I maintain a 800 square feet garden in San Francisco's Mission District. Planning started in 2015 and we finally planted in January 2017. The process involved tearing up concrete, pouring a new sidewalk, hauling in clean soil, and patiently waiting for the wet season to plant.
This garden was inspired by [Jane Martin's work](https://www.dwell.com/article/where-the-sidewalk-ends-60e05502) and conceived to help expand San Francisco's [urban forest](https://sfplanning.org/urban-forest-plan). It was designed to be an example of [xeriscaping](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xeriscaping) as it’s drought-tolerant and requires no additional water other than seasonal rain.
San Francisco supports sidewalk landscaping for numerous practical benefits. These gardens eliminate excessive hardscape and increase [permeable landscape](https://plantsf.org/PermeableLandscaping.html) that reduce demand on the city's sewage treatment capacity by absorbing storm water. They counteract the [urban heat island effect](https://www.epa.gov/green-infrastructure/reduce-urban-heat-island-effect#:~:text=%22Urban%20heat%20islands%22%20occur%20when,heat%2Drelated%20illness%20and%20mortality.) and regulate the block’s ambient temperature. And of course they improve our well-being and provide us an opportunity to interface with nature in an unexpected setting.
Our garden is a thriving habitat for numerous birds and pollinators, particularly [Ruby-throated hummingbirds](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruby-throated_hummingbird). We've even spotted a [Western fence lizard](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_fence_lizard).
It is a joy for my family and me care for this space and share with our neighborhood.
## Before and After
>The corner was a bar for decades before closing and going vacant for many years.
>It all started in 2013 when we worked with [Friends of the Urban Forest](https://www.friendsoftheurbanforest.org/) to plant two non-fruiting olive trees. FUF is a major contributor to the development and maintenance of SF's urban forest. They help neighbors organize block planting events and coordinate all of the necessary permits, trees, soil, stakes, and volunteers. The trees we planted that day would later become critical for our garden's success by blocking afternoon winds and providing shade to help other plants get established.
>A couple of years later we were ready to start the bigger project. Here's the sidewalk as it appeared before we started sidewalk demo.
>Demolition of the existing path began in 2016. Our existing sidewalk was nearly 12-feet wide. The city allows you to plant much of that as long as you maintain a six-feet unobstructed path. It’s not necessary to replace the sidewalk when you landscape but I chose to because the quality of the existing path was poor. Note that the street trees were established by that point.
>During demo I noticed large slabs laying in the dirt. I assumed they were concrete. Then I saw [[SidewalkGarden-GraniteDetail.jpg|a crack]] and I realized what they were: slabs of granite. These were the old curbs! These days we make curbs out of concrete but a hundred years ago the city sourced granite quarried from the Sierra foothills. These original curbs still exist all around the city today and what you're seeing is just the top of the slab. They're big, heavy things. And apparently they're valuable. Landscapers use them to terrace gardens and build steps. Not too much longer after I took this photo, a buyer that the contractor had lined up came to haul them away.
>The new path and fenced-off planting areas in 2016.
>Since the ground was already open we used the opportunity to add a [vapor barrier](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vapor_barrier) to the building foundation. Previously the sidewalk had been moving water away from the building and now with hardscape gone we had to be prepared for that area to contain moisture.
>Due to the scale of our project, we were able to obtain plants at a slight discount from a wholesaler. We ordered from [Pacific Nurseries](https://pacificnurseries.com/) in Colma, CA, but most retail nurseries will have what you need.
>We waited for wet weather in January 2017 to plant. This allowed plants an opportunity to establish themselves in optimal conditions before being weened off of watering.
>Stones or mulch help suppress weeds and trap moisture. We used [1.5" Lynn Creek stone from Broadmoor](https://www.broadmoorlandscape.com/stone#deco8)
>Five years of growth as seen in December 2022. The last two wet winters have been boom years for plant growth. And ten years after being planted, the original street trees are nearly 25 feet tall.
>We added string lights connected to a photo sensor to illuminate the path and maintain a safe space at night.
>Windy weather causes trash to accumulate in planting, maintenance is a necessary weekly chore for us.
>Occasionally plants fail due to excessive droughts and we replace with cuttings from other thriving plants.
## Plant List
Most of our plants have one thing in common: drought resistance. I also considered how nice they are to touch as well as their ease to propagate (in case plants were stolen or failed to thrive on first planting). The major tradeoff we made was not selecting exclusively from native plant lists. We considered the best options from other Mediterranean climates around the world, mostly South Africa and Australia.
