Urban Gardening

Living Walls: Remodeling with a Touch of Green

It’s been stated that on average, Americans spend over 90% of our time indoors (these statistics may not reflect most Californian’s and other sun-seekers who no doubt use their outdoor environment as a yearlong playground).  Even so, it is particularly surprising to hear that indoor air is scientifically proven to be often times more polluted than outdoor air.  And most of these toxins are given off by a countless number of common household products including: carpets, plastics, furniture, paints, cleaning products, inks, dyes, foam, rubber, and the list goes on.  We practice sustainability for more than just street credit. We love to work closely with landscape architects and gardeners and use natural finishes and furnishings to keep that integral balance between a healthy and fabulous home, both inside and out!

The good news is that adding live plants to your interior and interior increases the value of your home immeasurably—reducing the amount of toxins and provides a calm, relaxing setting. Crooked Nest, a local San Francisco firm whose "creative interventions & foliar juxtapositions", is another element we've added to a current remodel and we are beyond excited to share.  We got in touch with Candace Silvey, owner and creative director, to give us her insights on installing the Begonia and Fern living wall in our current client's home.

"This was a fun project that we drew inspiration from studying the layers of the rainforest: the emergent layer, canopy layer, understory layer and forest floor.  We were so happy and thrilled to be a part of the custom steel frame fabrication and vertical garden installation at this property. Given the clients interest in complex systems as well as his love for bold color we chose to create a fern grove of sorts sprinkled with begonias which offer splashes of intense color year round."

Candace, whose formal background is in architecture, and business partner, Elena Powditch, (a formally trained fine artist and industrial designer) are the masterminds—and hands behind Crooked Nest.  "We create projects that are engaging, but also projects that speak to the architecture and line of the space," Candace adds.  "We take a very thoughtful approach to how we address each of our custom plantings. In addition, we like to source our plants and materials locally, and we enjoy using curious and unique specimens that draw the viewer in and hold them there to observe and meditate."

"We address all of our plantings as synergistic systems and choose plants that work together in order to create harmony within the system. We apply these same principles to every project that we undertake including our landscaping projects, interiors, as well as our large-scale hand blown glass terrariums. Through our foliar juxtapositions, we hope to bring a little bit of healing earth energy into the concrete jungle in order to enliven and inspire."

Taking a look at the wall viewed from above, it shows that a top canopy provides shelter for more fragile ferns as San Francisco can get quite windy.  Walls such as these (mostly green walls installed outdoors) have all sorts of benefits: they shield from the sun, rain, and intense thermal fluctuations; can cut electricity bills, dampen noise and air pollution, reduce stress, and are living works of art, to boot.

Do check back to see how the rest of this client's remodel turned out as we will reveal the entire home in the near future.  And too, if you would like to learn more about the work Crooked Nest does or are interested in a consultation, terrariums, urban landscaping, or unique plant accessorizing, check out their facebook page and/or contact any of the two lovely ladies at info [at] CrookedNest [dot] com.

Sustainability So Good, It Brings Tears To Your Eyes

Oh, the onion.  It has been used as an ingredient in various dishes for thousands of years by countless cultures around the world.  Onion production is steadily increasing and is now the second most important horticultural crop after tomatoes.  Gills Onions is one of the country's top onion growers and distributors.  Starting off as a modest onion farm for a salsa company, Gills legacy has taken off, landing them as the poster child for sustainable agriculture.

In short, Gills Onions created a way to take juice from their onion peel waste and filter it into the biogas that powers their entire processing plant.  It now saves the farm an estimated $700,000 annually in electrical costs.  I know, it may be difficult to wrap one's head around this kind of technology.  And with our previous blog post about generating energy for your home off the grid,  we knew that this story needed to be told.  So on Tuesday, I spoke with the lovely Nikki Rodoni, the Sustainable Director at Gills Onions, to tell the story of how this company became the energy award-winning farm they are today.

How long have you been working for Gills Onions? It is your father’s farm, right?

"Okay, so just a little bit of history — I'll summarize.  I come from a farming family — my father and grandfather. They started a farm called 'Real Farms', in Monterey County, California in 1983.  They were growing produce for a salsa company and one day the salsa company asked if they could grow just onions and keep them fresh, instead of dehydrated. That’s how it started.  From there it grew to what we now know today as Gills Onions. We control the process at every level: seeds, growing, processing, packaging, and sorting.

I started with the company back in 2007. My background is in marketing with an agricultural emphasis. I began to hear the word 'sustainability' a lot from our customers and buyers.  And to be honest, I didn’t really know what that meant for our farm.  So I spoke with our processing facility managers, and owner's [David and Stephen] in regards to our sustainability efforts. It turned out that we were actually doing a good job in that department. We were and still are very active in community service, and were using a drip watering system.  So I thought, 'Great, we’re already making some sustainable efforts'.  But I knew we could build from there."

