Updated: Jan 20
By: LeeAndrea Morton
During the shelter-in-place order, I’ve started growing a native plant garden behind my apartment building. My intention is to maximize the benefits of the garden by growing plants that support local wildlife with food and shelter, provide food for me and neighbors, reduce water usage, and attract beneficial insects that control pests. I will give you the inside scoop on how this all began, what I researched, and how I made decisions.
Before I tell this story, I want to acknowledge a few important things. The land where I live and garden is Ramaytush Ohlone land on the Yelamu village site. For thousands of years, the Ohlone people have been and continue to steward the plants and ecological systems that we are trying to restore today. I also want to acknowledge the movement in defense of Black lives and communities of color against police brutality and all forms of apparent and covert racism. For about eight years, I have been working in San Francisco for organizations serving low-income people of color including the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House and Literacy for Environmental Justice. It has become excruciatingly clear to me that the issues we, as a society, are trying to resolve like police brutality, homelessness, income disparity, health disparity, mental health crises, disproportionately polluted neighborhoods, lack of access to clean food and water, ecological degradation, and climate instability absolutely cannot be solved so long as we have a culture of “othering” that is rooted in a mentality of colonialism and domination. No issue stands on its own. No person or community stands on their own. We are all deeply connected. Feeling into our hearts, we can soften, direct our attention to loving causes, and do the work that must be done.
My story begins. I was two weeks away from moving out of San Francisco when COVID-19 brought all my plans to a halt. Earlier this year, I had been living in the lower Haight, near Page, and had plans to begin working on a sheep farm in Sonoma County by April. To transition while I searched for housing, I moved into my boyfriend’s apartment on the westside of Divisadero, also near Page. None of my plans worked out... and I couldn’t be more lucky.
In mid-March, when society felt unpredictable, I wanted to stay close to the people and places I knew best — right here in the Haight. At night, my mind raced, trying to make sense of every new piece of information, every new change. In the mornings, I added that night’s worries to my disaster preparedness to-do list.
As the queue at the neighborhood grocery store grew daily, my mind aimed more and more toward food security. Although I didn’t agree with the idea of hoarding, I began “stocking up” and buying much more than I normally would. Not only did I buy pantry items but I got cash from the ATM, wood planks from the hardware store, and garden seeds, the most life-giving of my purchases, by definition. I was preparing to be entirely inside the home for an indefinite period. I’m so grateful it didn’t get to that point here in San Francisco and I’m very sorry to have contributed to the madness.
Getting outside and being with the plants became my saving grace during this period. Daily, I go for jaunts in Buena Vista, Golden Gate Park, or Mount Sutro. When the spring herbs were bursting out of the soil, I collected Miner’s Lettuce, Chickweed, young Nasturtium leaves, Wild Parsnip leaves, and Wild Onion. Even inside the house, I haven’t entirely lost touch with the plants. I relish each cooking event as an opportunity to commune with the produce we buy at the Farmers’ Market. I’ve also been working on the many crafts I’ve been dreaming of getting to: Milkweed cordage to finish the strap for a Willow basket I made, grinding the bags full of acorns that I collected in the fall, and identifying the many varieties of grasses that grow in this city. I’ve made an effort to stay in touch with friends, family, sights and sounds around me, and my own thoughts and feelings. Since the shelter-in-place order was released, my system has settled and I’ve reached a new state of homeostasis.
Amidst the social instability, my partner and I have been sowing seeds with the intention of growing food. Most of the backyard had been accounted for by our downstairs neighbor but we found a few pockets where we could place a pot or two. Our first project was to grow lettuce in plastic storage containers. One day, when we were in the backyard watering our lettuce, the downstairs neighbor came to us and said, “If you want to grow things back here, why don’t you take that half of the yard?” In what felt like a strange turn of fate, we came to have full decision-making power over quite a lot of space for this populated neighborhood. That weekend, we got busy removing the succulents and drawing up our plans for the yard.
We had a few assets already: We’d both been honing our skills by growing plants in pots as well as taking some gardening workshops (such as Garden for the Environment’s GetUp class), we’d been developing worm compost for about two years, and we had several plants that we already knew we wanted to make space for, including local native plants. As we negotiated with each other about what to plant, one of the main principles we continuously returned to was: Which plants will serve the most purposes?
While we also planted what mainstream culture now considers traditional food (corn, squash, and tomatoes), the natives section of our yard serves the most varied purposes by far. Already, we have 12 species of locally native plants. Of which, I know 10 of them have human uses for food or medicine, the other two may also. I have personally made a practice of eating wild and native foods over the past few years, so I do now recognize and use these plants as food. In addition to serving human tummies, these native plants also benefit native pollinators and wildlife like moths, butterflies, bees, and birds, providing food and habitat that non-natives simply can’t. Our evolutionary history is that of interspecies pairs that hold interlocking keys — These locally native plants have the key to survival for wildlife in this area. Another benefit of California native plants is that many have developed adaptations to allow for drought tolerance. This quality makes many of these plants incredibly water-wise, especially once they’ve been established. One last pitch for the gardening skeptic: many natives are host to an array of beneficial insects that will eat away those broccoli-devouring aphids, among other pests.
One of the plants I am most excited about is Sidalcea malviflora, commonly known as Checkermallow. As we were researching wildlife in the area and trying to make decisions about which native plants to plant and for who, we came across San Francisco’s Green Connections guide. This resource helped us figure out which wildlife corridors we lived near and gave us all the information we needed to create habitat for the specific species. According to the map, we live most near to the West Coast Painted Lady and Cedar Waxwing corridors. We decided to establish plants for both! I was thrilled when I realized Sutro Stewards had Checkermallow, a suitable host plant for the West Coast Painted Lady. The plant is edible for humans as well, good in salads or even pesto. I’ve eaten the non-native mallows but when the natives I planted are better established in our yard, I’ll make a habit of snacking on them as well.
Coffeeberry provides berries for the Cedar Waxwing and can be used medicinally as a laxative for humans. Eaten in smaller quantities, they are a good snack.
The garden has helped me come into contact with something that really matters to me: contributing to a unifying fabric. In a time when it is too easy to feel disconnected from others, the Earth, and even ourselves, the physical act of stewardship, caring for another living being, gives me the sense of being home. Although I don’t know what’s next for me or if this place will be my home for another month or another ten years, I feel most at home when I’m caring for and connecting others — plant, person, or pollinator.
Coffee Berry, fruit: “Native American Ethnobotany Database.” BRIT, naeb.brit.org/uses/15048/.
Coffee Berry, laxative: “Native American Ethnobotany Database.” BRIT, naeb.brit.org/uses/15047/.
Sidalcea malviflora, vegetable: “Native American Ethnobotany Database.” BRIT, naeb.brit.org/uses/37953/.