From the BorderIris and Columbine

The Secret to a Bountiful Garden and Beautiful Landscape

Spring is here and the garden centers are filled with beautiful plants. Many of us are making our way to one or more of our favorite garden shops. We leave with a car full of beautiful flowers and healthy vegetables with hopes of a bountiful harvest.

But before that first plant goes into the ground, make sure your soil is properly prepared. Though not the most glamorous part of gardening, it is the first and most important step in creating a beautiful and productive garden.

Start by adding some compost, aged manure or a garden soil labeled for flowers and vegetables to this year's shopping list. You'll need about two 2-cubic-ft bags of soil additive to cover 25 square feet of garden two inches deep. Calculate your garden size by measuring the length times the width, so you are sure to purchase all you need.


Seem like too much work? Investing time preparing the soil at the start of the season will save you time throughout the season. You'll spend less time watering, managing pests and replacing struggling or dead plants. "

Once the car is unloaded the fun begins. Work the soil when it is moist, but not wet. A simple test can help with this. Grab a handful of soil and gently squeeze. Then gently tap it with your finger. If it breaks into smaller pieces, it is ready to work. If it stays in a wet ball, wait for the soil to dry slightly before digging in. Otherwise you will compact the soil, reduce drainage and create clods and crusty soil that you'll be fighting all season long.

Start by digging several inches of compost, aged manure, or a product like Schultz garden soil for flowers and vegetables into the top 12 inches of soil. These materials improve drainage in heavy clay soils and increase water-holding ability in sandy soils.

Spread the organic matter over the soil surface of the garden bed. Use a shovel or rototiller to blend the organic matter into the soil. Rake the area smooth and level or make a slight crown in the middle of the bed. Crowning the bed slightly can increases visual impact of flowers and can help keep soil in the bed and out of the surrounding lawn or mulch.

Don't skip this step even if you applied these materials last year. Yearly applications of organic matter continue to build quality soil and improve your gardening results.

Apply the type and amount of fertilizer recommended by your soil test report. If this information is not available use about three pounds of a low nitrogen slow release fertilizer for every 100 square feet of garden. Check the back of your fertilizer bag for more details.

Once the soil is prepared it is time to plant. Carefully slide your transplants out of their container. Gently loosen any circling roots. Plant flowers and vegetables in the prepared planting bed then water thoroughly.

Mulch the soil surface with a one to two inch layer of pine straw, evergreen needles, shredded leaves or other organic material. These help suppress weeds, conserve moisture and improve the soil as they decompose.

Seem like too much work? Investing time preparing the soil at the start of the season will save you time throughout the season. You'll spend less time watering, managing pests and replacing struggling or dead plants. This gives you more time to harvest beautiful flowers for bouquets, vegetables for your favorite recipes, or just to sit, relax and enjoy your landscape.

Make this the year to start building a strong foundation for a healthy and productive garden.

Gardening expert, TV/radio host, author & columnist Melinda Myers has more than 30 years of horticulture experience and has written over 20 gardening books, including Can't Miss Small Space Gardening and the Midwest Gardener's Handbook. She hosts The Great Courses "How to Grow Anything" DVD series and the nationally syndicated Melinda's Garden Moment segments. Myers is also a columnist and contributing editor for Birds & Blooms magazine. Myers' web site,, offers gardening videos and tips.

June 2014


At this time of year, if you make a visit to the nursery you will be greeted with pictures, signs, boxes and bins of spring blooming bulbs. Tulips, crocuses, hyacinths, daffodils, and narcissus bulbs are surrounded by displays of special bulb fertilizer and special tools for planting bulbs.