And that's when you began using the Adverse Recovery System — what exactly is that? 

"In Lamens terms, the whole idea stems from our production...we have a lot of onion waste!  We process about 1 million pounds of onion waste per day. So we were spending a lot of money on labor and diesel fuel hauling it.  We really needed a solution because we couldn’t just feed it to the cattle, and we couldn’t just compost it because frankly, there was way too much.  Steve Gill decided that we start looking for alternatives and so we began doing some testing at UC Davis.  We hired a project manager who got engineers, contractors, and spent a lot of time looking into digesters [a processor in which microorganisms are broken down into biodegradable material in the absence of oxygen, used for industrial or domestic purposes to manage waste and/or to release energy] over in Eurpore who eventually came up with the recovery system.

So, the onion waste comes out of a conveyer belt.  We then squeeze the juice, which turns out to be about 30,000 gallons of onion juice.  It then feeds the antarobic digester that creates biogas and CO2. But when you contain that kind of biogas you have to clean it up. So we filter it in two hydrogen fuel cells that are virtually emissions free. We do the clean-up through iron scrubbers and that creates a methane rich product.

We were able, through this process, to generate 600 kW of energy, which is about the same amount of power needed for our base-load. It was integral that we designed this to directly combat our energy costs and with that, we were able to run our entire operations on the onion waste alone.  For us, this is the best solution because it’s good for the environment and good for our bottom line.  Steve always says, 'I didn’t do it to win an award, but I did it to solve a problem'."

What elements of your efforts and success in your sustainable journey do you enjoy?

"I love having the opportunity to be the leader in the industry.  When it comes to agriculture, sustainability is very important.  And we as an agriculture industry haven’t been able to tell our story.  I think it’s important and inspiring for others to know how that works and what that process actually looks like.  It's nice to help people know the story — that really feels good.  Helping other farmers is also really crucial because they may not be able to; they're either working on the farm, or taking care of their business and don't always have the time to tell their story. I just really enjoy helping people become aware of what it means to be farmer."

Do you have any recommendations for other farmers, gardeners or sustainable-minded designers and individuals who have an idea or project?

"Every situation and every company is different. Gills Onions has been very generous, and it is what has made us successful — we love sharing ideas.  Farmers who harvest seasonally call us all the time, so you have to understand their energy usage and all the technologies that are available for every level of operations.  And it's always a great idea to look for help from a local University.  But it's also really important to do your homework before you invest. There’s so much information and resources out there.  And if you’re willing to share it’s a win win situation. Educating yourselves, your employees, and the community is huge!  Look for grants and other incentives that are available. The energy commission is always a good place to look.  Most importantly, you have to have the passion and the ability to think outside of the box."

Gills Onions has partnered with the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management, to benchmark their sustainability efforts and to further establish future direction for improvements and wide-spread education.  If you want to learn more about how you can take on sustainable practices for your agriculture company, or are just interested in their process, click here for their fact sheet and reference page.



Go Native: 6 Plants and Design Tips For Your San Francisco Home and Garden

When you're working with nature rather than against it, maintaining a native garden can be relatively painless — using fewer resources like water and fertilizer can mean less maintenance. Not only does greenery increase the overall value of your home, but, fun trivial fact: looking out at a garden and plants can increase one's overall health and is said to help hospital patients recover more quickly. Whether you want an attractive yard to view from your home or a place where you can get your hands dirty, growing a garden is known to make you a healthier individual.

California native plants are collected by botanists and horticulturalists and developed for use in gardens. Most are drought-tolerant, allowing you to use less water, making them a safe bet for your yard, deck or patio, or kitchen window! In the same way that there can be microclimates within the Bay area, the same goes for a garden. Conditions can vary in small but significant ways on the landscape scale as well. When gardening with local natives, you are celebrating these differences. And you are literally going to the source — you can’t find plants better adapted to life in the SF than native plants and they also support local wildlife, to boot. I had a chat with my friend, go-to urban gardner and landscaper, Katherine Harbaugh, who also volunteers at the San Francisco Botanical garden nursery (where you can also purchase native plants). She gave me a short list of six of her favorite native plants and why you want to plant them in your garden.

California Golden Poppy

You've probably seen these all around! This flower was named the California state flower in 1903. Poppies are perennial in most areas of the Southwest but can be grown as annuals in the Bay Area. These beautiful wildflowers bloom starting as early as February into May and with regular water can bloom all the way through September. The cheerful four-petaled, cup shaped blossoms are 2 - 3 inches across and range in color from bright yellow to gold to a deep orange. The poppy's foliage is a bluish gray-green with a feathery, fern-like appearance.

