Some people would look at a neglected San Francisco side yard filled with an overgrown ramble of scraggly rose bushes and forsaken calla lilies, and feel intimidated. All that hard-packed clay—will we need a jackhammer to loosen it?
Anastasia Sonkin and Taylor Pollack are not those people. The San Francisco–based garden designers and partners in Talc Studio looked at their client’s 40-by-25-foot garden in the city’s Castro neighborhood and saw “a little magical green pocket in the middle of the city.”
Maybe every garden starts as a love affair. “This whole garden started with some Norfolk Island palms that the client, a plant enthusiast, fell for hard. “He said, ‘All I need are these palms,’ so we put two in the raised bed and one by the entrance,” the garden designers say. “That’s how it all started.”
And yes, they had to use a jackhammer to dig out planting holes.
Photography by Airyka Rockefeller, courtesy of Talc Studio.
When Sonkin and Pollack first saw the garden, they discovered the mature Meyer lemon tree laden with fruit. “It was really happy even though it was neglected and pretty overgrown,” they say. “It was hard to prune it, but we were able to make this spiraling trunk—that is definitely the focal point of the garden, that trunk.”
“The challenge was the garden is on the heaviest clay in the Castro, so finding plants that could withstand that kind of drainage was a challenge,” the garden designers say. They added gypsum to the planting holes, sprinkling in handfuls and shoveling in cactus mix.
The clients “also really like the idea of walking barefoot in the garden, which is why we chose to use ipe for the path and smooth river rock pebbles,” the designers say. “We had to level a lot of the garden.”
Palms expert Jason Dewees, a staff horticulturist at Flora Grubb Gardens in San Francisco and the author of Designing with Palms, sourced the Norfolk Island palms.
The clients’ garage serves as a backdrop to the dining area. The euphorbia against the garage has grown significantly in the two years since it was planted. “It used to fit within the frame of the door, and now it’s much bigger,” the designers say.
If you’re planning to design a new garden or overhaul an existing landscape, start with our curated guides to Garden Design 101 for ideas for Pavers, Decks & Patios, and Gravel Courtyards. See more of our favorite layouts for small city gardens:
- Pacific Heights Mystery: A Hidden City Garden Reveals Its Secrets
- Privacy Landscaping: How to Use Plants in a City Garden
- 10 Garden Ideas to Steal from Amsterdam’s Canal Houses