Hidden Edens

  • by Matthew S. Bajko
  • Wednesday August 17, 2011
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Raised planter beds home to flowering cilantro, sugar snap peas, and early girl tomato plants sporting yellow flowers and green fruit attract various flying insects. A banana tree provides ample shade on all-too-rare sunny San Francisco days.

In the backyard of their Castro area home, partners Christopher Lalli and John Lake can watch as bees succumb to their fragrant lavender plants.

"Somewhere there is a beehive where lavender honey is being made," surmised Lake as he welcomes a guest to the yard.

The couple has transformed what was once a weedy jungle into a lush landscaped retreat from the hustle and bustle of city life mere steps from their front door.

"It is so peaceful here," said Lake, the main caretaker of the garden at their Sanchez Street home. "It's become an extension of our house as well as a source of greens, herbs, and veggies for the kitchen."

The tomatoes in John Lake's garden aren't quite ready to harvest. (Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland)

Nestled out of sight from sidewalk passersby lie similar hidden Edens throughout San Francisco's neighborhoods. Many city residents have turned once forlorn and forgotten patches of earth into literal living rooms.

Walking out of the kitchen in his Miraloma Park home, Sonny Vukic surveys the patio, small patch of grass, and brick-terraced succulent garden he tends with his 7-year-old daughter Ava. Tall trees along the back perimeter provide seclusion from adjacent properties.

"It is definitely my own little slice of paradise," said Vukic, who bought the home 10 years ago with his husband, Frank Silletti.

When the couple first moved in, ivy had so overtaken the yard that it wasn't until the creeping plants had been yanked out that the brick terraces revealed themselves.

Ava steps carefully around bird statues as she plays in the garden as her popa, Sonny Vukic, watches. (Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland)

"Basically, there was nothing here except a dead lawn," said Vukic, a manager of medical centers. "The space had a ton of potential."

Being able to get his hands dirty in his own yard was a priority, Vukic said, when they were house hunting. Born in Croatia, Vukic spent much time on his grandparents' farm of olives and vineyards along the Dalmatian Coast.

After moving to New York at the age of 10, Vukic continued to garden. It has remained a lifelong passion, he said, providing both exercise and a creative outlet.

"It feels like a vacation when I am doing it. It just is a lot of fun," said Vukic. "For me, anyway, it's sort of my art."

A birdhouse in Sonny Vukics garden awaits a visitor. (Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland)

A work in progress

Sunset resident Lawrence Helman was also looking for a home with a yard when he purchased his house not far from Ocean Beach seven years ago. The gay public relations professional finds working in his garden to be not just a hobby but peaceful exercise.

"It's very relaxing. If I get into a mindset, I tell myself I will just go out in the yard for an hour and then three hours go by," he said.

Two large pine trees that towered over the backyard he had removed in order to allow more sunlight into the garden. It took four workers three days to carry out the downed conifers.

"It was so dark it looked like a cemetery," recalled Helman. "It didn't belong in a home yard."

He then had four planters constructed and began experimenting to see which plants would take to the space. Succulents, it turned out, found his backyard a little too accommodating, to the point where he is routinely pruning them back.

To his delight, though, dahlias also have a fondness for his patch of earth. Each year he adds more of the ornamental garden plants to his growing collection, producing a colorful bouquet of San Francisco's official flower.

"There are so many geometric patterns, so many colors and variety. I think they are so beautiful. They make me really happy," said Helman.

Then there are the strawberry plants, which Helman didn't plant and refers to as "volunteers." He readily admits he is by no means a perfectionist when it comes to tending to his garden, which is forever changing.

"It's a work in progress," he said.

Through trial and tribulation Vukic has determined what plants not only thrive in his neighborhood's foggy climate near the city's Mt. Davidson peak but also the varieties most suitable to the contours of his yard.

Lawrence Helmans garden is a work in progress, but he has a fondness for dahlias and other flowers. (Photo: Rick Gerharter)

"The cool thing about gardening is connecting with what the space requires. You are conforming to the space instead of it conforming to you," said Vukic.

One of Vukic's favorite plants is an organic Meyer lemon tree. It not only thrives in his yard but also allows Vukic a chance at sculpting nature.

"I have been shaping it," he said.

The garden is themed around the couple's daughter Ava, whose name means bird in Latin. Hidden amidst the plantings are birdbaths and houses as well as avian-inspired sculptures.

"This is Ava's Garden. She is named after the actress Ava Gardner. She spends a lot of time out here playing with her Hula Hoop and jump ropes," said Vukic. "I've been into gardening since I was a kid, so also having a kid, I wanted her to have outdoor space."

Along with hummingbirds, bees, and the occasional peregrine falcon, the city's wild parrots will also visit their yard, said Vukic. A next-door neighbor's apple tree attracts the exotic birds each fall once the fruit ripens.