Poppies prefer a dry, sandy soil and full sun. The weather is known to play a major part in the color of the blooms. In the lower elevations the flowers may be more golden than orange. As the blooming season progresses the blooms may change from bright orange to pale yellow. Some even make a tea by using one slightly rounded teaspoon of the chopped aerial parts of the poppy. It can safely be taken for anxiety, insomnia, or suffering from mild aches or muscle spasms. A tincture can also me made and used for the same problems. It contains flavone glycosides that provide a gentle sedative action. It is a much less powerful, non-addictive and of course, not to be mistaken for the Opium Poppy.

As a part of your garden landscape these poppies will attract bees and butterflies to your garden, and their deep taproots can be effective against mild erosion. Once the petals have fallen off, simply collect the seeds from the seed pod and scatter them anywhere, for a hearty next-season growth.


The easy-to-grow Lupine — one of Katherine's favorites — thrives in cool, moist locations. It prefers full sun to light shade and average soils, but will tolerate sandy, dry soil if need be and thrives in Twin Peaks and the southern dunes of Fort Funston beach. Lupine develop long taproots, so it's best to loosen the soil to a depth of 12-20 inches.

The endangered Mission Blue butterfly spends most of its year-long life fluttering around the Lupine, laying eggs that hatch in March through June each year. The new caterpillar eats Lupine leaves to grow, and as the lupine puts out new leaves the following spring, the caterpillar resumes feeding and growing eventually emerging as an adult butterfly. During its brief adult life, the butterfly can no longer eat solid food but instead sips the plants nectar to fuel its primary activities: mating and egg-laying. Adult mission blues are weak flyers, seldom leaving their Lupine patches.

Although it's not very likely that growing just one Lupine will bring the extrmeley rare Mission Blue to your garden, but Katie suggests that sometimes, if a community of neighbors grow them together, it can create a habitat islands — increasing the chance of birth and survival. The Lupine must be planted with other nectar flowers such as native Yarrow to increase hospitality. She also adds that the Presidio has a big volunteer program that does habitat restoration for people want to plug-in into the Mission Blue scene.

California Maidenhair Fern

This is a somewhat rare and elegant fern that normally tolerates going dormant in dry summer conditions. You usually see them a lot as house plants. The lovely delicate fern has tiny leaves that look similar to the Ginko tree seen planted up and down the sidewalks of the city. They thrive in partial to full shade and are native to San Francisco, Angel Island, the East Bay hills, and other local regions.

Like all ferns, they require partial to full shade and consistently moist soil. It's best to pick the right place in your garden that gets mostly shade and will require less watering. The Maidenhair fern will grow to a height of one to two feet and similar size in width. Maidenhair ferns are also used in the creation of herbal medicines. Parts of the fern are used in the herbal medicine for colds, asthma, sore throats, kidney stones and liver problems. Some also use Maidenhair fern as a tea in various different forms.

Coast Rock Cress

This is a charming and edible cress with bright blooms and grows wild on Twin Peak, the Presidio and other natural regions in the Bay Area. It is listed as uncommon by the Jepson Manual, mostly due to habitat loss. Found usually in a grassland meadow, this pretty little flower is delightful when tucked into rock crevices or walls. Excellent for slopes and perfectly sized for rock gardens and border fronts!

The rare, native perennial species of the Mustard Family grows up to 12 inches in height with showy, fragrant, pink to purple four-petaled flowers with white centers; leaves are long, with distinct individual hairs on edges and it blooms from February to April. The Coastal Rock Cress enjoys full sun with little to no plant food, but be sure to allow soil to dry between thorough waterings. Simple, right?!

California Bay Laurel

This is a slow growing very large tree that can be kept pruned and neat for a minimalist, modern or mid century style garden. It grows well in containers if you don't want to commit to a big tree. But as you may already know, it's fragrant leaves can be used in cooking soups and vegetable side dishes. Moderation is the key with the leaves of this tree so do proceed with caution in using it medicinally or as a flavoring in foods. The strongly aromatic mature leaves, like the leaves of many other aromatic plants, are reputed to be an insect repellant as well!

Besides the obvious use as a lovely tree in garden situations, the bay can also be used as a tall screen or clipped hedge. This very adaptable plant enjoys an array of sun/shade, water/drought, fertile soil or clay, making it an easy to care for and a wonderful plant for your garden.

