Build a Garden: Watch a Community Grow

By meredith, July 5, 2012 3:23 pm

Annie Shaw started with an idea for a garden one night, and created one the next. I bumped into her when I was visiting my brother and noticed a beautiful garden had been built on his street, right next to the freeway. My brother, myself, and my nephew met Annie when we walked through the garden. She was holding a watering can in each hand, and more than willing to share her story.

Read on about the importance of rolling up your sleeves, getting your hands dirty, and building something you care about…


1.)   Can you tell us about what inspired you to turn that first dirty old plot of land into a gorgeous garden?

My fiancée and I lived across the street where we rented a unit with no garden or common green space. It’s so hard to find a space in San Francisco with a garden or patio or, honestly, even a window box. My fiancée, Matt, really wanted a garden, and I really wanted to stay in our apartment because I loved living there.  A few days later, I looked across the street and noticed a huge plot of land right next to the freeway in our community – that was a Friday night. By Saturday morning, I was out making the garden.

They were having a sale at the botanical gardens at Golden Gate Park that Saturday, and I went and bought some plants. I put the plants in that day, and I figured I was done. Voila. I was ready to watch the garden grow. Little did I know how much work still lay ahead of me. I thought it’d take a couple of weeks, and the plants would grow.

It was the first garden I’d had, and it was also the middle of December: needless to say, there wasn’t a flower in sight.

I dug into the shale filled dirt, and a layer of wood chips. A million piles of dog poop and fennel and weeds and batteries and hypodermic needles later (you name it. It was there.) I’d found some dirt.

I kept hacking away at the earth to clear out the trash, and finally, spring arrived, and things started to grow.

At this point, I realized the enormity of the project I’d taken on – I still had a really long way to go.

2.)   Was there any point where you thought you might not be able to finish and run the garden the way you’d envisioned: that you might have to give up on the project?

Yes, there were a couple of moments. The first was when I realized what a large space it was and how slowly plants actually grow…that and how expensive those plants are.

The other moment was when I tried to make it legitimate. CalTrans, a big huge federal agency, owns the land. Their Adopt-A-Highway program is the closest thing they have to allowing the public to be on their land. It’s a program that’s designed for the public to pick up trash on the side of the freeway and not at all for public garden space.

I really didn’t want to tell them all the work I’d done already because I feared they’d take it all away, just like that. So instead I asked, “I’d kind of like to plant some flowers. How does that make you feel?”

They informed me that their program was down and that it wouldn’t be back in effect for months.  “But if you’re just going to plant some flowers, don’t worry about it,” they told me.  So I kept it going, mainly because I was getting so much support from people in the neighborhood: people would literally stop and offer to join in on the work right away. (Of course, I fully realized this was in no way what CalTrans meant when they gave me the okay.’)

After I’d put in a few thousand dollars and a large amount of time and effort, I realized that they could just show up at any point and shut us down.

For fear of the worst, I called and asked to join the Adopt-A-Highway program. They sent out a group from CalTrans because they’d heard the talk about me and the project in the hallways, and it wasn’t all good.

Mostly they had heard that I was doing things that were a huge liability for them. Federal agencies don’t usually have programs for small communities. They have CalTrans for building freeways. Needless to say this was way beyond their realm of expertise and experience not to mention WAY out of their comfort zone.

Apparently they could imagine me getting hit by a car and dying while out at the garden and then suing them for it.  A friend of mine works for CalTrans, and she called to warn me that they had heard about the project and had mixed feelings.  I’ve honestly never considered myself an activist, but if there was any time in my life when I felt the draw to get a petition going, this was it. I got a few hundred neighbors to sign the petition and printed it out.

Soon enough, they sent seven people from CalTrans over to scope out the spot.  They walked around the garden and said things like: “oh, you know, you can’t have these steps here,  and you can’t have these twig boards. This isn’t going to work.”

At end of the discussion, when I was convinced that all was ruined, I simply told them, “hey look, I don’t want to be confrontational or aggressive, but I’ve done this petition, and I’d like for you to receive this project in the spirit that it’s intended: this community likes this, and they really want to do this, and we’ve put all this sweat and money and hard work into this, and we really want to be able to continue. Please reconsider.”

They took it really really well. Then they went away and talked to the Department of Public Works and the parks trust, (now the San Francisco Parks Alliance). The SF Parks Alliance encourages small community gardens throughout the city. Gavin Newson made the agreement as Mayor. It’s really the first of its kind, and it essentially allows people to do community work on this state owned land.

We ended up securing a 5 year lease, and we’re now a couple of years in. So far, so good. CalTrans doesn’t really come around an ask questions much, and I do what they’ve asked.

3.)    You mentioned that this was the first time in your life you felt like an activist. Had you ever done anything like this project before?

No –  I was doing it for selfish reasons, but as it turns out (and it took me a good long while to realize this) that all the while I was actually ‘building community’. When you create a garden like this that is on the street and accessible to the public, you are not just planting plants: you’re managing community relations. The plants are just the means or the medium for the real work to happen.

I had absolutely no idea that this is what would become of this garden. I had no desire or intention to do this: no great sense of social responsibility. I’ve lived in the city because I’ve enjoyed the anonymity of it: I don’t have to get to know my neighbors, and I don’t know too many people. I’ve always been an independent person and really enjoyed working by myself.

I jumped into the deep end without knowing what would come of it, and what I got, and what I experienced, was actually at the opposite end of the spectrum from what I’d expected, from what I’d ever really known…

And it’s been incredible. Everyone knows me – I’m that nice, friendly,   crazy woman that’s always out digging into the middle of the night. And I honestly can’t believe I lived in San Francisco for so long without that sense of community – it’s changed my thinking completely in terms of how I interact with my community and with the people and places of San Francisco in general.

