect place, though, for a raised veggie bed. During winter, kale, chard, and salad greens flourish – the quintessential leafy greens for optimal health, year-round harvesting, and good growing in less-than-sunny conditions.

At another Small Spot client’s yard, this veggie plot was made using stone rescued from a neighbor’s debris pile. All living proof that it doesn’t take much to make a happy habitat for some kale and chard.

Up Against the Wall

Though Small Spot Gardens is all about finding an ingenious use of even the tiniest patches of soil, not all of us have a garden-able plot in which to grow flowers or food. But solutions aren’t always so obvious, or sometimes they are just in such plain sight as to go wholly unnoticed. For example, if we have a house, then we have a wall, usually several of them. As this home demonstrates, the mantra of urban sustainability –think up, rather than out – can lead to an inventive and spectacular design. With all the sun from this south-facing wall, these multi-colored aeoniums and other succulents are destined to turn an otherwise bland beige wall into a vertical art form. Imagine!: According to the local nonprofit SPUR, San Francisco has over 120,000 buildings. There is a huge amount of potential here.