Backyards of the Lower Haight, Exposed

In the first of a series, Genevieve Brennan takes a glimpse into the Lower Haight's hidden backyard oases. (Oasi? Oasises?)


No matter how familiar you are with the stoops, fences, and facades of the Lower Haight, without a personal invitation you can't see what lies behind the houses - the cultivated yards, back decks, concrete patios, and weedy meadows.

Until now!

Come with us into a couple of the secret gardens of the Lower Haight.

The Urban Park

Kristen Wheeler's yard near Steiner and Fell looks like a small city park, with a cement patio giving out onto a spacious lawn bordered by flowerbeds.

Wheeler, who volunteers at the AIDS Memorial Grove at Golden Gate Park on the weekends, is no stranger to gardening; her own yard, though, is a place to relax. On a recent Saturday, she had spread out a blanket and laid out brunch: platters of grilled asparagus, salad greens, bacon, cheese and croissants. A bottle of champagne sat in an ice bucket, and Wheeler and her friend Ivy Shlegel were doing a crossword puzzle.

"It's nice that we get this intense sun," Wheeler said. The south-facing space gets full sun almost all day, and the flora are thriving: roses, calla lilies, trumpet flowers, hydrangea, bougainvillea, and nasturtium. Succulents sprout between the rocks bordering the flowerbeds. A pepper tree grows in one corner, along with three stately palms against the back fence.

There's a raised bed, currently overgrown, that Wheeler is going to rehab back into a vegetable garden. She's had success with wild onions and garlic, but less so with potted herbs (the yard gets too much sun) and tomatoes (not quite enough). The bed is bordered by a heavy iron boat chain, origin mysterious.

While some of her neighbors in the ten-unit building use the lawn to do yoga, Wheeler says she makes the most use of it, primarily to lounge. "I prefer being here to being in Alamo Square."

Shlegel, who was visiting from the Mission, asked Wheeler how her yard stacks up to Dolores Park.

"There's proximity to a bathroom!" Wheeler said, "Plus the ability to bring out all your own things. And it's quiet." Not only does traffic noise not come through the building, but the wind is cut by the high fences, so only the tops of the trees sway in the breeze, framing a view of Twin Peaks.

The best part of the yard, Wheeler says, is having access to fresh flowers. "I like being able to go downstairs to pick a wild iris, rose or lily and put it in a bud vase in the house. It's cheaper than the Ferry Building farmer's market!"

Lauren Richards, Wheeler's roommate, has been in the building for six years. "I hadn't realized how special it is to have a backyard," she says, and she didn't pay it much attention she got her dog Otto four years ago.

"We have a bajillion friends with dogs, and I can't imagine not having a space to let him out to run around," Wheeler says. "It's nice to have a little oasis back here."

The Outdoor Dining Room

Jennifer moved into her Victorian house in the northeastern corner of the neighborhood in 2009, and has been working to fix it up ever since. She's been documenting the process, with its frustrations and successes, on her blog.

She bought the building with a friend, and it's divided into two side by side duplex units, each with a small outdoor space. From the moment she moved in, she set up her small yard for entertaining, setting out furniture and a grill, arranging potted plants, and hanging party lights in the flowering trumpet vines.

Before this house, Jennifer lived in the Marina for over a decade. It was a great apartment, she says, but she always wound up spending time in the Lower Haight. "When I started talking to a real estate agent, I knew I wanted to end up around here."

"The condition of the house wasn't bad, but it was rented by college students for years, so there were stains you wanted to ignore, or just pretend they were beer." She's been doing light renovations, like revealing the original wood floors and replacing cabinetry.

The outdoor space wasn't something she had in her old apartment, and she embraced it, even after a run in with one of Lower Haight's ubiquitous residents, a raccoon.

For Jennifer, perfection isn't the game. "I like having dead leaves around - it makes it look homey. I use the space, enjoy it, but I don't feel pushed to maintain it."

"I tried my hand at gardening - tried and failed. About a year and a half ago, I discovered the world of succulents. They're fun and low pressure." Since then, she's collected several different kinds, which are flourishing in colorful pots on her patio. "I love bright colors, the brighter the better. I believe more is more. I'll never be a minimalist."

The trumpet vines draping her fence certainly aren't minimal - they cover all available vertical space, and burst into large orange blossoms each summer. The planters sit in clusters up against the fence to make it easy to set up a folding table for having more guests over for dinner. Jennifer calls the yard tiny, but has it arranged to maximize the space and its passing sun.

"I love the fog and the grey," she says. "I eat outside whenever I can."

Know of a cool backyard we should feature? Let us know. tips [at] haighteration {{dot}} com.

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Backyards of the lower haight exposed