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Gardening in the Dunes

San Francisco is a city of sand. When I arrived here over 35 years ago my first garden was in a flat in the Sunset District. I recall thinking, “Will anything grow in all this sand?” The answer happily, is an unqualified yes! While many still believe our sand dunes are barren there are many native plants that grow and thrive here.

Why So Much Sand?

Several millennia ago, the Pacific Ocean’s relentless action and the erosion of the Sierra Nevada brought granite sand into the bay creating sand dunes. Over time, with the help of prevailing westerly winds and rising sea levels, the sand advanced inland. As much as a quarter to a third of San Francisco was once covered in sand. The sand dunes were stabilized by deep-rooted vegetation, creating a diverse native plant community supported by insects, birds, reptiles, and mammals. You can still see coastal dune scrub communities at Fort Funston (the largest remaining sand dune field), up above Baker Beach, and at Hawk Hill near Golden Gate Heights.

How Cool are Dune Plants?

Dune plants commonly have small, waxy, hairy, and/or succulent leaves, and deep root systems that allow them to survive in dry, nutrient-poor sand. Not to mention they can withstand blustery salty winds! For an example of great coastal dune plantings visit Land’s End near the old Sutro Baths.

What to Grow?

The San Francisco Plant Finder database ( notes at least 41 plants suitable for dunes or sandy soil. You can find many of these hearties at Bay Area native plant nurseries including the Sutro Stewards Native Plant Nursery. For more information about our nursery including volunteer opportunities, see

Here are some samples to get your native habitat garden growing:

Seaside Daisy (Erigeron glaucus)

Perennial herb, grows 1-3 feet; pink-lavender flowers with fuzzy green leaves bloom winter through summer. Friendly to bees and butterflies. Great for coastal gardens and has lots of blossoms. They’re easy to care for, needs low watering, and are popular i