These are the spring bulbs I grew up with on the East Coast, and they were wonderful in our gardens, coming back more strongly year after year, and making the first days and weeks of snowmelt magical.watsonia

But here in California some of these bulbs are not really at home. Tulips, hyacinths, and crocuses, for example, need a frosty winter to bloom successfully. Here in our mild winter climate, those who really want to see these flowers in the spring must buy the bulbs early and chill them for 4-6 weeks in the refrigerator before planting in order to get a successful show. After they bloom, they must be dug up and discarded. Next year, they must be bought and refrigerated again. Daffodils and narcissus can sometimes naturalize in our climate, but the real gangbuster spring bulb shows come from bulbs which may be unfamiliar to garden traditionalists, bulbs which have their ancestry in climate zones similar to California’s rather than in Northern Europe. (Image: Watsonia borbonica)

Instead of crocuses, for the earliest little cheerful-faced flowers, consider planting Ipheion uniflorum or Spring Star Flower from Argentina. This little beauty is already fully leafed out in established clumps in San Francisco gardens. In just a few weeks, it will be sporting cheerful little starry pale blue flowers, and it will continue blooming until late Spring. Each year the clumps will increase, and it is easy to divide. Either use the extra bulbs to start new clumps, or give them to your friends. They will never stop thanking you for this hardy, reliable, charming plant.

Instead of tulips, for that large, dramatic, colorful effect, consider trying Sparaxis Sparaxistricolor, or Harlequin flower from South Africa. These bulbs grow their foliage during the winter months, and bloom over a long period in early spring with a vivid long-lasting show. Red, orange, yellow, pink and purple flowers are blotched and striped with contrasting colors. These plants will give you a “Wow” in your spring garden that will be repeated more and more in each succeeding year. Again, they are easy to divide, and you can either spread them around your garden, or give them to friends. This year, our Sparaxis at the GFE needed protection from slug damage, so you might want to locate them somewhere in your garden that is unwatered during the summer months, to cut down on the slug population. (Image: Sparaxis tricolor)

Tall and stately, Watsonia borbonica is another gorgeous choice for a climate-appropriate bulb. Ours at the GFE are already leafing out vigorously from last year’s clumps, and the tall stately flower stalks will form in the early spring and bloom in the late spring rising up to six feet above the border. Ours are all white, but there are also pink ones available. Again, these bulbs are so comfortable in our climate that they will form bigger clumps year after year.

Other bulb-forming plants which work perfectly in our mild, summer-dry climate cala lilyinclude Chasmanthe, Calla lilies, Amaryllis belladonna or Naked Ladies, Montbretia, and Agapanthus or Lily of the Nile. For detailed information on how to grow these bulbs, have a look in Pam Peirce’s wonderful book, Wildly Successful Plants for Northern California. (Image: Calla Lilly)

All of these spring blooming bulbs are perfectly suited to our climate. They begin to grow leaves during the first rainy weeks of the year, bloom in turn, and as the end of our rainy season comes, they die down. You must let the leaves turn brown and die down naturally, while the plant stores its energy for the dormant season. Once the leaves have turned brown, you can cut them off and compost them. The plants will store the energy they gathered during their growing season deep in the ground in fat bulbs or corms, and lie dormant throughout our dry season, all ready to spring back into action when the rainy season returns. They need absolutely no summer irrigation, and they mix well in the garden with other summer-dry plants which bloom, or hold neat or colorful foliage through the summer. These bulbs shine in a border with plants like lavenders, leucadenderons, sages and native grasses which will fill the summer-dry border and please the eye while the spring blooming bulbs die down and rest.

These bulbs will form a bigger, more vigorous clump every year for many years, but eventually they will crowd themselves and begin to bloom less. When this happens, dig up the whole clump, choose the most promising looking bulbs to replant, and give away your extras. You will make life-long gardening friends if you introduce them to these wonderful bulbs.


HilaryHilary Gordon is Sustainable Landscape Education Manager at the GFE. A life-long gardener, trained at the City College Horticulture program, she has worked as a professional landscape gardener from 1984 until the present.

Have a question for Hilary? Meet her in the garden Wednesdays 10-2 and Saturdays 10-4.

