Escape to the Garden

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Living in the second-densest city in the United States, most San Franciscans don’t have much space for private gardens.  And while the city mandates composting, most people here don’t have room for their own compost bin out back.  The Garden is a half-acre slice of paradise where Inner Sunset residents who enjoy gardening and composting can come and work the soil together. 

Located at Seventh Street and Lawton Avenue, this delightful public space is crossed by winding paths and dotted with flowering California native plants all year round.  Murals, mosaics, benches and gazebos dot the garden, providing visitors many places to pause and linger. 

“We’ve got UCSF over there and a nursing home over here, and often people or families dealing with medical situations like to come and work here, because turning the soil with your own hands and being among the plants can be very grounding and healing,” said Hilary Gordon, one of the Garden’s directors. 

Indeed, the Garden offers a great escape for stressed students, who need to get away from their computers and textbooks from time to time, as well.

 “I love the Garden,” said Carrie Tsai, a UCSF resident in pediatric dentistry. “I always walk through on my way home.  It’s neat how one small plot of urban land can produce so much healthy goodness.” 

This healthy goodness is open to the public.  Anyone can join in the gardening or drop in for classes — held every Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.  Details on the classes can be found at

On a recent Saturday, people were busy harvesting radishes, kale, chard and parsley.  Signs welcomed visitors and advertised classes: “Natural Plant Care” and “Fruit Tree 101.”  Daffodils were blooming, workers smiling, wheelbarrows wheeling, and the sun was shining on the entire salubrious scene.  Every little alcove featured an informational sign explaining some feature of the landscape, with topics like “Rainwater Harvesting,” “Control Pests Naturally” and “Plant California Natives.”

During one lecture, the instructor spoke enthusiastically to a group sitting on stumps beneath a trellis.  “Compost,” she exclaimed, “it’s a crazy substance.  It keeps a healthy soil biota free from bad bugs and rich in helpful bacteria, it retains water, it’s got lots of nitrogen, it’s full of macronutrients and micronutrients — it is magic.” 

The nonprofit Garden for the Environment started the Garden in 1990 as a way to demonstrate small-scale urban organic food production, climate-appropriate landscaping and urban compost systems.  For every eye-pleasing ornamental, there is a vegetable to please the palate, and all the food grown here is donated to the G-House, a transitional youth shelter run by Larkin Street Youth Services.  This bounty and beauty is created by the hands of volunteers who meet every week under the direction of Garden for the Environment.

In addition to the weekly classes, Garden for the Environment offers a Gardening and Compost Educator Program that runs for three months in the fall.  “The educator program’s been going for 16 years,” said Blair Randall, director of the nonprofit.  “Graduates of the program are now running community gardens all across the city.” 

Some UCSF students have even made time to enroll in the program, such as Andrew Inagaki, a fourth-year dental student who received his Gardening and Compost certificate before getting his DDS. 

Whether you’re just passing through or staying to get your hands back in the earth again, the Garden for the Environment is well worth a visit.  Thanks to the hardworking visionaries who create and maintain this garden and others like it, our city is blessed with many green oases and an ever-growing environmental awareness.  They lead the way in making a public space that is fabulously earthy and eminently livable.