Defining a Garden’s Purpose

Organic Mechanic's Garden in San Francisco

Organic Mechanic’s Garden in San Francisco

I’m an idiot when it comes to garden design. To up my skills in this department I attended the annual Garden Blogger’s Fling last week, which took place this year in San Francisco. Thankfully the Fling did not involve sitting in a sterile hotel conference room. Instead, we boarded two buses and took a look at fifteen spectacular gardens in the bay area over three days.

I’ll share the gardening lessons I learned over a couple of posts. But if I could take away only one lesson it would be this: every garden has a purpose, but great gardens have clear and beneficial purposes.

Dead Grass and Junk

The unintentional garden tour on Amtrak's San Joachin train.

The unintentional garden tour on Amtrak’s San Joachin train.

I actually had two garden tours. One was the aforementioned curated bus tour, the other was an un-curated view into hundreds of ordinary backyards on the second level of Amtrak’s San Joachin train. That train ride reminded me of Bill Mollison’s quip that “everybody gardens.” I’ve always taken that to mean that even folks who eat all their meals at McDonald’s and think of plants as being a kind of green background material are doing a kind of gardening, albeit one that is not helping our planet. What kind of gardening did I see from the train? The photo above sums it up.

The most common sight was dead grass and junk storage. In more affluent areas people had lush grass and maybe a pool. Some had vegetable gardens, a few chickens and goats. One enterprising person, somewhere between Bakersfield and Fresno, had a walled garden protecting lush marijuana plants. Other than the food gardeners (a small minority even in rural areas) there was little evidence that people ever went into their yards. It confirms what a UCLA anthropology team discovered when they placed cameras in 32 Los Angeles homes to see how people used their houses and back yards,

“More than half of the families in the Los Angeles Study spent zero leisure time (none for kids, none for parents) in their back yards during our filming. In quite a few of these cases, no family member so much as stepped into the back yard for any purpose. For another 25 percent of the families, the parents did not carve out any back yard leisure time (relax, play, eat, read, drink, or swim) despite the presence of pricey features such as built-in pools, spas, above-ground pools, dining sets, lounge chairs, and swing sets. Children in this group of families enjoyed brief periods of outdoor recreation, but less than one hour in each case.” – from Life at Home in the Twenty-first Century: 32 Families Open their Doors [italics mine]
[italics mine]

The unused yards I saw from the train and the ones in the UCLA study do serve a purpose. They are the legacy of mid 20th century suburbanization–the idea of combining country and city in a fantasy of being a petty king and queen of your own mini-real estate empire. Wouldn’t it be nice to give a better purpose to these spaces rather than their merely symbolic role? The space is there, shouldn’t we use it? Growing food would certainly be one option that we’ve talked a lot about on this blog. But what about apartment buildings and difficult spaces where growing food isn’t practical?

Organic Mechanics

Succulents in the Organic Mechanic's garden.

Succulents in the Organic Mechanic’s garden.

The first stop on the Garden Blogger’s Fling was to a garden designed by Sean Stout and James Pettigrew (who, together, run a landscape design firm called Organic Mechanics). They turned the difficult space behind the apartment they live in—two small, very shady yards in adjoining buildings in San Francisco’s gritty Tenderloin district—into a place to sit, eat and enjoy nature apart from the hustle and bustle of the city. With that clear purpose in mind you can see why they made the design decisions they made. To fulfill those functions they created multiple outdoor rooms. It was easy to imagine living in the building and wandering down to the garden to read a book, do some work on a laptop, throw a party or simply to soak in the overwhelming peacefulness of this lush space.

TK looking down on the garden from the balcony of his apartment.

Sean Stout looking down on the garden from the balcony of his apartment.

It’s also clear that the Organic Mechanics created this garden on a budget. The materials were scavenged, but carefully chosen (I’m often too indiscriminate with the objects I place in the garden to the eternal frustration of art school damaged Mrs. Homegrown).

One of many inviting seating areas in the Organic Mechanic's garden.

One of many inviting seating areas in the Organic Mechanic’s garden.

A tire from a children's toy re-purposed by the Organic Mechanics.

A tire from a children’s toy re-purposed by the Organic Mechanics.

Votive candle stand in the Organic Mechanic's garden.

Votive candle stand in the Organic Mechanic’s garden.

organic mechanic's garden

The basement hallway that leads to the garden.

Lessons From the Organic Mechanics
Before designing a garden sit down and identify the purpose (most likely multiple purposes) of the space you are designing. For many who read this blog that will be to grow food. But edible gardens can be just as beautiful as ornamental ones. They can also provide a place to rest, to entertain, to play.

As we sit down to rethink our backyard yet again, we’re going to list off all the purposes it needs to fulfill. Growing food is one purpose. But in our case, as the authors of two how-to books, our garden has other needs to fulfill: we have to accommodate visitors and classes. Our garden also needs to provide a backdrop for the photos and videos that we create for this blog. And, like the Organic Mechanic’s garden, I also want a space to enjoy nature in our equally gritty city location.

Let’s hear from you. What are the purposes you have identified for the outdoor spaces you are working with?