Dec - January 2011

(Not Shown) From the Border October 2010

October-November 2010


One fine morning, I was pruning and shaping the flowering shrubs at the Garden for the Environment (GFE), when someone walked by and said, “Why don’t you pull all this out and grow food?” (Cala Lily at Garden for the Enviornment)

It’s a legitimate question.

Why do I care about flowering plants? If I were a bee or a hummingbird, I’d have a practical answer. These would be my food plants. And as an organic gardener, I can give a practical answer, too. The flowering borders around the GFE stabilize soil, build the water table, add organic matter to our soil, attract pollinators, and beneficial insects. The list goes on. (Elder Berry at GFE)elderberry

But as a human being in an urban world, I have an impractical answer, too. People love beautiful gardens. Gardens nourish the eyes with beauty, but even more, gardens nourish the soul.

From at-risk youth to elders in wheelchairs, people enter the garden with their eyes wide and wander slowly as if in a trance. They touch, they smell, and they stare. Relaxed and transformed, they stop one of us and say, “It’s so beautiful!”

The abundant, mysterious, graceful, spacious beauties of a good garden call out to something in us that is very hungry. Our urban hearts are starving for the connection and inspiration living green spaces provide.hydrangia

Gardens are a temple, a gym, a therapist’s office all rolled into one, to inspire and heal people from the inside out. We are built for gardens, and gardens are built for us.

Hilary Gordon is Sustainable Landscape Education Manager at the GFE. A life-long gardener, trained at the City College Horticulture program, she has worked as a professional landscape gardener from 1984 until the present. (Hydrangia at GFE)

Have a question for Hilary? Meet her in the garden Wednesdays 10-2 and Saturdays 10-4.

Sept. 2010

Butterflies In The Garden

As summer brings warmer temperatures and some sunny afternoons, one of the most enjoyable sights in the garden is a variety of butterflies flitting from plant to plant, seeking nectar and egg-laying opportunities. Look for butterflies congregating in open, sunny spots with some wind protection.verbena rigida

To make garden areas more attractive to butterflies, plant some of their favorite nectaring flowers. Butterflies like flat-topped flowers formed from many tiny florets. Many flowers in the daisy family fit this profile. Daisies form a great landing platform for butterflies, and each daisy flower is formed from multiple tiny cone and ray flowers, each with its own miniscule nectar source. Butterflies can land in comfort and take advantage of many nectaring opportunities at once. Other examples include verbenas, buckwheats, lantanas, and yarrows, as well as plants in the parsley family. A well-planned butterfly garden will include a sequence of bloom, so that as one flush of flowers fade, it will be replaced by the next wave of blooms. (Photo: Verbena rigida at GFE)

At the Garden for the Environment, the Waterwise Demonstration beds near the South Gate provide a good demonstration of many butterfly plants. In fact, butterfly enthusiasts often drop by on a still, sunny day to spot many of our local butterflies feeding here. In these beds you can see three different yarrows, (Paprika, Moonshine, and our native Millefolium) blooming along with Astericus “maritima” and Erigeron glaucus from the Daisy family. Look also for Verbena rigida and Verbena bonariensis. Later in the summer, Milkweed, Lobelia laxiflora, Lantanas, and Eriogonum giganteum, (our native Buckwheat “St. Catherine’s Lace”), will replace these flowers with fall-blooming butterfly snacks.seaside daisy

In addition to the flowers which provide food, butterflies need water. But they can’t drink out of deep standing water, such as a bird bath. Butterflies can be seen clustering where puddles form in damp sand or gravel. They can insert their straw-like mouth parts into the wet sand and suck up water along with dissolved minerals from the mud and sand. Butterfly fans call this behavior “puddling”. Butterflies will be attracted to puddles in sunny, wind-protected spots. You can even create a puddle for butterflies by putting a layer of sand or gravel with a little soil in a shallow dish with some water. Choose a sunny, flowery spot in the garden for your “puddle.” (Photo: Seaside Daisy at GFE)

