The Triumph of the Commons


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Whether you are in full holiday-spirit mode or merely grumbling about the shopping requirement, here is a bit of inspiration for a Friday morning: Bill Murphy, one of the most charismatic and interesting people I went to high school with.  Thanks to the magic of Facebook, I've learned that he is also a visionary gardener.

Fourteen years ago, he decided to save the Corwin Street Community Garden in San Francisco's Eureka Valley out of the irritated sense that an opportunity was being wasted. I spoke with Bill recently, and he once again reminded me how powerful a single man with a pair of sharp Felcos can be.  

CSCG Giant geranium + Bay Bridge 4.12.05
Tell me about the garden and how you got involved.

The garden is on the southern slope of Eureka Valley.  In the center of a city block is a half- acre open space that was protected from development in the 1970s.

Thirty years ago, part of it became the Seward St. Mini-Park, which has polished concrete slides so steep, you catch air when you go down.  Crowds of people come to use the slides and wake up the neighborhood at all hours. Nearby, at the end of our street, is a larger, wilder open space known as Kite Hill…’s got unimpeded views and rocky outcrops and is a favored spot for off-leash dog exercise.

The rest of the hillside was never developed.  It was probably originally pastureland.  The soil was never cultivated, but it did become invaded by noxious weeds, particularly wild fennel 8 to 10 feet tall.  

By August every year, the end of our dry season, the fennel was a serious fire hazard. So, even though nobody was taking care of it, this was not a low maintenance space. Every year, the city had to mow noxious, persistent, obdurate weeds with huge taproots.  

Sixteen years ago, a group of people decided they could do better and petitioned the city to designate the land as a community garden.  It's not your typical community garden.  The pitch is exceedingly steep.  Even if you don't have a wide stance, stand parallel to the slope and one foot will be substantially downhill of the other.  So the spot does not lend itself to individual plots for vegetables. The consensus was, a native plant garden.

Fabric mulch was put down to control the weeds, and little plants installed.  Two years later, the plants were getting a foothold, but the noxious weeds had not been eradicated. The fennel was coming up through the seams in the mulch. And everybody who had been involved in that 1995 planting had moved away or lost interest.  

My apartment overlooks the garden, and suddenly nobody was doing anything. There were so many naysayers, too, about the little plants…some of which are now 30-foot tall buckeyes. 

I didn't have to consult with anybody.  I understood that at this juncture, either this land had to be worked, or it would go back to weeds.

So you started to put some time in there.

I estimate that I put 5000 hours into this garden over the last 14 years.  That's two full years of unpaid labor.  That's why I am now passing on the gauntlet and allowing other people to take over.

CSCG birdbath #3 June 2003
Had you gardened before?  How did you know what to do?

In the early 1980s, I lived in a rural gay community in Massachusetts called Butterworth Farm.  While I was there, I did extensive vegetable and flower gardening and some woodlot management.  I also studied the natural sciences in college – botany, wetland ecology, plant geography, geology, soil science etc.

Had I ever worked with these plants before, California natives? 

No.  But they taught me what they needed over time.

What did they need?

First, to have the weeds eliminated.  The garden has clay soil that in the dry season is like cement.  But in the wet season, if you dig 2 feet into the soil with the right tools, you can pop the fennel bulb out.  I hand-picked lots of other weeds, too.

Second, continuous loads of wood chip mulch, the only soil amendment we've ever used there.  By now, there is an accumulated decomposed layer 6 to 8 inches deep over the fabric mulch—which was necessary initially to eradicate weeds.  Because we had to cut through the fabric to plant, there has been some blending of the soil horizons.  We've planted thousands of plants over the last 14 years, trees, tall shrubs, low-growing shrubs, grasses, perennials, and some bulbs. We have almost 100% plant coverage now.

Third, lots of pruning.  You're never going to achieve buckeye trees with an open crown without pruning.  I call this a "habitat garden"—not wild land, not a formal garden, but very consciously sculpted to be inviting to wildlife and people.  

What do these plants not need?

Not one drop of supplemental water.  We used plants adapted to the San Francisco climate, which includes yearly droughts during our dry season and periodic droughts in wet season.  Nonetheless, you can't believe the lushness out my window, yuccas 15 feet tall, buckeyes 30 feet tall.

And they don't need chemicals.  We don’t have an outbreak of aphids, because the bush-tits twitter into the garden, delighted to eat them.  Out my window, I've observed 40 different species of birds in the garden, including five species of hawks, and two species of owls.

If you create an ecology in a garden, you don't need chemicals.  It's a system, and it inevitably includes creatures that benefit each other.


  1. I hope he gets some recognition from the community!

    I’m curious what, if any, resistance he might have gotten from city bureaucrats or neighbors; and to whom he is passing on the maintenance–that will be quite a job.

  2. I keep a list of gardens I would like to see if I ever get to their locations. Bill’s garden just went on the list!

    Been succcessfully using the free wood chips for years but all of a sudden the tree services are SELLING them to these folks that produce bio fuel pellets. A win win for them but a big loss for tht rest of us.

  3. Kudos Bill Murphy! I am also a big fan of woodchips – and cardboard barriers. I thank my town for giving up public chip piles where they put all the chips produced by the road crews.

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