Seeds of Change
“I knew I had a black thumb when I approached the help desk and they disappeared, abandoned ship.”
My pal Veronica (name changed to protect the notorious) happily owns up to possessing a thumb that’s as dark and deadly as neglected nightshade. And her killer touch really comes home when she regales me and Tony, info desk stalwart at Sloat Garden Center in the Sunset District, about the moment the teensy, adorable, and seemingly indestructible jade plant bit the big one: Veronica had lightly tugged on its uppermost stubby branch only to find the shoot toppling off, felled by her plant-killing touch.
“It was trying to save itself!” she exclaims, describing the calloused end of the wayward jade. “It was as if it was trying to jettison itself in its lifesaver pod, trying to leave the dying mother ship.” There’s a semi-hysterical edge to her voice, half-cackle, half-lament.
Veronica – a smart, funny writer with a self-destructive streak a mile wide and a heart that’s about as big – wants to turn over a new leaf. Literally. A new leaf of life that involves green, much-adored compadres that don’t die the early – tragic deaths of plants left languishing in dim light, overwatered and drowned, or dried out and desiccated. I decide to visit a few of SF’s finest nurseries and garden centers to search out the best plant for an over-nurturing, fretfully neurotic wannabe gardener – the perfect specimen that will turn Veronica’s black thumb green.
I’m not sure whether Plant'It Earth – which sports a rep as a heavy-duty hydroponic hot spot rather than a fern-bar-friendly harborer of houseplants – has what I need, but it does have a central locale, smack in the middle of hopping NOPA, that can’t be beat in terms of convenience. Frilled, delicate orchids crane their pink, white, chartreuse, and yellow butterfly faces against the massive windows of the spacious, pastel-hued store, resembling swan-y showgirls – all ripe for the kill of Veronica’s care. But here comes a tall, lanky female staffer that I’ll call Carolyn, eager to help.
“The fact that your friend even calls herself a black thumb is a cause for hope – she wants to change,” she explains. Carolyn is ready for action, outfitted to get down and dirty in a hoodie and ponytail. “I find those kinds of people tend to love a plant to death. They overwater.”
I tell her Veronica lives in a basement apartment in the warm and sunny Mission District, with north-facing windows and a smidge of eastern exposure. “Whatever plant you get, you need to get the right advice,” she offers.
For a foolproof choice, she steers me toward the center of the shop to Sansevieria trifasciata , otherwise known as a snake plant or mother-in-law’s tongue – somewhat unattractive names for the plant with beautifully sculptural, spear-like, green and yellow leaves. She also recommends the bushy, spiky, and durable Dracaena , clustered at our feet on the floor. All are capable of living through sparse, indirect light – and total neglect.
With Veronica in tow, I head out to Sloat Garden Center in the Outer Sunset, locally owned since 1958 and the city’s well-respected, old-school emporium of all things green and glorious. It displays an expansive selection that ranges from unusual herbs and tender, organic veggies to showy cacti and umpteen varieties of Fuchsia .
Out in the avenues, across from the zoo and under the watchful gaze of a lone, mischievous-looking Doggy Diner head, we wander aimlessly through the air plants peeping out of snail shells, moody-looking, dappled-glaze Malaysian pottery, and hard-to-find perennials from Annie’s Annuals, then circle back to the info desk, at the moment sans employees.
I track down Tony, a tan, blue-eyed staffer in requisite Sloat green, equipped with a welcome, wry sense of humor. “I wouldn’t recommend anything that’s blooming,” he says when he learns of Veronica’s indirect sunlight. Anthuriums and Spathiphyllum (or Peace Lilies) or ferns and Chlorophytum comosum (spider plants) sound like the ticket, although Veronica seems more riveted by the ruby-and-ivory-streaked leaves of one flamboyant Coleus .
Veronica is drawn to a dark green plant with striking lighter-green veined leaves. It’s marked simply “House Plant” with no care instructions. Help, Tony.
“It’ll say on the tag,” he says, juggling a querulous redheaded dowager with a Russian accent as well as us. He reads the label. “House plant.” Shrug.
“That’s really helpful,” says Veronica, sarcastically, gazing at the leafy mystery that turns out to be a Calathea . “And people ask me why I kill plants.”
Another day, another nursery for us babes in the woods of plant ownership. This time, Flowercraft Garden Center – the petal-pushing sister store to Floorcraft across the street –beckons from gritty, not-so-pretty, and still-very-industrial Bayshore Boulevard. Flying in the face of its rough surroundings is the independent family-owned nursery’s bright and smiley motto, “We Sell Happiness!”