Since the yard is often shrouded in fog, the family doesn't host many garden parties. Nor is there a vegetable garden, which doesn't bother Vukic since he prefers to grow non-edible plants.

"Even if I was into vegetables, I can't grow them up here. Because of the fog, we don't get enough sun," he said. "The fog I don't mind it. As long as you pick the right plants, they don't seem to mind it either."

The dahlias in Lawrence Helmans backyard garden are simply amazing. (Photo: Rick Gerharter)

Trial and error

Lalli and Lake's Castro backyard is outside of the fog bank and receives enough sunlight during the day that their four vegetable planters provide an assortment of edibles for the day's meal. The gravel patio they had put in when they bought their home two and a half years ago also helps to generate heat for the plants.

Among the dinner options are lettuce, zucchini, broccolini, and lemon cucumbers.

"I also love to cook, so I tried to plant a cook's garden," said Lake, director of the Human Rights Campaign's sponsorship program.

At first the yard was "a little daunting to look at," said Lake, so the couple hired Dirty Hoe Landscaping to help construct the patio and planting beds. The actual planting was left for Lake to do himself, with help from his partner in picking out the plants.

"Planting, for me, that is the fun part," said Lake. "I love it. I can spend an entire Saturday putting around here planting and weeding."

Experimentation over the last several years has helped Lake determine where certain plants thrive best in the yard.

"It has been trial and error to see what works. Each yard in this city is its own microclimate, so you need to see where the sun goes to figure out what grows," he said. "Now that this is our third year, it feels more cyclical. The garden is becoming very beautiful without a lot of effort."

His favorite time of day to enjoy his horticultural handiwork is at dusk, said Lake, when the outdoor lighting turns on and the fog remains at bay.

"The best time of day is at sunset if the fog hasn't rolled in. It is magic," he said.

It is rare for the couple to entertain outdoors at night, however, as it isn't often that the weather cooperates for a backyard barbeque. But when it does, Lake joked they have a guest list on standby ready to come over at a moment's notice.

"We have not been able to entertain here often because it is too cold," he said. "On those rare San Francisco evenings when you can be outside and comfortable, we are able to have people over for dinner."

Terry Baum admires her first artichoke in 10 years. (Photo: Rick Gerharter)

Tea in the garden

The weather isn't a deterrent for lesbian playwright Terry Baum, who often invites people to join her in her home garden on Douglass Street between the Castro and Noe Valley neighborhoods.

"I have people over for tea and we sit in my garden," said Baum, who is running as the Green Party candidate for mayor this fall. "The thing is, in San Francisco, you never know if you have a garden party if it will be warm enough."

After buying her building, which at one time had been the location of an Italian bakery, in 1978 Baum set about cutting down a solid wall of anise plants, many towering seven feet tall. Having cleared out the backyard, she decided to repurpose the bricks from what had been a pizza oven into a patio and walkway.

"I didn't want grass. I don't like grass," said Baum. "If you don't have kids using it, who needs it?"

Fuchsia blossoms dangle in Terry Baums garden (Photo: Rick Gerharter)

Her garden is a hodge-podge of flowering plants, succulents, trees, and numerous artworks that she has collected over time. In one spot a metal blue heron sculpture stands guard; in another a Thai spirit house a friend found on the street adds a mystical touch.

Various acquaintances have helped the garden to evolve over the years by contributing cuttings from their own plants. It was a stop on the 2008 Noe Valley Garden Tour whose theme that year was "A Garden Among Friends."

"A lot of friends made contributions to the garden over the years," said Baum.

For the last seven years, Hector Sabates, a friend and gardener, has assisted Baum in tending to her backyard. They continue to revise the layout and look of the garden.

"He just added a stone path four months ago," said Baum.

At this point many of the plants have established themselves and require little care.

"Things just take care of themselves," said Baum. "I am really into self-seeding annuals. They bloom, disappear and then come back."

Not everyone is so lucky to have such ample outdoor space within the city to tend to a garden. Yet even multi-story apartment dwellers have found a way to bring the outdoors in.

This spring Terrrie Frye turned a kitchen windowsill in her Tenderloin studio apartment into a mini herb and vegetable garden. She was able to do so because her cat, Sweeti Pi, gave up her perch on the windowsill after it underwent repairs last year.

Since May she has used the south-facing space to cultivate radishes, green onions, and what a friend labeled "cocktail beets" due to their miniature size. After a second planting failed to deliver another harvest, Frye now plans to try more herbs, such as rosemary, basil and oregano.

"I am a Taurus. I am an earth sign," said Frye, an LGBT housing activist who grew up in a gardening family back in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. "Every once in awhile I have to get my fingers in the dirt."