| *Example* | *Botanical Name* | *Common Name* | *Endemic* |
| :----------: | :------: | :------: | :------: |
| !(https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/ed/Woollybush_Singapore.jpg) | [Adenanthos sericeus](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adenanthos_sericeus) | Wooly Bush | Western Australia |
|!(https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/21/Agave_americana_R01.jpg)| [Agave Americana](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agave_americana) | American Aloe |US/Mexico |
|!(https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b9/Aloe_arborescens_Compton.JPG)| [Aloe arborescens](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aloe_arborescens) | Torch Aloe | Southern Africa |
|!(https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/9e/Anigozanthos.flavidus2.jpg)| [Anigozanthos](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anigozanthos) | Kangaroo Paw | Southwestern Australia |
| !(https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d1/Gfp-asparagus-fern.jpg)|[Asparagus densiflorus](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asparagus_densiflorus) | Asparagus fern|Southern Africa|
|!(https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/8e/Callistemon_--_Dwarf_Bottlebrush_or_Little_John.jpg)|[Callistemon "Little John"](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Callistemon) | Little John Dwarf Bottlebrush | Western Australia |
|!(https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b4/Cordyline-electricpink.jpg)| [Cordyline "electric pink"](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cordyline) | Cordyline electric pink |Western Pacific Ocean Region|
|!(https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/94/Crassula_arborescens%2C_Jard%C3%ADn_Bot%C3%A1nico_de_M%C3%BAnich%2C_Alemania%2C_2013-05-04%2C_DD_02.jpg)|[Crassula arborescens](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crassula_arborescens) | Silver Dollar Plant | South Africa |
|!(https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/36/Crassula_multicava_kz1.JPG) |[Crassula multicava ‘Purple Dragon’](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crassula_multicava) | Purple Dragon Crassula | South Africa|
|!(https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/85/Echeveria_elegans_-_1.jpg)|[Echeveria ‘Afterglow’](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Echeveria) | Afterglow Echiveria | Central America, Mexico and northwestern South America|
|!(https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c0/Euphorbia_lambii_1c.JPG)| [Euphorbia lambii](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euphorbia) | Tree Euphorbia | Canary Islands|
|!(https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/00/Fragaria_chiloensis_-_guadalupe_dunes_077.jpg)| [Fragaria chiloensis](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fragaria_chiloensis) | Beach Strawberry | Pacific Coast of North and South America|
|!(https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b0/Grevillealongjohn.jpg)| [Grevillea "Long John"](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grevillea) | Long John Grevillea |Australia|
|!(https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/99/Starr-090526-8606-Grevillea_banksii-white_flowered_plant_near_hunter_check_in_station-Kahakuloa_West_Maui-Maui_%2824326511214%29.jpg)| [Moonshine Grevillea](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grevillea) | Grevillea "Moonshine" | Australia|
|!(https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/8c/Kniphofia_uvaria_BW-2014-06-07_13-49-23.jpg)| [Knifophia uvaria](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kniphofia_uvaria) | Red Hot Poker | South Africa|
| !(https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/65/Aloe_plicatilis_1.jpg) | [Kumara plicatilis](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kumara_plicatilis) | Fan Aloe | South Africa |
|!(https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3d/Lavandula_dentata1.jpg)|[Lavandula dentata](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lavandula_dentata)|French lavender|Mediterranean|
|!(https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e8/Leucadendron_Stelligerun_red._%2814977919599%29.jpg)| [Leucadendron "Safari Sunset"](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leucadendron) | Safari Sunset Leucadendron | South Africa |
|!(https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/8e/Olivenbaum_%28Olea_europaea%29_45.jpg)|[Olea europaea ‘Majestic Beauty’](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olive)|Olive Tree (Non Fruiting)|Mediterranean |
|!(https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/72/Purple_Fountain_Grass_%28Pennisetum_setaceum%29_in_Hyderabad%2C_AP_W_IMG_7797.jpg)| [Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum'](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cenchrus_setaceus) | Purple fountain grass | East Africa, Middle East and southwestern Asia|
|!(https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d7/Phormium_tenax_Plant_2000px.jpg)| [Phormium Tenax](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phormium_tenax) | New Zealand Flax | New Zealand|
|!(https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/6c/Podocarpus_macrophyllus_var_maki_1.jpg)|[Podocarpus macrophyllus](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Podocarpus_macrophyllus) | Japanese Yew| Japan|
|!(https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/dd/Persicaria_capitata_AF_crop.jpg)|[Polygonum capitatum](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Persicaria_capitata) | Knotweed | Asia|
|!(https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/49/Yucca_aloifolia_2.jpg)|[Yucca aloifolia](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yucca_aloifolia) | Dagger Plant | USA|
|!(https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e0/Verbena_bonariensis.jpg)|[Verbena bonariensis](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Verbena_bonariensis) | Purpletop Vervain | South America |
I worked with a [[#Credits|local expert]] to plan my garden, but that was nearly ten years ago and since San Francisco and many other municipalities have greatly improved their policies, documentation, and resources to make urban landscaping as easy as possible for property owners to install.
Our sidewalk garden is relatively large and it was part of a home renovation project, so we could piggyback on some activities like concrete demolition and concrete pouring. Many of the activities that I depended on contractors to do you could do yourself or with friends.
Below is an outline of the steps. Also see my [[#Tips|tips for new sidewalk gardens]] that expands on the outlines below with some of the key things I learned.
San Franciscans should see the [Public Works website about street landscaping](https://sfpublicworks.org/services/permits/sidewalk-landscaping), it has everything you need.
