Category Archives: drought tolerant

The 18th + Rhode Island Street Permaculture Garden In San Francisco



Dominique Piccinino teaches kids about bugs at the 18th and Rhode Island Street Permaculture Garden.

I recently read in SF Gate that San Francisco has just taken the first step into giving landowners a tax incentive to letting their empty lots be used for agricultural and educational purposes. The bill still has to be approved by the Board of Supervisors but is expected to pass as early as mid-July. Only empty lots would be eligible and properties would have to remain undeveloped for a minimum of five years. The hope is the bill would be to prevent urban blight and increase green spaces. Lots could even be used for bees and livestock– think of the farming possibilities!

To see what can be done with an empty lot, I visited an amazing  permaculture garden at 18th and Rhode Island Streets on Potrero Hill. It got its start back in 2008 when the owner, Aaron Roland, read a story in the SF Chronicle about using vacant lots to grow food. The writer wrote about Kevin Bayuk who had found over a thousand vacant lots even in the dense city of San Francisco. His idea was to try to find owners willing to let their land be used for urban agriculture.  When Aaron read the story he contacted Kevin and offered the space to be grown for food.

Since then, the sloping property has become a community garden developed with the principles of permaculture with help by project developer David Cody, permaculture students and the community. A good history of the project can be read in The Potrero View. The design works with nature but faster: building up the soil and catching and retaining rainwater in swales. The lot doesn’t look like your typical  vegetable garden with rows of vegetables in square beds. Instead paths follow the contours of the hill with recycled concrete retaining walls The plots are planted heavily with fruit trees and many perennial vegetables  that require less water. I noticed dwarf varieties of fig trees, apple trees, plums, pears and more. The front of the garden has cob benches that overlook downtown San Francisco and the far end of the property has a greenhouse/shed made of recycled doors. The newest addition is a pond and fish.

The garden is open to anyone and the day I visited, Branch, an educational program for kids was having a summer camp there. Kids were learning about bugs, picking fruit and making sun tea. It’s a great way to get kids into nature and there’s still two weeks left of summer camp with Branch and spots are available. Look here for more info.

It goes to show you there’s plenty of potential in an empty lot. Visit the garden and find out how to get involved on their Facebook page.


Kids work on artwork in a Branch summer camp at the 18th + Rhode Island Street Permaculture Garden in San Francisco.


The front of the garden has cob benches overlooking the San Francisco skyline.


Paths through the garden are mulched, beds have recycled concrete retaining walls.



A greenhouse/shed made from recycled doors.


Setting up a Backyard Greywater System


Laura Allen at her Oakland home with her backyard chickens. (She has moved since the story)

The drought is really hitting us hard in California. Hills that are normally green with life this time of year are bone dry and dead. In my house, five minute showers are the new normal and I’m using dirty dishwater to water my plants. I think it’s finally time to get serious about greywater.

I learned a lot about grey water when I met Laura Allen who I wrote about in Backyard Roots. She spent four years changing greywater laws that now make simple laundry to landscape systems  legal and permit-free in California. It’s a big deal considering just five years ago it was almost impossible to set up such a system. The system waters trees, bushes, and perennials (not vegetables)  and works best if your garden is downhill from your washing machine (although your washing machine is capable of pumping water uphill a short distance.) It involves adding a vented three way valve at the highest point that will allow you to decide if you want to irrigate your yard or send the water down the drain. The valve is an important feature that  lets you to shut it off if you want to use bleach, for example.  Besides adding a valve and having the pipe exit your house directly you’ll need to plan a branched drain system and that’s where the fun begins (as in lots of digging) San Francisco has a very informative brochure that you can download for free that will tell you everything you need to know and you can find an installer or take a workshop at Greywater Action, the group that Laura helped  start.  Putting in a greywater system is a way to really make a difference in your water usage and with a well-planned system it will last years.

Laura Allen Erskine 510.923.0676

Laura Allen (right) with roommate Cleo Woelfle-Erskine with their early greywater system that filtered the water through a bathtub filled with cattails. It’s much easier now.


A three way valve above the washing machine allows you to decide if you want to irrigate your garden.



The simple laundry to landscape system works for tree, bushes and perennials. For edibles you’ll still need to use either rainwater or tap water.