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.

IMG_0010 (600x800)

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

2013-04-06 12.24.14

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

2013-04-06 12.25.58-1

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.

IMG_0042 (600x800)

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.

IMG_0041 (600x800)


IMG_2598 (600x800)

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.

Branching Out

It’s hard to find a more perfect material for creating outdoor structures than branches. They’re inexpensive, if not free. They complement the landscape, especially if you’re going for a woodsy vibe. They’re 100 percent organic, and will eventually return seamlessly to the earth from whence they came.

The only trick is finding a source and knowing some patience might be involved. Small Spot Gardens tends to use Bayview Greenwaste; if an arborist is working in the neighborhood, it’s like a tree treasure trove.

Reclaimed Containers

Using reclaimed wood is another way of incorporating an ethic of no-waste into your garden. The look of planter boxes built from reused wood can span the spectrum from super rustic to more chic and sleek.

One of our favorite places, Building Resources — San Francisco’s treasure trove of reused construction materials – made this box of old doors. This, obviously, falls under the “super rustic” category. Keep in mind that using large pieces of wood, just as they are, can be a good strategy because it means assembling the box is a relatively quick and simple project. Needless to say, there are tons of old doors out there that can be diverted from the landfill and creatively reused.

In a more stylish garden, it’s typically best to have only one or two really rustic elements — more than that begins to transform the design into something haphazard and messy (which is the antithesis of stylish, unless you’re into that “carefully-cultivated messy look”, of course!). Reclaimed wood still has a valid place in sleeker gardens, however.  For example, Elisa sanded and stained slender pieces of reused wood to make these container covers. The thinner wood would rot quickly if soil was placed directly in them, so instead the plants are kept in the plastic pots and just set inside the wooden boxes. The boxes are a perfect disguise: You can’t even see the ugly plastic containers.

Wild Wood

Using untreated, naturally-worn wood in the garden can offer a sense of warmth and a seamless integration into the surrounding landscape. This is almost a no-brainer, considering wood-as-a-building-material was once wood-the-body-of-a-tree.

At Merritt College’s permaculture garden in Oakland, an herb spiral is shaped by short, uneven pillars. The wooden outline can also double as seats while the gardeners pick their thyme and oregano!

This is a wild grape vine that Elisa’s parents placed in a blank spot in their home. The twisty nature of this plant in inherently sculptural; it’s not hard to imagine using a dead, woody vine as a trellis for a more delicate plant, such as peas in a veggie garden.

And check out this simple way to create a fun, different-looking path. Simply cutting one- or two-inch pieces of log, then filling in the gaps with sand. Very pretty and woodsy (and easy and cheap!).


A Concrete Matter

In the ever-expanding world of re-used materials, “urbanite” is a cool sounding word that refers, simply, to broken up concrete. Pieces of what was once flat, smooth sidewalk can now, once deconstructed, be stacked like bricks to create a vertical wall or foundation. This example of reuse is pretty significant, considering concrete is an incredibly energy intensive product to make.  Plus, I must admit, it’s quite theraputic to smash a sidewalk to pieces with a sledgehammer. Here are a couple examples of urbanite in action:


Paired with redwood, this is a sidewall of veggie boxes Elisa built in a backyard in Laurel Heights. This was reused onsite, having been torn up from an old path in the previously neglected space.

These retaining walls are part of the landscaping at a hotel in Boonville, Mendocino County. Notice how the stacked pieces of urbanite are re-enforced with wire mesh, essentially blending in and preventing any wayward slippage.


Totally Metal

Like wood and other building materials, metal is a resource that is discarded en masse but can be easily, cheaply, and creatively rescued from the landfill and put to good use. It is another texture that can be incorporated in garden design to either to complement or contrast with the more organic elements (aka, the plants!). Metal is at once both artistic and functional.

These simple wooden benches at the Boonville Hotel in Mendocino’s Anderson Valley have bases made of recycled twisted rebar. Anyone who’s ever tripped around a construction site knows rebar isn’t in short supply, and the possibilities with this bendy material (trellis, stakes, furniture, embellishments) are nearly infinite.

Elisa designed and constructed this trellis in the Mission district using reclaimed metal found at the local treasure trove of reclaimed materials, Building Resources. Check out the tiny mosses and flowers planted along the horizontal pieces, as well as the larger plants given a habitat in reused metal ducts.  In the same half-inside, half-outside garden she used an assortment of recycled materials to create a plant display over an old fountain base:

A fire-engine red sculpture made from, obviously, old garden tools (as seen in Sausalito, artist unknown). An artistic addition for a funky garden, perhaps?







Old Windows + The Outer Sunset = Happy Plants

In permaculture, there’s a principal that goes something like, “The problem is the solution”. This little greenhouse pretty much typifies that concept. The “problem” here being the Outer Sunset’s characteristically foggy clime. There are some far out gardens in this neighborhood, for sure. But the grey is prohibitive to many would-be gardeners. The “problem”, Part II: Our landfills are clogged with construction materials. Luckily, there’s a creatively executed solution: Build a greenhouse out of old windows! It seems so simple, right?

This hidden gem stands behind The General Store, a little hipster boutique on Judah between 45thand 46th avenue, next to Trouble Coffee, Outerlands, and perhaps the most lovely, organic parklet in all of San Francisco. Greenhouses are magic, transforming a small, often harsh space into a productive haven. This one, designed and built by Sausalito-based artist Jesse Schlesinger is so damn cute and resourceful, as well. Go check it out and get inspired like we are. –Katie

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.