At the GFE, butterlies, along with other beneficial insects such as honeybees, can be seen puddling near our grey-water demonstration area. In the heart of the garden, opposite our small greenhouse, our kitchen sink drains right into the soil above the exterior border. Here in a rock and gravel basin, water drains from the sink after hands or vegetables are washed, or watering cans are filled. These frequent small gushes of water support a planting of Creek Monkeyflower and our California native Columbine, as well as providing a puddling opportunity for our honeybees and visiting butterflies.Achillea "Moonshine"

If you provide the right flowers and puddling opportunities, and attract butterflies to your garden, then naturally they will lay eggs and your garden will soon have caterpillars. Some caterpillars, like the cabbage looper, are destructive to food crop plants. But most caterpillars don’t do significant harm to garden plants, although they do feed on some leaves. Caterpillars are just baby butterflies, and we can’t have one without the other. Don’t kill caterpillars unless you can definitely identify them as a crop pest. Avoid the use of the pesticide “Bt”. Although Bt is a less-toxic (to humans) pesticide, it is fatal to all caterpillars, not just pesty ones. Bt is suspected as a factor in the decreasing number of Monarchs. (Photo: Achillea ‘Moonshine’)

A few chewed leaves is a small price to pay for the pleasure of seeing these colorful floating beauties flitting through the garden.

Hilary Gordon is Perennial Plants Collection Manager at the GFE. A life-long gardener, trained at the City College Horticulture program, she has worked as a professional landscape gardener from 1984 until the present. Have a question for Hilary? Meet her in the garden Wed. 10-2 and Sat. 10-4. Feedback:

July 2010

The San Francisco Peninsula From Long Ago

Deer grass, Coyote bush, Hummingbird sage, Sandhill sage, Sea thrift, even the names of our native plants sound like a poem. They conjure up a time not so long ago when the San Franciscan peninsula was a mix of dunes, low hills and valleys, where seasonal creeks threaded between shrubby, windswept slopes until they fed into the few year-round creeks running to the bay. The plants which thrived in this coastal landscape still can be seen today by hikers on Mt. Tamalpais, San Bruno Mt., and Pt. Reyes. The best time to see them blooming is right now, when a generous rainy season, followed by the first really warm days of the year, has brought everything into bloom. (Photo: Sea Thrift at GFE)

For those who want a taste of our native plants in their spring bloom, the native backyard in the Garden for the Environment may be a more accessible spot. Out native backyard is located right next to the Victory garden backyard demonstration, near the compost area at the heart of our garden. We’re very proud of the native garden this spring. It is full of flowers and the hard work we’ve put into this garden in the last year or so has paid off with a neat and charming display of our native plants.Coral Bells

There are many different reasons why gardeners might choose to plant native plants. One of the most important reasons is that natives have evolved over thousands of years to be able to adapt and thrive in our local soils and weather patterns. The annual summer drought is built into our native plants timetable, and they grow and bloom in the rhythms of our climate. They don’t just tolerate a summer drought, they actually prefer it. While they may be able to grow in a watered garden setting, most of them are short-lived when they receive much summer water. (Photo: Coral Bells)

Another reason to plant natives is that native plants are the historic, evolutionary partners of native wildlife. California native bees and butterflies rely on certain native plants for forage and for egg-laying, while our native birds are adapted to their historic habitat as well. Years ago California quail were a common sight in Golden Gate park, and current attempts to restore the population focus on replanting California native shrubs which offer the quail nesting opportunities and cover from their predators.Fringe Bells

Some of my favorite plants in bloom now in the native backyard include Hummingbird Sage, Fringe cups, California Hedgenettle (not a stinging nettle), and Checkerbloom. Hummingbird Sage, or Salvia Spathacea, combines flowers of a vivid, burgundy red with dark stems and calyxes to produce a dramatic, erect flower which is blooming in profusion above the retaining wall in the native backyard. True to its name, its red, tubular flowers attract hummingbirds which can often be seen nectaring busily among its spikes. Spreading among the sage and hanging gracefully over the wall the Beach Strawberry, or Fragraria chiloensis looks sweet and tender, although it is one of the toughest plants for challenging spots in Bay Area gardens. (Photo: Fringe Cups)

