Category Archives: San Francisco

Hydroponics in the Tenderloin


Steve Hunter with the Volksgarden hydroponics system by Omega Garden with basil plants, ready for harvest.


The Project Open Hand greenhouse is located at street level and attracts a lot of interest.


Arugula grows in a Volksgarden hydroponics system.

I never guessed I’d find a hydroponic system in the Tenderloin, but Project Open Hand has a greenhouse hydroponics system right next to their front door at 730 Polk Street.  The idea was started by Steve Hunter, the director of Building Operations when he found he could not expand the rooftop garden because of the weight.  40 solar panels cover most of the roof already and the engineers advised against adding anything else. So he turned to hydroponics.

To get the idea off the ground, Project Open Hand launched a  Kickstarter campaign and it immediately generated a lot of interest. The campaign raised $30,000 which allowed them to renovate the first floor room and buy two wheel shaped growers called Volksgardens made by Omega Garden in Canada. The system is designed for maximum yields in minimum spaces–growing up to 80 plants in the size of a closet.  Perfect for downtown San Francisco.

The plants grow in substrate called rock wool and they rotate slowly around a central light that is on 16 hours a day.  They soak in nutrient rich water each time they reach the bottom of the wheel so it’s crucial that the wheel never stops turning. Steve says “stopping the wheel equals plant death” and has to be checked every day. Insects are not a  problem, but the PH levels and nutrient levels are constantly monitored.


Some seedlings are harvested for seasoning.

Since last year they’ve purchased two new Volksgardens that are smaller and more efficient, yet grow the same number of plants. They new models use fluorescent lights that are also cooler so fans  are no longer needed. Steve has  found basil and speckled butter head lettuce to be their most successful crops. Seedlings are started under grow lights, then transferred to the Volksgardens. They are ready to harvest in about 6 weeks, although some of the micro greens are harvested at two weeks, before are even transplanted. The harvested greens and herbs are added to lunches but they are important for other reasons too. They engage the community and set an example as to what is possible. Steve envisions getting more Volksgardens and stacking them to increase the efficiency even more.


125 volunteers work daily at Project Open Hand. They do all the food prep, for the cooks.


A chef at work.


40 solar panels on top the Project Open Hand roof. They are used to heat water.

Project Open Hand was started by Ruth Brinker who began cooking meals in her kitchen for seven neighbors with AIDS way back in 1985. Today the non-profit prepares 2500 nutritious meals a day  for sick, and elderly delivered hot to their door. and groceries for 200 more. The company works with 125 volunteers a day who prep food, deliver it and now volunteers are even involved in growing food in the hydroponics greenhouse.

Project Hand has it’s annual Open House October 23rd at 6pm. Come by and see it all for your self!

City Grazing, San Francisco


I’ve always wondered about the goats I’ve seen grazing along the railroad tracks in San Francisco’s Bayview District. Recently I got the chance to meet manager Genevieve Church and learn about the city’s largest herd of weed eaters.

It all started six years ago when Genevieve’s boss, David Gavrich brought in goats to keep the weeds down along the railroad tracks at his company, Waste Solutions Group. Later he started renting out the herd to others and City Grazing was born.  Genevieve started working for City Grazing in 2012 as a part time goat herder. Today she manages full time. She’s named all of the nearly 100 animals in the herd and she loves working with them. “They are really smart animals she says “and unlike sheep, they can be separated into smaller herds and recombined again, making a single herd leader unnecessary. Instead we have many animals with good leadership qualities.”

Goats are also very strong, independent and hardy. Pound for pound they are about 4 times as strong as dogs. They are “opportunistic browsers” and are perfect for clearing invasive weeds such as blackberries and ivy, which are high in salt and copper, two minerals that goats need. The myth of goats eating anything is partly because of their need for salt and minerals.

I was surprised to see all the goats with their horns still attached since some cities require them to be disbudded. Genevieve says she feels there’s no reason to remove them. The horns are part of the goats and they use them. She’s also noticed the animals are better behaved with the horns attached. “The ones that came to us without horns act like they have something to prove” she says. The horns are also natural handles and are useful when trying to guide them.

City Grazing rents out the goats to clear public and private land and there are lots of advantages for using them for weed control: they work in rough terrain, there’s no hauling of debris, or need for herbacides and they fertilize as they go. The cost for renting the goats ranges from $300 in San Francisco and there are four factors Genevieve uses to estimate a job: location, fencing needs, size and type of vegetation. The goats also are rented out for events like birthday parties, weddings and photo shoots. Since Genevieve knows them all she’s able to help pick the right goat for the job.

This year has brought many new kids to the herd. 29 does gave birth to over 50 kids. City Grazing is in the process of switching to smaller sized animals that are easier to transport and control. Visit for more info.


Genevieve Church holds one of this year’s kids at City Grazing.


Employee Josh Benson feeds the goats.