ISSUE 37  |  Style on a Budget

Gray Gardens: A Visit to San Francisco’s Foggiest Backyard

September 16, 2014 10:00 AM

BY Michelle Slatalla

In the years since the General Store SF opened near a surfer’s beach in San Francisco’s foggy Outer Sunset neighborhood, it has been notable for its ability to lure shoppers to a remote outpost of hipdom on the strength of its eclectic merchandise: Japanese ceramics; delicately wrought turquoise pendants; stacks of Kinfolk magazine, and used flannel shirts ($65 apiece). But what really sets the place apart? Its backyard.

Built simply and on the cheap, the garden has a gray-on-gray palette that’s a surprise even in a city known for eccentricities. Its centerpiece is a tiny and perfectly proportioned greenhouse fitted from reclaimed windows and bits of scrap (assembled for owners Serena Mitnik-Miller and Mason St. Peter by local artist Jesse Schlesinger).  The garden’s charm is enhanced by raised beds made of reclaimed wood planks, peeling paint as a design element, and the sort of old concrete patio that would have sent a lot of garden designers scurrying for a jackhammer.

A door that connects the store to the garden says “Welcome” on the glass. Here’s what’s on the other side:

Photography by Tom Kubik for Gardenista.

Above: The miniature greenhouse has a steeply pitched roof; its glass windows can be propped open for ventilation. It is wide enough (barely) for a visitor to turn around in. The plants–a mix of succulents and cacti that thrive in bright light and each other’s company–are very happy there.

Above: Owners Mitnik-Miller and St. Peter (she’s a painter, he’s an architect) have managed to make the artfully designed garden feel spontaneous. A gray-on-gray color scheme unifies the space. Many different shades–the grays of the sea-bleached wood tabletop, the gravel, and the patio–blend to create a serene backdrop. Against it, green plants look vivid and otherworldly.

Above: A view through a hole in the wood tabletop.

Above: Against the fence a planter made of reclaimed wood planks is home to a tangle of perennial grass that stands up to living in a seaside neighborhood where wind, salt, and drought are the prevailing conditions.

Above: Paint is peeling dramatically on the back wall of the General Store. (It reminded me of the way skin flakes off after a sunburn.) In the raised bed at the base of the wall is a collection of hardy survivors, succulents mostly.

Above: A Cleistocactus strausii (commonly known as a woolly torch  or silver torch cactus) is a native of the South American mountains. It can grow as tall as 10 feet. Don’t be deceived by how soft and fuzzy it looks; the needles are sharp.

Above: On shelves along the fence are tiny tableaux of seashells and miniature objects: offerings to surfer gods?

Above: A spiny euphorbia is a succulent masquerading as a cactus. This is a variety of Euphorbia ingens (commonly known as a candalabra tree).

Above: For easy storage, an expandable garden hose shrinks to fit inside a metal pail.

Above: Still life with skateboard.

Above: Herbs and plant teepees (tied together with baker’s twine) are in a sheltered back corner, protected from wind.

Above: The back “wall” of the greenhouse flips open to allow air to circulate.

Above: Rusty corrugated cans hold houseplants.

Above: The view from the store. Walk past the “Welcome” sign and onto the concrete patio to visit the General Store’s garden.


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Above: The General Store SF garden is at 4035 Judah St. For hours and information, see General Store.

See more in Shopper’s Diary: The General Store in San Francisco on Remodelista. And for another inventive Outer Sunset garden, see Steal This Look: A Potting Shed Made of Scraps.