- [ ] Research whether or not landscape gardening or street trees are permitted where you live, as well as any guidelines that will inform your design
- [ ] Talk to local nurseries to discover best practices for planting where you live including ideal local native plants
- [ ] Put together a mood board to inspire the plants you select
- [ ] Decide whether you'll use stones or mulch, and/or a ground cover for the base layer
- [ ] Determine water source
- [ ] Create a plant list
- [ ] Gather bids from a couple different contractors to help you remove concrete (assuming you're not doing it yourself)
- [ ] Sketch your sidewalk showing the new planting area and all of the features your municipality requires for a permit
- [ ] Contact your local department of urban forestry to determine whether street trees could or should be part of your project and whether they will provide them
- [ ] Find your source for plants and inquire about lead times
- [ ] Apply for and obtain a permit
- [ ] Contact your local utility to determine whether [USA markings](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Underground_Service_Alert) (underground service alert) are necessary
- [ ] Schedule your demolition day
- [ ] Demo
- [ ] Scrape off old soil (often lead is present) and churn in new soil
- [ ] Coordinate delivery of plants and mulch (you may want to stagger if you don't have room to store everything at once)
- [ ] Schedule planting day and recruit friends and family
- [ ] Plant!
> [!STAR] Inspired, but not ready to plant your own garden?
>Start with a tree! In San Francisco, [Friends of the Urban Forest](https://www.friendsoftheurbanforest.org/) will plant a tree on your sidewalk. They'll even manage the work to take out the concrete. Price ranges from free to very cheap.
- Discuss your new garden or street trees with neighbors, maybe they want to plant gardens, too? You could ultimately save a lot on concrete demo, soil, and plant delivery if you coordinate and buy in bulk.
- Check whether any grants exist to fund the planning and installation of your garden. In SF, for example, the [SFPUC awards grants for large garden projects](https://sfpuc.org/programs/grants/green-infrastructure-grant) that capture rainwater.
- A professional drawing usually isn't necessary to submit with your permit application. But keeping it clean and tidy will help expedite the process. Here are a few examples of [layout templates](https://sfpublicworks.org/services/sample-layout-options-different-sidewalk-conditions) provided by San Francisco, and here is the [[SidewalkGarden-Plan.png|drawing I submitted]] with my permit.
- The denser the planting, the more plants you'll need to buy, the bigger the budget, the more you'll need to maintain.
- Avoid edibles. They attract rodents and the fruit stains and makes a mess of the sidewalk. Also lead and feces in soil could make fruit unhealthy. Herbs are OK for fragrance and color, but we don't use them for cooking.
- Yucca and aloe are great options in the Bay Area. They grow quickly and their cuttings easily propagate to fill in your garden (or help a neighbor start theirs).
- Set your expectations before planting anything rare or fragile: expect vandalism and theft. Plants are routinely snatched from our garden by florists and landscapers.
- If you use stones as your mulch (we do, [1.5" Lynn Creek from Broadmoor](https://www.broadmoorlandscape.com/stone#deco8)), stay away from anything that could easily be kicked up by passersby. It makes a mess. I've been warned that it cuts both ways as larger stones can be used for vandalism, but I've never experienced this.
- In the Bay Area and most Mediterranean climates the best time to plant is either right before or during the wet season. This gives the plants the best chance of establishing themselves and reduces the amount of time you'll initially need to spend watering.
- Even if you pursue a no- or low-water garden, you will initially need access to some water to help your plants establish. If it tap isn't nearby, you may need to install one or borrow access from a neighbor.
- [Stepables](https://www.stepables.com/) is a great resource for researching drought-tolerant ground covers.
>We routinely leave yucca and aloe cuttings on the corner for neighbors to take. When we post on Nextdoor or Craigslist, they're usually gone in an hour.
## Frequently Asked Questions
### Is this legal?
Yes, if you get a permit. San Francisco and other municipalities have streamlined the process to legally permit urban landscaping.
### How much did it cost?
Not including the new sidewalk, the cost of the gardens totaled $30/sqft. This includes permit, concrete demolition, new soil, stones, plants, street trees, and some planting help.
### How much time does it take to maintain?
About three hours a month. Mostly trash removal, but also pruning, leaf removal, and weeding. When sidewalk landscaping fails it’s because people failed to make time to upkeep. Weeds quickly take over and/or plants fail because they never properly established or are water-dependent and are being neglected.
The garden is dedicated to my mom, a lifelong gardener who handed down to me her passion for growing. It all started with the veggie garden she helped me plant when I was 11. I also inherited her preference to work barefooted. Mom passed away in 2017 at age 61 and we miss her deeply.
**Jane Martin** made major contributions to this garden. She has been instrumental in the city's embrace of sidewalk landscaping by planting demonstration gardens throughout San Francisco and advocating for the development an easy permitting process. Jane directly worked with us to select drought-resistant plant species, manage the permit process, coordinate contractors and plant, too.
In 2019 **Ethan Bodnar** of [Plantkind](https://www.plantkind.co/) helped reimagine one section of the garden that failed to thrive during a particularly difficult stretch of drought and planted additional podocarps and grevilleas that have since succeeded wonderfully.
**John and Mary Lau** continue to assist my family and me with monthly pruning and weeding.