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annie shaw

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Pennsylvania Garden: The Jewel of Potrero Hill from NENtv on Vimeo.

There are no finer examples of one person’s determination transforming an unsightly piece of land into an urban oasis of plants and community than Potrero Hill’s Pennsylvania Garden. In 2008, resident Annie Shaw took a d-shaped piece of land next to the Mariposa Street off ramp on 280 South and began transforming it into a community garden. Soon, the neighborhood got behind her and the result is quite possibly the Jewel of Potrero Hill.

NENtv visits Annie, garden volunteers, and neighbors to find out how Pennsylvania Garden happened and what the rest of San Francisco can learn from Annie and her team’s courage and determination.


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Annie Shaw, Founder, Pennsylvania Garden

Planning a street garden is something I’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 wouldn’t be breaking my back right now…”

Pennsylvania Garden had one plant in the beginning – 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 don’t recommend this method…

I chose species from my Sunset Western Gardening Book, or on a whim at the garden center. Many other plants came from neighbors who donated them.  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 I’d foolishly planted for quick color went berserk and suffocated their neighbors. And let’s not talk about that evil pineapple mint…

Clearly, there are a few thinks you can think about before setting shovel to dirt. Here’s what I (try to) take into consideration now:-

Paths and other hardscape items. 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 way… 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 4” 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 4’ x 4’ 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 don’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 you’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.

An overhead map of Pennsylvania Garden

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 “shade” “part shade” or “sun” but these classifications are too vague.  Some plants claiming to love full sun withered under the glare at my garden.  And supposed shade-lovers practically uprooted and dragged themselves to a sunnier spot.  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 don’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 you’ve read my other blog posts you’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 I’m kidding or not about the volunteers, come to our monthly volunteer day on the first Saturday of each month. Check out our website for more details – I’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 the Pennsylvania Garden blog.


Annie Shaw, Founder, Pennsylvania Garden

In my last NEN Blog I wrote about how we’re attacking the process of getting grants to fund Pennsylvania Garden, the guerrilla garden turned San Francisco Street Park in Potrero Hill. This time I’ll let you in on the secret to getting volunteers to help with your project. You know, those magical people from all walks of life who unselfishly show up and work their butts off for no pay on the weekends.

Where do they come from? What do they get out of it? Why on earth do they keep coming back?!?

It took me a bit of time to realize that I couldn’t do all the work myself, and when my boyfriend Matt started complaining that I was just using him like a donkey to carry heavy objects, I saw right away that I’d need a few fresh donkeys! Uh, I mean, volunteers.

I started asking people who passed by the garden to help me. Sometimes it was spontaneous. “Quick, we need another strong guy to move this bench into position… Hey, you over there!” And sometimes at the end of a pleasant conversation with a passer-by about the garden, I’d slip in my usual trick question: “So… do you like gardening?”

They trickled in, but setting up a monthly volunteer date was much more productive.  I posted it on my blog, and initially specified a two hour window. People would show up at the end of the window, when I was getting tired, and I’d be stuck there with them for another two hours!  I changed to a start time only – much better. We’re adding an informational signpost with volunteer day details at the front of the garden too. I expect this will help swell the numbers at volunteer days even more.

Annie (far right) with three wonderful volunteers.

I explain to volunteers what they’ll be doing before they come (weeding, pruning, watering), and tell them what to bring (strong shoes, gloves, water, sunscreen) so they are prepared and comfortable. I developed a volunteer orientation document too. It lists all the dangers at Pennsylvania Garden, and details several good starter jobs anyone can do – even if they’ve never gardened before. We also have a waiver all volunteers must sign before volunteering in the garden. These two documents accompany the volunteer coordinator to every work day we have.

What’s the reward? Instant results are great: move the rocks, plant a plant, and get a verbal “high five” from the project leader. Sincere thanks for a job well done is worth a lot, yet so often forgotten!

Encourage people to come back and see the progress of the plants they worked with, and they’ll get a real sense of satisfaction. They need to “own” their project.  Pretty soon they’ll become proud of it, and they’ll work all the harder.

One class I attended said that if you bring coffee and donuts, people will come! If there are flowers, cuttings, seeds, or leftover plants at the end of the day, give them to the volunteers as a gift. People also like to see their name “in lights” so I always try to mention them by name, or add photos of them at work, in the blog post after they volunteer.

How do I keep them coming back? I try and get their email address and just straight up ask them! I also try to make their experience as good as possible. I ask people what they like to do and find at task that makes them feel productive and yet comfortable. Some people hate getting dirty, some people love to weed. Some people find watering soothing, others have pruning skills and other specialized knowledge I can put to great use. Some love to work alone, in peace. Others like to chat as they go. The volunteer coordinator has to tune in to those needs and make this unpaid job fun.

Another important aspect to managing volunteers is managing their energy. If someone is starting to wilt in the sun, or needs to leave to attend to something else but feels they can’t unless they finish their task, take over and send them on their way with a smile. They’re not slaves! I might have almost unlimited energy for gardening, but small tasks are more rewarding and manageable for volunteers to begin with.

Finally, I have a secret weapon. Arum is my newest teammate in the garden, a project manager, and neighbor, who succumbed to my pathetic whining about my lack of time to manage volunteers. She can get 50 people out of bed on a Sunday morning to pick up trash. No mean feat!

Yes, it’s true – the real key to managing volunteers is to get another volunteer to manage them!

If you want to do a little gardening one weekend, come to our monthly volunteer day on the first Saturday of each month at 11am where anyone can drop by and try their hand at gardening. Check out my blog. I’d be happy to show you around.