Fringe cups, or Tellima grandiflora, is a charming plant for that very difficult spot in the garden, dry shade. These graceful natives form a rosette of scalloped basal leaves rather like the familiar garden favorite, Coral Bells. Then in springtime, tall arching flowering stems rise above the leaves, and each flower stalk is covered with tiny pale cups. If you look closely, you can even see the elaborate fringe on each cup, like a tiny veil.

Stachys bullata, or California hedgenettle, is covered now with pink, long throated flowers, which look rather like mint in bloom. Winding among the tall, graceful Fringe Cups, backed by a Western Sword Fern, this planting is one worth copying in that dry shade location at home where you’ve never been able to get anything to grow.Checkerbloom

And finally, our Checkerbloom (Sidalcea malviflora) is heavy with wonderful flowers this spring. This plant lives over our dry season as a small rosette of heavily divided leaves, but in spring it expands its long flowering stems covered with large pink hollyhock shaped flowers. It’s amazing that something so fragile and lovely can grow from our sandy, summer-dry soils. (Photo: Checkerbloom at GFE)

Come on over to the Garden for the Environment (at the corner of 7th and Lawton) and see for yourself that saving irrigation water and supporting wildlife by growing California natives can also give you a garden that is sweet and beautiful. See you in the Garden!

Hilary Gordon is Perennial Plants Collection Manager at the GFE. A life-long gardener, trained at the City College Horticulture program, she has worked as a professional landscape gardener from 1984 until the present.

Have a question for Hilary? Meet her in the garden Wed. 10-2 and Sat. 10-4. Feedback:

June 2010


Newborn Spring Meadow Lawn Replacement

February’s plum blossoms have given way to March’s cherry blossoms and the streets and parks of San Francisco have put on their new spring outfits. Here at the GFE, we have something to celebrate for the season; a beautiful new meadow installed in the outdoor classroom.

Last fall during the GCETP program (Garden and Compost Educator Training, fondly referred to as Get-Up), one of the class projects was the removal of our small turf lawn. Although only 9’X12’, our lawn demonstration has become obsolete in the 21st century. When originally installed, the lawn was a way to show San Franciscans that large lawns could be replaced with a small lawn and a combination of water-wise border plantings and patio areas for a big savings on irrigation requirements. Now however, as climate change and population growth pressure our water resources, even a small turf lawn requires more water than we want to commit.

Gopher Wire We built a new raised bed for food production with the old turf which had been cut up into squares for removal. First we excavated the new raised bed and installed gopher wire at the very bottom to prevent these rascals from stealing our crops. Next we laid the turf pieces upside down in the bottom of the bed to provide soil nutrients as they decomposed. These were covered with a sheet mulch of cardboard pieces with the edges well overlapping, to prevent the grasses from trying to grow again. The cardboard would also add to the decomposition process, adding nutrients to the bed. Finally we replaced the excavated garden soil, and covered everything with a thick layer of aged manure. This bed will provide a deep, fertile, and protected spot for growing edibles in the future.clump grass

Meanwhile, after some experimentation, we decided on a water-wise meadow as a replacement for the lawn area. The meadow would be created out of plants that could stand up to light foot traffic, and would include a pathway through the most walked-on route. We envisioned a combination of native bunch grasses, other grass-like plants, and a few tough groundcovers that would provide a sequence of bloom and color interest throughout the year.

