Gardening with Herbs in San Francisco

In the planting scheme of a new California home garden, herbs contribute a lush beauty.

| June/July 2001

  • Red dahlias and shell ginger (Alpinia zerumbet ‘Variegata’) are backed by a cool blue arbor.
  • Pebble paths wind around the garden beds to make mowing completely unnecessary and plantings easy to access.
  • Flowering artichokes, grown as ornamentals, not for their fruit, highlight a bright blue backdrop wall
  • Trellises, clusters of containers, and bright splashes of color make an inviting outdoor room.
  • A grouped planting shows off the author’s style of bringing together herbs with bright-colored flowers. Blooming clary sage is accented with ‘Tropicanna’ cannas and nicotiana ‘Only the Lonely’. Germander and lavender occupy the foreground.
  • In the author’s garden before the transformation began, bare ground dampened by El Niño rain awaits planting, with a tarp marking the future site of a deep bed—an almost bare canvas constructed from a weedy yard fenced against the traffic.

While writing a travel guide for garden lovers, I dreamed about relocating to the San Francisco Bay area and gardening in its lush climate. In 1999, we moved unexpectedly from our Chicago neighborhood to a small town in Marin County, just north of San Francisco. Although this meant saying a bittersweet goodbye to the Lilliputian plot I’d tended for two decades, the prospect of gardening year-round thrilled me.One Sunday we found a small house on a busy street with a formidable stucco wall buffering it from traffic. A “For Sale” sign flanked by palm trees beckoned us. Impulsively I phoned the real estate agent, who proposed a meeting straightaway.

Entering the enclosed front patio, we found the palms surrounded by wild vegetation. I marched to the rear of the house, where French doors opened onto a small porch overlooking a forlorn yard. Littered with old lawn chairs and forgotten children’s toys, the weedy overgrowth was being used as a hangout for neighborhood and transient cats. Still, the promise of a new garden began to sprout that very day, when in my mind’s eye, I transformed the parched, infertile dirt into dark, rich soil ready for planting.

Digging and planning

As the El Niño rains of 1999 poured down on California, we moved from a temporary apartment into our new home. Almost immediately, my husband assumed the back-breaking task of digging out the back yard’s overgrown brambles, rampant ivy, and undesirable old shrubs while I charted a garden plan. On paper, I arranged island planting beds, borders, and meandering gravel pathways. To delineate the beds and borders and accentuate the serpentine contours of the landscape, I opted for a combination of warm-hued paving stones and large decorative rocks.

After discovering concrete rubble and other debris hidden just beneath the ground, my husband and I nixed the idea of renting a tiller and turned to our trusty shovels to dig out the rubble and cart it away. The steady rain loosed the compacted soil, allowing me to lift and remove section after section of weedy turf.

Our “hands-on” approach to digging the garden educated me about the heavy clay soil, so unlike Chicago’s sandy loam. Working in the garden, I developed a comforting cadence: first, I would define an area to be planted; next, eradicate the top layer of weeds; and finally, deeply cultivate the soil and add large amounts of compost, manure, and a ready-mix amendment. This method raised the soil level and greatly improved the drainage.

Planting bed by bed

With my plan in hand, I started planting with a long border of drought-tolerant herbs and perennials at the western boundary. We rescued a rambunctious old climbing rose from a suffocating thicket of weeds; freed from its camouflage, it now anchors the entryway to this border. Next to the rose I planted a tree mallow with pink flowers resembling single hollyhocks. Further down, I put in an airy stand of bronze fennel, a tall purple hop bush (Dodonaea viscosa ‘Purpurea’) and a handsome rosemary shrub.

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