Mops and brooms, a couple of ashtrays, a few cheap pots growing herbs, and two secondhand armchairs leftover from our old place - that's what the back deck of my Mission flat was filled with not too long ago. It's a nice deck, too, about 200 east-facing square feet, enough room for a bit of imagination and gumption to really spruce up. Since moving in last summer I've flirted with the latter; the former has eluded me entirely - until I encountered Flora Grubb.
Flora Grubb is both a person and a place. The person - yes, that's her real name - is a thirtysomething wife, mother, landscape designer and plant visionary. The place is the eponymous gardening center she co-owns (with partner Saul Nadler) that I discovered during a detour to the Alemany Farmer's Market one recent weekend. Tucked away on a side street in the Bayview, Flora Grubb Gardens is a fortress of creativity and innovation, all of it fueled by, well, flora - plants growing out of rusted bikes, cascading down walls, and even bursting out of an old car.
I'd ridden my bike by just to check the place out, but couldn't help leaving with a couple specimens. The next day I got a car and went back for more. Before long I was dreaming of ways I could import a little Flora Grubb magic to my own space.
The problem, however, is that my thumb is at best merely greenish; many a houseplant has died under it. As a dude with limited abilities, limited resources, and no knowledge of what will and will not grow in this town, I had my work cut out for me. Luckily, the staff at Flora Grubb isn't just handy with spades and trowels - they're also remarkably helpful.
Take plant-car designer and longtime Grubb associate Jim Kumiega, for example. As he guides me through the shaded section of the gardens where the bamboo lives, Jim tells me about the array of clients that visit the nursery on the regular, and divides them up into three categories: those who know, those who think they know, and those who know they don't know. Jim and his buddies are happy to accommodate all three.
I, for one, know I don't know. And so, following Jim's instructions, I've brought photos of my deck and made a note of which direction it faces and at what times of day it gets sun. Examining the photos, Jim and I identify the area we will focus on: the east-facing corner. "Corners really define a space. By softening the geometry, the space will just feel bigger."
We start off in the aforementioned bamboo section. It turns out bamboo is one of the plant species best suited to the climes of SF. According to some Grubb literature, "these plants adore our cool foggy nights and moderate days." Jim and I decide on a hearty Himalayan blue bamboo to anchor my corner. Next, it's time to select some supporting players, which means figuring out some things to put them in.
One of the most expensive components of a good-looking garden can be the containers. It turns out the cheap plastic variety you get at Home Depot are quite tacky, like putting your television on a milk crate. On the other hand, spending literally hundreds of dollars on artisan-glazed ceramic containers feels a bit absurd. While Flora Grubb sells these latter furnishings - the place makes no bones about catering to more upscale clients; you millionaire types can drop five grand on a palm tree if you like - some of its best garden pieces, heck, even the space itself, exemplify my preferred strategy to repurpose whatever you can find.
In addition to things growing out of bikes and cars, vines creep up and over the perimeter walls, cacti poke out of driftwood, even the bathrooms have plants in them; plus the main building itself is made out of wood from a former Petaluma barn. According to architect Seth Boor, who designed the space, the idea behind Grubb Gardens was for it to feel like an "urban industrial ruin overtaken by plants." It with this same spirit of reclamation that I discovered how botanically useful an old desk can be.
I picked mine up at a garage sale for $10 and have used the desk and all seven of its drawers for not one but two corners. A casual stroll through the Mission on any weekend will yield dozens of other options - old stereo parts (speaker boxes!), rusted tool boxes, even spare tires. Indeed, once you start to see the city's detritus as potential containers for gorgeous plants, you begin to see solutions everywhere.
As far as what to put in these containers, your best friend by far is the cactus, or succulent, which I learned come in many more varieties than the prickly kind. Flora Grubb has hundreds - most of them arrayed on a large circular cart near the main building. Not only are succulents exceedingly hearty, requiring basically no supervision to thrive (you'll want to spritz them with water when their soil gets dry), but most are amenable to a cutting garden approach: you can pull them apart and plant the pieces anew wherever you like.
This lends itself to a kind of horticultural finger painting. With just four or five purchases and some special cactus soil as your canvas, you can make all kinds of colorful designs with succulents, pulling them apart and placing them in patterns, plugging them into rusty bolts, chunks of wood, shells - almost anything. Even if you're not redecorating your whole deck, succulents, I discovered, are a great way to acquaint yourself with gardening if you're new to it.
If you're doing it yourself on a budget, outfitting a space like a deck with really great plants is going to take time. You'd think this would be intuitive but I actually had to learn this lesson. At first I thought I was just going to run down to the store, pick up an armful of stuff, and be done with it, but gardening is a hobby (a hobby I now practice!) that lends itself to slowing down, to working gradually, to taking one's time.
In the last couple of weeks, I've transformed two corners. I've purchased a banana plant, the Himalayan bamboo, some black mambo grass, assorted ground cover, a neat little purple flower thing, a jungle plant, and probably two dozen types of succulents. I've arrayed these in desk drawers, a repurposed junk box I found, in small pots, and in the case of the bamboo a chipped terracotta container I got at Flora Grubb on sale. And still, I have more work to go.
My deck, once a dingy shady space where we stored our cleaning products, is now alive with color and life, but there are lots more steps to take - install some hanging plants, maybe some tomatoes, line the railings with something. And so I'm sure I'll be returning to Flora Grubb, where inspiration literally grows on trees (sorry).
If you have a project in mind, take a picture of your space, print it out, and head down to Flora Grubb. The staff there is sort of ridiculously helpful and will take care of you. If the term "project" is intimidating to you, I suggest grabbing a carburetor or old high-heeled shoe from your garage or closet and buying four or five succulents and some cactus soil, then just go to town. Put the resulting sculpture in your bathroom or kitchen. You will be delighted each time you look at it and remember you made this pretty little thing using a piece of junk and your own two hands.
Photos: Garrett Kamps and Feodora Umarov
Design: Kari Stevens