Planning a street garden is something Iâ€™ve had a lot of time to think about. Usually I do this as I am moving a plant to a new location, and thinking to myself “If I had planned all this out, I wouldnâ€™t be breaking my back right nowâ€¦”
Pennsylvania Garden had one plant in the beginning â€“ a Princess Plant (Tibouchina urvilleana) planted by our neighbor, Jim. I put other plants around it, and bought more that I stuck in various groups and those became other beds. It was all very random! I donâ€™t recommend this methodâ€¦
I chose species from myÂ Sunset Western Gardening Book, or on a whim at the garden center. Many other plants came from neighbors who donated them.Â At times it was a bit of a mess (still is!) As the winter turned to spring, then summer, some species were clearly out of place. The donated Hydrangea wilted in the hot sun, and the Nasturtiums Iâ€™d foolishly planted for quick color went berserk and suffocated their neighbors. And letâ€™s not talk about that evil pineapple mintâ€¦
Clearly, there are a few thinks you can think about before setting shovel to dirt. Hereâ€™s what I (try to) take into consideration now:-
Paths and other hardscape items.Â Eventually I realized I needed real beds and paths, and these came about organically. I noted the straightest path into the garden, and to the dog area, and saw that people and dogs followed those paths no matter what I put in their wayâ€¦ I altered the beds to allow for that, and planted species that could handle the traffic. I wove twigs into bundles to make a recycled and compostable border edging. Next came steps on steep slopes, and the arch and various other hardscape items: the framework of the garden.
Size. How large will this tiny 4â€ plant get eventually? I simply could not imagine the plants getting much bigger, despite the label assuring me I was planting a shrub that would make 4â€™ x 4â€™ eventually. Was it a failure of imagination, or lack of confidence in the plants themselves? Either way, they grew! And this meant I had to move other plants out of the way.
Deadliness. Species known to be somewhat poisonous or spiky should also sit back in the bed to prevent risk to passersby with low risk aversion!
Water. Newsflash: water is in very short supply in the Bay area. If you donâ€™t have access to it, choose xeric plants that like to be dry. If you do have access to it, think about the moral imperative to use water wisely: plant in the rainy season, and choose plants that can manage with just weekly watering, or less if possible.
If youâ€™re planting on a slope, remember that water will run downhill. Get to know the lay of the land and plant your thirstiest plants where the water collects.
Yes, you can be very clever by having papyrus and other bog plants at the top of a rocky slope but after a while your shameless water consumption will cause people to point and wrinkle their noses. And nobody likes to be pointed at.
Sun. Plants are usually labeled by their preference for â€œshadeâ€ â€œpart shadeâ€ or â€œsunâ€ but these classifications are too vague.Â Some plants claiming to love full sun withered under the glare at my garden.Â And supposed shade-lovers practically uprooted and dragged themselves to a sunnier spot.Â Be sure to spend an entire day at your garden to see what areas are in full shade all day, or which ones get just an hour of shade in the morning and full sun the rest of the day. You might be surprised what you find.
Accept death. Some of your plants will die. This is why they invented compost heaps: so you can bury your mistakes. Just make sure you learn from those poor little victims and their demise! And donâ€™t be afraid to move plants that look unhappy to a better spot.
Draw it up. With all these things in mind, sit down with a pencil and grid paper, or a nice fresh copy of Photoshop or Illustrator, and map out your garden. Redo this design 17 or 18 times, and show it to every landscape designer and architect you meet, begging them to help you. Throw a few giant, invasive, deadly species into your design so you can a) assess their competence to assist you based on whether or not they notice, and b) make them think you are an idiot in desperate need of their help. This little trick should net you a great deal of qualified advice.
If youâ€™ve read my other blog posts youâ€™ll know that after that getting the garden built is a simple matter of applying for grant money, mustering volunteers and sitting back with a nice cup of tea while everyone else does the hard work. Ha!
If you want to do a little gardening one weekend and find out for yourself whether Iâ€™m kidding or not about the volunteers, come to our monthly volunteer day on the first Saturday of each month. Check outÂ our website for more details – Iâ€™d be happy to show you around.
Annie Shaw is founder and head gardener of Pennsylvania Garden in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood. She can be contacted through theÂ Pennsylvania Garden blog.