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Designer Visit: A ‘Magical Green Pocket Garden’ in San Francisco

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Designer Visit: A ‘Magical Green Pocket Garden’ in San Francisco

March 22, 2019

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.

  A theatrically pruned Meyer lemon tree (Citrus × meyeri) greets visitors at the gate. Visible behind the Meyer lemon tree, against the fence, is a silver torch cactus (Cleistocactus strausii).
Above:  A theatrically pruned Meyer lemon tree (Citrus × meyeri) greets visitors at the gate. Visible behind the Meyer lemon tree, against the fence, is a silver torch cactus (Cleistocactus strausii).

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.”

A ponytail palm (Beaucarnea recurvata) is a native of Mexico (and not really a palm at all). Easy to grow in sun or shade, it has few demands beyond an affinity for dry and well-drained soil. Surrounded by a layer of smooth river rock that serves as mulch, the palm enjoys superior drainage.
Above: A ponytail palm (Beaucarnea recurvata) is a native of Mexico (and not really a palm at all). Easy to grow in sun or shade, it has few demands beyond an affinity for dry and well-drained soil. Surrounded by a layer of smooth river rock that serves as mulch, the palm enjoys superior drainage.

“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 master bedroom is on the ground floor and the French doors look out onto the Meyer lemon tree. At the base of the balcony staircase is a Farfugium.
Above: The master bedroom is on the ground floor and the French doors look out onto the Meyer lemon tree. At the base of the balcony staircase is a Farfugium.

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.”

A potted philodendron add texture and greenery to a corner of the garden.
Above: A potted philodendron add texture and greenery to a corner of the garden.
The clients remodeled the house before tackling the garden. The stairway, balcony, and garden fence were all installed during the renovation.
Above: The clients remodeled the house before tackling the garden. The stairway, balcony, and garden fence were all installed during the renovation.
Planted against the fence are Pittosporum &#8\2\16;Silver Sheen&#8\2\17; shrubs with delicate foliage. In front of the shrubs are yuccas (and one agave).
Above: Planted against the fence are Pittosporum ‘Silver Sheen’ shrubs with delicate foliage. In front of the shrubs are yuccas (and one agave).
Two Norfolk Island palms are interspersed with clumps of birds-of-paradise in a long raised bed that runs the length of the garden.
Above: Two Norfolk Island palms are interspersed with clumps of birds-of-paradise in a long raised bed that runs the length of the garden.
 &#8\2\20;The palms will get really large, but they&#8\2\17;re slow-growing, so it&#8\2\17;s exciting to see them develop a new leaf every once in a while,&#8\2\2\1; the designers say.
Above: “The palms will get really large, but they’re slow-growing, so it’s exciting to see them develop a new leaf every once in a while,” the designers say.

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.

Above: A dining area in the corner of the garden has built-in benches made of ipe and stumps for additional seating. “In the dining area we used the larger stones underfoot,” the designers say.

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.

Above: “The garden is north facing but gets dappled light and really nice afternoon light,” the designers say.
The view from the dining area.
Above: The view from the dining area.

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:

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