Blue Eyed Grass

For those who are trying to attract wildlife to your gardens, blue-eyed grass will serve you well. Bees visit the flowers for pollen or nectar and seeds are even attractive to prairie chickens, wild turkeys, and songbirds. Pretty cute, huh? The Blue-eyed grass is a star performer in rock gardens, cottage-like gardens, and sometimes used at the front of borders and pathways.

Blue-eyed grass occurs naturally in wet fields so it prefers full sun and damp soil. But if you don't have a wet field in full sun for a backyard, don't fret. Blue-eyed grass gets along quite nicely in ordinary, well-drained but moist garden soil in sun to partial shade. And like the other native plants mentioned in this article, medicinal uses have been found for blue-eyed grass; usually tea made from the roots have been used by American Indians for treating stomachaches.

I know that was a lot of information jam-packed into one interior design blog post. But we want you to feel free to use this as a reference for if and when you decide to design that (other) room of your home — your garden. We work closely with the lovely Outer Space Landscape Architect firm here in San Francisco, if you're looking for someone to take on the more difficult work of outdoor design. They provide a variety of landscapes, from: Architectural, Drought Resistant, Deer Resistant, Native, Erosion Control, Fragrant, Japanese, Wildlife Habitat, Child/Pet-Friendly/Non-Toxic. So no matter what you're looking for, they have you covered.


Green, the New Black

Call it a trend, but "green" hasn't really died down since it hit mass appeal several years back — it might even be fair to say that it's here to stay. Everywhere I look, I see vacant parking lots, parking spaces and rooftops taken over by lush green vegetation. Living walls, rooftop gardens, parklets, and urban farming allow for integration of grasses, shrubs, succulents, and just about all plant-life to thrive through the cracks. These various venues for green life reclaim black top roofs, black tar parking spaces, intersections, and concrete walls, generating a natural ecosystem known to mitigate heating zones while adding natural oxygen production.

Don't worry, this isn't a janky lesson on climate change, gardening or environmentalism (though, as a sustainable interior design firm, we're very knowledgable in green design practices), but this week's post is about re-visiting the green trend in hopes that it continues to grow indefinitely.

Rooftop Gardens

Even a modest green rooftop can keep a building cooler in the summer months.  And if you're into gardening, that same rooftop could provide fresh edibles in a controlled environment.  Black tar rooftops are more than unsightly, and as The Environment Protection Agency tells us, the  glut of asphalt in urban areas creates a Heat Island Effect. When buildings, roads, and other infrastructure replace open land and vegetation, surfaces that were once permeable and moist become impermeable and dry. These changes cause urban regions to become warmer than their rural surroundings, forming an "island" of higher temperatures.

A poster child for reversing the effects of the "urban heat island" is the San Francisco Academy of Sciences' green rooftop.  This 2.5 acre roof is home to 1.7 million native plants, including the California poppy seen above.  More than a rooftop garden, the six inches of soil substrate on the roof act as natural insulation, providing significant gains in heating and cooling efficiency, keeping the building’s interior an average of 10 degrees cooler than a standard roof would. The steep slopes of the roof also play as a natural ventilation system, funneling cool air into the open-air plaza on sunny days.

 Living Walls


Back in 2009, French Botanist, Patrick Blanc brought his famous wall instillation to San Francisco's Drew School in Pacific Heights. Ever since, the idea has spread like weeds. A living wall creates a natural, wild surface that is both an aesthetic and environmental boon to the neighborhood.

Though living walls aren't as popular as the other green space-holders, Jeffrey L. Bruce, the Chair from Green Roofs for Healthy Cities (GRHC) notes that as the industry grows, we will see costs come down. According to Bruce, the benefits to building owners is unquestionable — integrated design practices that turn wall and roof spaces into greenery not only create a beautiful look and conserve energy, but can also help to manage storm water.



Cruising around the city, you may have seen dozens of parklets popping up all over the place, on Valencia, Powell, Divisadero, and Castro streets. A parklet is a parking spot turned into a small space for raised garden beds, benches, bikes, or outdoor veranda seating. San Francisco pioneered the plant-centric alternative, with the first parklet in 2005 as an unofficial protest by activists at Rebar art and design studio, who paid the parking meter, rolled out grass sod for a lawn, and placed a planted tree on top.  Shortly after, the Pavement to Parks initiative began. Parklets have sprouted all over in places like Philadelphia, Oakland, Los Angeles, Vancouver, and British Columbia.


A collaboration of the Mayor's Office, Department of Public Works, the Municipal Transportation Agency, and the Planning Department, Pavement to Parks initiative has been temporarily converting sizable intersections into parks, plazas, and gardens. The project provides a place for the community to dwell, sure, but maybe more importantly, helps our city to see what adjustments need to be made for a possible long-term community investment. Maybe then, we'll never have to go back to black.