Meadow Design Two of the students in the Get-Up class volunteered to follow through with the project, and the designing began. Renata Robinson and Sabina Nieto worked countless hours over the course of the winter, researching plants, attending lectures, poring over books, organizing brainstorming meetings with experienced designers, and talking to everyone who would be using the space to determine their needs and concerns. All that hard work resulted in a spectacular design for our space. With a budget of $300, Renata and Sabina went plant shopping, organized an installation date, and made the magic happen.meadow plan

On the last weekend in March, as Renata and Sabina were putting the finishing touches on the new meadow, I had a chance to ask them about the experience. Here are some of the inspirational words I heard. “It’s a living design that you traverse.” “We’re trying to be smart about water and native plants.” “Birds and insects and wind move through it as well as people, so we tried to find a balance.” “We created multiple layers with different colors prevalent at different times of year, all in a very small space.”

Meadow Done Over the next few months, as the new meadow grows and knits together, it will receive regular watering and some protection from foot-traffic. By summertime, we hope that it will be able to stand up to light foot traffic, and less frequent watering. But by next year, most of the plants will need no additional summer water. To keep the whole meadow looking its best, and to help it thrive with the high usage it will get in the outdoor classroom, we will probably irrigate it on a schedule, perhaps once every two weeks.

Grass This will be a huge water savings from a turf lawn that required much more frequent watering. It won’t need regular mowing and edging, nor will it require the constant fertilization that a turf lawn prefers. It will be sustainable for us and for the environment in a way that turf never could be. And it will add charm and seasonal beauties that turf never provides. It will inspire us by referring to the lovely meadows of Mt. Tamalpais and other nearby wild areas, and remind us that on our busy urban street corner, we are part of a much bigger web of natural life.

Many thanks to all the awesome students and volunteers who worked on different parts of this project, but especially to Renata and Sabina for an amazing new climate-appropriate, inspirational demonstration of what the GFE is all about.

Hilary Gordon is Perennial Plants Collection Manager at the GFE. A life-long gardener, trained at the City College Horticulture program, she has worked as a professional landscape gardener from 1984 until the present.

Have a question for Hilary? Meet her in the garden Wednesdays 10-2 and Saturdays 10-4. Feedback:

May 2010


Plum The plum blossoms began the avalanche of spring and now it’s spreading everywhere, as tree after tree and whole hillsides start to bloom. For gardeners who looked at their gardens through the window during the winter, it’s time for the first damp forays outside. The soil is soft and alive; weeds pull out easily to the hand, and everywhere are buds, shoots, tendrils, fuzzy fern fiddleheads, mushrooms springing moistly, life itself exploding.

Flowers Gardening is an odd combination of solitude and company. Many of us do the actual work of gardening alone for hours. The rhythmic solitudes of cultivation can soothe a soul overburdened with stress and stimulation. But we are seldom truly alone in a garden. Hummingbirds challenge us in their territory, squirrels and jays scold, bugs wander from overturned rocks. Our thoughts accompany us as well. As peace rises in the soul, intuitions may occur, connections may be made, conclusions may complete themselves, and decisions may form. The rituals of gardening open up space in the jumble of a hurried week.poppy

Poppy The nutritious solitude of gardening has an angle of loneliness in it as well. Who will admire the perfect shaping of a shrub, the artistic spacing of the renewed perennial border, the loft of a fluffy seedbed? Who will encourage us in a moment of hopelessness before the onslaught of oxalis, bramble, ivy invaders, the infestations, the crop soggy and molding or dry and bolting?

This is when gardening books and garden writers become important allies. The best books scold and strategize as well as inspire and encourage. They remind us of what is possible as well as saying “I told you so.” They become good friends, whose humorous critique and encouragement are as useful as any other garden tool.

Here are three of my current favorite gardening companions.passionflower

Pam Peirce, Golden Gate Gardening: “You can eat fresh garden produce all year with little need for food preservation.” (p. 27)

Wendy Johnson, Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate: “In honor of wildness inside and outside the garden gate, every spring I leave a random corner of our garden untended.” (p.xii)

Toby Hemenway, Gaia’s Garden: “…using new techniques from permaculture and ecological design, and old ones from indigenous people and organic gardening, a few pioneers have created landscapes that feel like nature but provide a home for people as well.” (p. xv)

Why not stop by an independent bookstore and take home a friend to garden with?