I know, it sounds cheesy, right?

Sometimes I do sneak into the garden to do stuff alone because I still every much value my alone time. I’m still an independent kind of a person.

I didn’t expect to enjoy all of the other aspects of the community garden – other people find it so rewarding. They can sit out in the sun talking with one another and getting dirty and go away and feel like they’ve made a difference.

I try to give them projects that enable them to notice the stark difference in the space after they’ve put the work in – I show them before and after picture. I tell them to come back and visit in a week and see how the plants they’ve put in have changed. I say “come check this out in the Springtime. You did this.”

This type of community project lends for a sense of continuity…

I also volunteer at a food bank from time to time, and once it’s done it’s done. You don’t meet those people that you’ve served; you don’t have the opportunity to see the results of your work.

In a community garden, though, the results are right there. It’s rewarding to invite my friends to the garden and show them what we’ve created.

4.)    So maybe you also value this community connection after all?

I grew up in a remote area of North Wales, and I spent a lot of time alone in the mountains, riding horses as a kid. But as it turns out, there is another side of me that really values the people around me. It’s been so rewarding.

5.)    Your fiancée got a lot more than he bargained for then didn’t he?

He still wanted his own garden, so we now own a place with a patio. Now that I’ve had this experience, I want to move out of the city and live on ten acres and build a huge garden. I’m not sure how this garden would handle being alone though. Even now, I live a block further away, and I spend less time at the garden than I did when I was across the street. I’m not sure what will happen when the lease runs out in a few years.

After five years, the DPW and the SF Parks Alliance tell me, the leaders of these community gardens tend to be so worn out from dealing with certain people and with the bureaucracy that they just walk away.
I’m conscious of the fact that this could happen to me, and of course the other people that are a part of this community. I’ve tried to plan to prevent the garden from falling apart. If I got hit by a bus tomorrow, what would happen? So I’ve chosen to include plants that will do well with absolutely no water at all, that don’t need to be pruned. In that sense, the backbone of the garden is pretty strong. Some of the other plants are shorter lived.

For right now, I’m in between jobs, so everything’s covered.

I’ve chosen good plants that’ll provide a strong architecture for people in future to add their own flourishes with similar plants.  (Although I’m honestly not all that great with sharing so it would be hard to see down the road that people had drastically changed the garden.)

6.)    How much time does it take to maintain the garden right now?

I host a volunteer day once a month for two hours – it’s from 10-12 the first Saturday of every month. If we have 12 people attend we can finish the maintenance work required for the entire month.

I’m still planting some back areas – nothing major. It requires someone who knows a little bit about plants, but not a lot. Some people in the volunteer group know a lot about succulents. And I run the sprinkler for about 30 minutes sprinkler once a week during the summer months.

The plan is to do without that sprinkler though. We use it a little bit now, for only about one third of the garden, and I plan to wean the garden off of that sprinkling. It should be okay.

Some areas are mostly just flowers and shorter lived plants – so we could benefit from getting something else in there. I’m always looking at plants and thinking about how they will do in five years, in ten years from now – I’ve pulled some that won’t look great all the time, and I’ve put in some incredibly tough flowers.

In San Francisco, I continuously guide people into planting gardens that don’t require a lot of water. We’re short on water in California – so even having a lawn is the last taboo of gardening. It’s living on the edge – it’s almost like getting a tattoo was twenty years ago.

7. ) I’ve already heard so many learnings from you today; what would you tell a younger version of yourself that you’ve learned throughout this process?

I kind of reverse engineered the process – I created the garden first and asked for permission later.
It’s a common thread in my life – I do things like that. I just get out there and DO; I take action, and think later.

If I had approached the land owner first, I’d have had to create a series of community meetings where everyone gets to give input. Then I would have had to create a plan with the landscape architect, proceed with the drawings, and submit them for approval. It would easily have taken a few years before breaking ground.

If I have an idea, I want to do it now – while my creativity is channeling a flow.  If you have an idea, do it. Start something, and then fix it, over and over, until you get it right, as opposed to doing a whole lot of planning before you get it started.

If you have a strong vision, and you’re an independent person, it’s hard to have to follow a lot of steps and rules before you create your vision.

One garden in city has been in the works for 6 years before breaking ground – one person had a bocche ball court in middle of the land, so they had to wait until he died (literally) to start building.

I’m a huge proponent of gardening on plots of land that are deserted. They’re small and manageable – and completely neglected so you won’t upset someone. Plant a few flowers first and see how it looks – then find a larger space, get some permission and take it from there.

I’m working on another project that’s about a block away – I’ve already secured $115,000 dollars in grants, and we can’t get started. There’s one person standing in the way – so we continue to be assigned more work – from water testing to geological surveys. It’s been a bureaucratic nightmare, and I’m so incredibly grateful for the opportunity to have been creative when I had that burst for the first garden project.

If I had tried to do that process with this project, I probably wouldn’t have been able to finish it. And yet, if I’d gone through this process with the first garden, I would have given up on it right away.

Find a balance between those two things: and organizations don’t want to hear what I’m saying, but it’s what I’d recommend for those with a creative spark – find a small space, build it out and try it out. Just do it. Don’t think about it.

8.)    That’s probably a good idea in general for a lot of things we get ideas about in life.

As soon as you do something, you’ll automatically start to think about whether it is the right path or not – and you can adjust things as you go.

Annie and the community in Potrero Hill continue to maintain the garden and to build community along the way. You can check out the garden or look into volunteering or joining the community in some way. Head to 18th and Pennsylvania in Potrero Hill if you want to see the garden, and you can learn more about The Pennsylvania Garden site itself at

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