Annie Shaw is founder and head gardener of Pennsylvania Garden in the Potrero Hill neighborhood. She can be contacted through her blog, Pennsylvania Garden.


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Annie Shaw, Founder, Pennsylvania Garden

In my last NEN blog I told you about how Pennsylvania Garden (map) got started – from guerrilla garden to official San Francisco Street Park! Well we’re now in our second year, and the larger plants are looking pretty established. We’re still working on some areas, but when I look around the garden what I realize we need is hardscape improvements. You know – retaining walls, terraces, paths, benches and fences.

That stuff all costs money – and to do them right can take quite a lot. I’ve spent a lot of my own money making the garden what it is, but I just don’t have thousands more lying around (I wish!) With that in mind, we’ve decided to try and get some grants to fund the garden, and I tasked my volunteers Emily and Josh with writing grant proposals and maintaining a budget for the garden.

To my surprise they agreed, and equipped with the knowledge I gleaned from attending the San Francisco Parks Trust‘s (SFPT) grant writing class this year they have jumped in and have already applied for some funding. They might literally be worth their weight in gold – wait and see!

Where does a person find out about grants they can apply for, you ask? Well the aforementioned grant writing class was a great source of leads. We’ve also been tipped off to grants available from groups specific to our neighborhood, and through researching grants on a national level. Get your Google on, and make friends with your local neighborhood groups – they can help you.

Most of these grants require you to be a 501(c)3 nonprofit though.  And at that mountain of paperwork I balked, I confess. Luckily, once again, it was SFPT to the rescue! They will become our fiscal sponsor – any grants will be awarded to them in our name, the granting body gets the tax write-off, and we get the cash. Happy days.

However, this could take some months. In the meantime, we still have stuff that needs to get paid for. One such item is the information kiosk for the front of the garden.  This will be a metal structure that will house a weatherproof covered corkboard to hold signs that detail garden news, ways to get involved, brochures and dog poop bags.

So with that fundraising goal in mind, we decided to hold a plant sale! All the volunteers met and discussed ideas, and May 1st was chosen as the best day. We all started propagating plants and asking for donations from our friends in the neighborhood, and a frenzy of postering, emailing, watering, potting, and sowing started.

On the day of the sale we had doubts that anyone would show up, but in the end we made $1100 and were so busy helping customers we didn’t get a lunch break! A big success on many levels. It brought our merry band of volunteers closer, it raised cash and awareness for the garden, and it even helped our grant raising efforts: when a granting body sees that a community is behind a project, and that the volunteers have worked to fund it too, they are more likely to give funds as the project is just more likely to succeed. And everyone loves a winner!

So, if getting a garden started seems like too much money and work to you, take my advice: attend the SFPT’s upcoming workshops and see what you can get via grants.

And if you just want to do a little gardening one weekend, I have a regular monthly volunteer day on the first Saturday of each month from 11am-1pm where anyone can drop by and try their hand at gardening – check out my blog and come visit the garden soon! I’d be happy to show you around.

Annie Shaw is the founder of Pennsylvania Garden in the Potrero Hill neighborhood.

Annie Shaw, Founder, Pennsylvania Garden

Prior to December 2008, the D-shaped patch of land opposite my old apartment was known as the Mariposa Street off ramp on 280 South. It was also known as a place where you could allow your dog to poop and not have to pick up, or a place you could shack up with a 40 oz. of Mickey’s until the cops moved you along!

All that changed when I decided to create a guerrilla garden there. I naively thought it’d be as simple as heading over to the San Francisco Botanical Garden’s plant sale and loading up a few fast-growing plants, planting them out, picking a name (Pennsylvania Garden – it’s on Pennsylvania at 18th) and voila! Instant garden. But as I found out, creating a garden in the city is not about the plants, but the people.

Pennsylvania Garden before and after

Over the coming months, I met many of my neighbors for the first time, despite having lived on the block for 5 years. They helped make the garden what it is, by assisting with cleanup, watering, building an arch, bench and steps, planting plants and weeding weeds. Every person had a special skill they brought to the garden that improved it dramatically, from welding and cement work, to pruning the trees, to calculating the perfect dimensions for the steps.

I approached the owner of the land, Caltrans, when I realized that I really cared about how the garden Pennsylvania Garden before and afterwould survive. Initially they suggested I adopt it under the Adopt-A-Highway scheme, but when they saw some of the hardscape items installed in the garden they balked at the liability. Worried that all my hard work and aching muscles were for nothing, I reached out to the community with an online petition. I got in touch with the district supervisor’s office, and spoke with The Potrero View newspaper in hopes of gaining support.

A tense time followed where there didn’t seem much point in gardening in the face of impending doom. Then there came a call from Caltrans. They had considered this new and disturbing gardening activity and the community support behind it, and teamed up with DPW and the San Francisco Parks Trust to allow the garden to remain! I signed an agreement with SFPT to maintain the garden for 5 years, and they even encouraged me to apply for grants to make it even better.

What began as a guerrilla garden, without permission and official support, developed into a green oasis that local people and wildlife began to enjoy. On a sunny day my trips to the garden at lunchtime to enjoy my sandwich mean sharing the bench, and light conversation, with other neighbors and friends. In fact I think we might need another bench!

I now have several core volunteers who work on the garden at various times, bring me plant donations, and help with grant writing. I also have a regular monthly volunteer day on the first Saturday of each month from 11am-1pm where anyone can drop by and try their hand at gardening – check out my blog and come visit the garden soon!

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