Hilary Gordon is Perennial Plants Collection Manager t the GFE. A life-long gardener, trained at the City College Horticulture program, she has worked as a professional landscape gardener from 1984 until the present.

Have a question for Hilary? Meet her in the garden Wednesdays 10-2 and Saturdays 10-4. Feedback:

April 2010


Unbelievable. Last month as I wrote this column in late December, the nurseries were full of Christmas trees. Now as I’m writing in late January, the plum trees are beginning to fly the bright flag of spring. Here by the Bay and the mild Pacific, winter turns on a dime and walks away. Spring flaunts right in with Calla lilies, Hellebores and winter blooming Salvias, Fuchsias and Aloe.

Now our long growing season can unfold slowly over the next five months. Like a twelve course meal, each layer of spring unfolds and reveals itself to amuse the mouth and eyes. Finally in May with flowers trumpeting overhead, weeds blooming madly and hedges bursting out of their boundaries gardeners throw up their hands and cry “enough” just as the rains end and we enter the dry half of our annual cycle.

Aloe. One of my favorite things about our climate is that even in January we get a new generation of bloom arriving in the garden. Some of the fresh January treats are familiar in old San Francisco gardens, such as the tall sexy calla lilies with their lush curves, and the bright tree aloe, whose dramatic red-orange flowers support hummingbirds through this hungry time of year. Last summer we divided an enormous clump of tree aloe (Aloe arborescens) by simply sawing off the largest rosettes and sticking them right in the sandy soil on either side of our new stairs leading from the compost area up to the street above the garden. These sturdy foot soldiers of horticulture got busy growing roots, and now they are blooming prolifically up both sides of the staircase and promising to grow into muscular clumps that can help stabilize the steep sandy hillside. (Image: Aloe arborescens at GFE.)

Hellebores are among the choicest garden plants to flower in January, because in addition to brightening the garden with their subtle pale pink and green “Christmas roses”, they also keep a neat mound of foliage all year long. Their striking texture enlivens shady spots, and there are several varieties which have low water needs making them a good choice for that toughest of garden locations, dry shade. Bear’s foot Hellebore (Hellebore foetidus) and Corsican Hellebore (Hellebore argutifolius) can be seen blooming now at the GFE in the shady area to the left of the northernmost 7th avenue gate.

There is a whole group of large, dramatic shrubs from Mexico and Central America beginning to bloom now at the GFE. Fuchsia paniculata is a large shrub which loves an understory location with bright shade or part sun. Resistant to the fuchsia mite, Fuchsia paniculata is beginning a long bloom period now as large sprays of tiny purple trumpets begin to open at each branch tip. Ours is blooming in the northernmost section of the Seventh Avenue exterior border.

senicioSenecio. If you continue walking north to the very end of the exterior border, it turns the corner and ends by our neighbor’s house. In the final corner of the border, Senecio petasitos is opening its burgundy buds into small bright yellow daisies. Its large, tropical looking, slightly fuzzy leaves are handsome all year long, and it is a trooper, performing in shade and filling dark spaces but when it blooms in January, its brightness and generosity makes it everyone’s favorite. The plant in the GFE border was also a cutting from my own specimen in my home garden. I just stuck it in the ground and it grew with no fuss, blooming for the first time this year. (Image: Senecio petasitos at GFE.)

Inside the garden past the Seventh Avenue gate, you can find a large Princess Flower another gorgeous winter bloomer, and on the sunny hillside above it you will see an enormous, loose-limbed Salvia with striking bright red flowers held on dark, almost black, stems. Salvia gesneriiflora “Tequila” makes January worth waiting for all by itself.