Sold! Veronica is pleased as we check out the Radio Flyer wagons by the door – perfect for our imaginary soil and mulch-toting needs – and lush displays of purple fountain grasses and flowering and flaxy Phormium . She hopes her latest crush, shade-friendly ornamental grasses, will somehow flourish indoors. Begonias, a favorite of shady gardeners everywhere, won’t make the cut – she’s in a bushy-fern-and-silky-grass frame of mind.
Our latest helpmate – a Flowercraft staffer who resembles a long-haired Gael Garcia Bernal in a baby-blue class-of-’99 T-shirt – jumps through hoops to assist, paging through Sunset’s Western Garden Book in search of Veronica’s Carex grass varieties, looking for one with the best moniker ever: Beatlemania, named for its twirly, whirly, rock ‘n’ roll mop-top.
“How come they grow like weeds everywhere and when I want to grow them, they die? It’s not fair!” Veronica moans, gazing at the clumps of dark, reedy grass and waving patches of lavender.
“Geraniums are easy,” muses our gardening Gael. “You can grow them in toxic waste.”
“I have some of that,” Veronica replies. “Well, not toxic waste, but asbestos. Can they suck it out of the walls? What if they got hooked and they started sucking it out with straws?” She chortles, lost in reverie. “ That would be bad.”
Inside, success: Veronica picks out a glorious, dark green prayer plant – a pink-veined Versace variation on the Calathea we spotted at Sloat – and an equally over-the-top slightly Liberace-esque candelabra-style Dracaena with spiny leaves and elegantly articulated arms. High drama plant life for a drop-dead diva.
Trepidation and anticipation battle it out in our guts as we enter SF’s epicenter of vertical gardening – and the perfect meeting of high design, indie can-do, and DIY spirit, situated in the Bayview. We love landscape architect Flora Grubb’s refined eye for artful plant design, and her collection of succulents, terrariums, black grasses, dark-eyed daisies, and chocolate aeoniums. And, check it out, one employee is assembling a vertical garden of cacti as we enter. But, man, the pressure to live up to the hip image – Ritual Coffee stand and all. For a green, green thumb, walking into Flora Grubb can feel like strolling into a paradise of plantable delights – or the Studio 54 of landscaping cool.
Veronica already has her defenses in place. “The last time I went to Flora Grubb I felt like I was a pedophile in a preschool,” she declares humorously. “No one wanted to sell me a plant.”
No fear – and no tears – today. Clad in a Charleston Fire Department T-shirt, buff Flora Grubb staffer Patrick comes to our rescue, willing to freely share his deep knowledge of and passion for plants – and to suspend judgment. I ask him for something beyond the go-to snake plant for my black thumb chum.
“Ferns are really nice,” he says, lightly running his palm over a bright green, lettuce-y and lacy bird’s-nest fern with its funky, rangy fronds. “I love the ruffled leaf. You just water it right in the center – they like it moist so you can’t really overwater it.”
Veronica hovers around a miniature Sansevieria – the rounder-leafed sib to the snake plant – and we hold the tote-able specimens up to the light and gaze through the slightly translucent spears.
Patrick happily leads us around the grounds of Flora Grubb – inspiring for the imaginative groupings of plants and pottery – in search of the orange-tipped Brilliance Fern and the dainty Japanese Painted Fern. He caresses a Lady Fern like a much-loved pup. “This is my favorite. I love that chartreuse green leaf, the laciness of it. In a garden setting it adds so much to a landscape – it’s a great texture to work around.”
“You’re petting it!” exclaims Veronica with a grin. “Ferns are marvelous things. I grew up in the Northwest, and you never appreciated ferns. They were just things you whacked out of your way.”
Right around the corner we finally discover the long-sought Beatlemania. “I was always into Ringo,” ponders Veronica. “It has personality.”
But more importantly, this visit sounds like the beginning of a beautiful new pastime. “Maybe I can come back,” Veronica asks Patrick, “and have you put together a plant plan?” And even better, when I check back with Veronica, her plants are still alive – she’s coasting on a wing and a prayer plant.
Is your black thumb ready to go green? Gather info on the lighting conditions of the spot where your future charges will live, then get detailed care tips from the helpful staff at Flowercraft Garden Center, Flora Grubb Gardens, Plant'It Earth, and Sloat Garden Center. Look around and find plants that tickle your fancy, pique your interest, and appeal to your senses – maybe you can make them work. Go on a weekday in order to beat the weekend-warrior shopping stampede and look for a knowledgeable employee who has time to spend with you.