Portola is known as San Francisco’s Garden District but on outward appearances that name may seem a bit misleading to the casual outsider. The Portola’s wide canals of asphalt, lined with pastel houses and older Japanese cars, seem to be rarely pierced by the odd tree or a burst of colorful bougainvillea. The lush gardens here are even more secretive than the neighborhood itself, behind the impenetrable stucco facades that guard each block, often lies a tucked away oasis that is as individual as the residents of our diverse community.
Featured in Sunset Magazine twice. (Elisa and Bill modeling exterior daybed)
Demonstrating the beauty of up-cycling in the Princeton St. garden.
The P.ortola Garden Tour, now in it’s 9th year, is one of the few times we get to peek behind the steel security gate into these private worlds of horticultural wonder. That’s why I jumped at the opportunity when I was invited to attend the pretour by Ruth Wallace – the creator, organizer and Queen of the Portola Gardens. I will admit though, I was a little skeptical at first when Ruth said that I would be pretty surprised by what I saw. I knew many homes in the neighborhood must have spectacular views while others might be making good use of their very deep 120′ lots but how unique could these spaces really be?
Asian inspiration at the Cambridge St. garden.
A perfect entertaining space on Olmstead St.
After touring the first several gardens my skepticism was quickly dissolved into genuine disbelief and an inspirational urge to start work on our own yard. These aren’t the faceless professionally designed and built types that you will find in Pacific Heights, the Portola gardens are as authentic, diverse and individual as the people who have spent years creating them. They range from the simplicity of the Olmstead St. gardens which feature serene sitting areas, hugged by walls of greenery to the jaw dropping grandness of the Princeton St. garden. While this surprisingly detailed space has been featured in Sunset magazine twice now, the entire creation is purely the result of endless creativity and 20 years of dedication from the owner Randy. The variety goes on from here with the Bowdoin street garden that is an artistic collection of mermaid murals and installations from Burning Man. A lovely hillside retreat is featured on Brussels St. that feels more like a classic Sausalito hillside cottage with spectacular views of the Bay. There is even a well manicured garden on Wayland St. that leads back to an unexpected shared urban farm complete with veggies, chickens and rabbits.
Hillside escape on Brussels St.
Lush greenery at another Brussels St garden.
Every level of gardener is proudly on display at the Portola Garden Tour, which gives the event an approachable and inspiring view towards gardening. The Henderson’s garden on Olmstead St. has clearly been a labor of love for many years. They have terraced their yard and spent years creating this mature garden that marches down the hill with breathtaking north-east views of downtown, the Bay Bridges and Oakland. On the other end of the spectrum there are the gardens on Goettingen Street which are making their debut this year. These are in their beginning stages after a summer of what I’m sure was exhausting work by two next door neighbors. Both families have transformed their back yards into new entertainment areas and a formally barren front yard into an artistic display of materials and succulents.
Urban agriculture on Wayland St.
Say hello to the Chickens in Wayland St. shared garden.
Just as much fun as the gardens featured on the tour, is the opportunity for a rare peak over the fence into the ones that are not. The Cambridge St. garden utilizes pavers and found objects to create a unique space that includes miniature pagodas, a reclaimed cast-iron sink turned planter and a scale model farm house with a tiny garden – I geeked out over this one. Be sure to peek over the fence on the north side to see a large scale vegetable production garden and over the rear fence to see the remnants of a small green house – I love discovering anything crumbling and abandoned and this neighborhood seems to be full of elements dating back to it’s agricultural past.
shed high above the neighborhood, fiery sculptures adorn the garden of Portola’s Garden Queen.
Garden Tour newbie and blossoming green thumb Jeanette shows off her transformed entertaining space.
In many ways the Garden Tour is the Portola’s version of a neighborhood festival. It’s a fantastic representation of our diverse community and it’s agricultural and flower producing history. It’s also an opportunity to spend a day strolling around our corner of San Francisco, running into old and new neighbors and popping into lush gardens to experience a hidden space while enjoying a bit of refreshments. None of the crowds or the food lines associated with a typical festival, this is a neighborhood event done Portola style; leisurely, authentic and incredibly diverse.
Creativity welcomes you at Bowdoin St.
Discover artistic flourishes all over Bowdoin St.
In the essence of time I’ve only managed to scratch the surface in this post, unfortunately leaving out many beautiful spaces and only giving the most basic descriptions for the ones I’ve included. With 25 gardens to experience Ruth urges everyone to please start early and give yourself plenty of time to view it all Saturday. The tour is this Saturday (9/26) from 10am-3pm and is self guided. Tickets are available online here,in local stores (complete list here) and can be purchased the day of the event at the Garden Tour H.Q. and starting spot, 749 Colby Street. Tickets are $20 and all proceeds benefit the Garden District Scholarship Fund and Portola Work Projects. The after party which will be held at Ruth & Floyd’s house (749 Colby) this year is open to all ticket holders and there will be a $100 Flora Grubb gift certificate door prize.
Bay views at this contemporary spot on Goettingen St.
Urban serenity on Olmstead St.
A peek over the fence into the past.
Best seat for morning coffee or afternoon cocktail on Olmstead St.