At the other end of the garden, facing Lawton street, stands another large dramatic Salvia which is just starting its bloom. Salvia karwinskii is about eight feet tall and maybe half as wide. It’s covered now with large, promising buds which have begun opening and which will reach full bloom in February. The coral flowers are held in dark bracts on blackish stems, giving the whole plant a dramatic look worthy of an entrance or other prominent spot sunny spot in the garden. The plant stays neat all year round, with it grey-green, slightly fuzzy leaves clothing it densely even when it is out of bloom.fuschia

Fuschia: For gardeners, the challenge of this time of year is to keep up with winter pruning and weeding between rainstorms so that the faded, battered stems and branches of summer blooming plants are neatly cut back to reveal the fresh winter flowers in a spacious and tidy setting. Weeds are already setting seed and forming new bulblets, so removing them can’t wait either. A nice thick layer of mulch will protect the soil from being compacted by heavy rain while discouraging the return of the weeds. So grab your pruners, a bucket, and a sack of mulch, and run out between the raindrops to give your garden some love. It will love you back, and you don’t have to wait for spring in our climate to see results! (Image: Fuchsia paniculata at GFE.)

Hilary Gordon is Perennial Plants Collection Manager at the GFE. A life-long gardener, trained at the City College Horticulture program, she has worked as a professional landscape gardener from 1984 until the present.

Have a question for Hilary? Meet her in the garden Wednesdays 10-2 and Saturdays 10-4.


March 2010



Winter is a time to reimagine the garden. Deciduous trees and shrubs are bare, winter pruning is done and the spaces in the garden open up visually. Winter is also dreamtime, when rainy days or weeks let the view of the garden through wet windows blur and run. It is easier to imagine now, what if we moved, removed, cut back, replanted, reshaped?

Winter visions at the GFE also involve moving the garden step-by-step closer to its goal of demonstrating sustainable gardening principles. Where can we improve, and make our walk match our talk more closely?

One winter renovation this year has been somewhat drastic. We removed the small lawn in the outdoor classroom area.

“People who dare to make this change also benefit by saving on their water bills and on gas for the lawnmower, as well as reducing the use of commercial fertilizers and weed killers”.

We did this because mowed turf is not a sustainable choice for most garden situations in our arid state. Turf areas in the West are reported to absorb “as much as half of outdoor residential water use.” (Water-Wise Gardening for California, editors of Sunset magazine) In most garden settings, there are more sustainable alternatives to turf.

But blocking this much-needed change is an outdated aesthetic which equates stretches of neatly mowed, uniformly green lawns with suburban civilized living. In our imaginations lawns are associated with healthy outdoor lifestyles, although in reality they may be an indicator of weekends spent with gas fumes, noise and chemical fertilizers and weed killers.replacing lawn

Lawns are also associated with the safety and discipline of conformity. But now even in the more conservative neighborhoods of San Francisco the little scalped lawns in front of the Marina style row houses are being replanted one by one with mixed, drought-tolerant borders. These borders can delight the heart, offering a seasonally changing show of beauty, attracting birds, honeybees, and butterflies. People who dare to make this change also benefit by saving on their water bills and on gas for the lawnmower, as well as reducing the use of commercial fertilizers and weed killers.

So what were we doing with a lawn at the GFE?

The toughest decisions about lawn areas are when kids and adults actually play, lie, and picnic on them. It’s hard to wean ourselves away in those cases, and the lawn in the outdoor classroom area was the lunch and snack picnic area for many a school field trip.winter grasses

Nevertheless, part of our job is to experiment with and demonstrate alternatives. So right now, students from the Fall GCETP class are studying our choices. We’re looking forward to an exciting new experiment in urban sustainability when they redesign this area with boulders? Native bunch grasses? Walk-on ground covers? Permeable hardscape? Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion.

Hilary Gordon is Perennial Plants Collection Manager at the GFE. A life-long gardener, trained at the City College Horticulture program, she has worked as a professional landscape gardener from 1984 until the present. Have a question for Hilary? Meet her in the garden Wednesdays 10-2 and Saturdays 10-4.

February 2010

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