Leave a comment


  1. The outdoor spaces in my garden tend to first have some manner of function. There’s the fenced in yard that serves to keep my deaf dogs from escaping and also allows for their doggie potty needs. The rest of the yard is either geared toward some functional goal: food production, attracting beneficial insects, attracting birds, or performing some specific logistical function (blocking afternoon sun, esoftening the appearance of the fence, hiding my compost bin, etc.). Then I try and overlap functionalities, trying to find the “perfect” plant that will do everything. Ultimately it’s the functionality of each spaces that drives design, hardscape, plant selection, etc.

  2. I need multiple places to sit so that I am not far from easing my back problems. To that end, I have three benches and two swings on all sides of the house. Plus, there is a single chair, very light, antique chair I can manage to drag around to sit next to a plant. Of course, tables for different purposes dot the yard along with a variety of mismatched, somewhat uncomfortable-to-me chairs and an 8 foot picnic table. At one time I entertained once each month for three years. One stretch of nine months saw excellent weather and an abundance of outdoor entertaining.

    Pink flowers are the next on the list.

    Growing a bit of food came later.

    I planted so many shade trees to modify the heat in the un-insulated home I live in that now I have little sun for flowers or food.

    Cardinals love my yard, so keeping them happy is a goal. The other birds have always been here, so I don’t worry they will leave.

    There is plenty of privacy in my yard, one of the top features in my opinion.

    “[A]rt school damaged” LOL

    What is on top of the votive garden? It looks like multiple orderly jingle bells.

  3. For a third floor apartment, we have a generously sized balcony. We moved here with a number of plants (moving last July with six cherry tomatoes in pots? Not recommended) but when we first started container gardening at our old apartment, the primary goal was to have something living on that slab of concrete. It started out simple, with a hanging basket of petunias from the garden store…then tomatoes, herbs, sugar snap peas, some experimentations with carrots…
    The past year living in our current home, the balcony has also had to include our charcoal BBQ. To help with this, we have a deck box that serves dual functions. It stores dirt, supplies, and grill tools and has room on top for some lightweight easily moveable pots. Then when we grill, we move the pots, wipe down the top and we have a handy prep space.
    The balcony has also become home to our worm bucket. They have priority in the shade, and it’s so nice to be able to feed them garden and food waste!

  4. OK, well, as someone who once tended one of the gardens you saw as you traveled north on the San Joaquin route (if you saw three BIG cottonwood trees shading a small lawn and some gorgeous raised redwood beds, near Hanford, that was our old house!) let me come to the defense of the other, crappy gardens you saw. The freight trains and Amtrak send roughly 65 – 80 trains A DAY along that rail line. It is impossible to hold a conversation or even just exist out there without ear plugs, as the trains come by every few minutes, day and night. And of course the pollution off those diesel train engines is awful. I don’t blame anyone who wants to stay out of their back yards and pretend the trains are not there (and, by extension, pretend their yard is not there either lol). We were lucky enough to be able to afford to move away to the coast, but many cannot.

  5. My garden started out as simply some beds for growing veggies. But recently I’ve began to have folks over for outdoor meals, and I’m realizing the downside of not planning for that! As the yard evolves I’m hoping it will become more purposefully designed with company in mind.

  6. What a wonderful photo journey and narration of your trip and to Organic Mechanics! It was one of my favorites too. I’m not much of a designer, either, though I give it a spin. My garden is planted for lots of wildlife and walking spaces to get a good look at them all.

  7. I was interested to read about the ‘outdoor living ‘ study done by UCLA. I have always been bewildered by the absence of people in backyards in my neighborhood. We have beautiful weather , no bugs to speak of and can actually garden almost year round. I fear they are inside watching the hypno-box. Personally I can’t stand being cooped up in the house , nor do I care for closed up doors and windows. I’m outside as much as possible, and even this computer is no more than 6 steps from my back garden.Wouldn’t I love a nice little Rebecca Sweet-ish garden house !

  8. It’s a physical buffer from neighbors & street.

    It’s a psychological buffer from work.

    We grow a lot of edibles – fruit, veg, herbs, & legumes.

    I like having some lawn for outdoor socializing. (My husband is not so crazy about maintaining the lawn, but recognizes the value of occasionally walking around barefoot in the grass.)

    We like to sit on the porch and watch the birds & bugs & squirrels.
    I love the colors of all the greens and the flowers and everything in our garden.

    We’ve spread the ashes of multiple cats and one dog in our garden. I also have a stepping stone I’d made for my mom, and received back after she died. We’ve also got a few plants from at least two of my previous homes and one of my husband’s. So there’s a bit of memorial purpose in our garden. I can’t say we deliberately designed around that purpose, but we were glad for a happy place close to home for those memorial items.

    We’re working on the backyard to be a shadier area to socialize with friends – slightly more private, more shade than the front yard. I don’t know how much edible stuff we’ll get back there, but we like to read & eat outside when the weather is nice. The cats love to hang out with our without us outside too. If we can get the backyard sorted out, we might also be able to have friends’ dogs come visit – our front yard is way too open to have a dog there. Even on a leash – we live on a super busy road, and I worry that a dog will break free and run. The backyard can be better fenced for visiting canines. Or, for that matter, small children.

    An originally unintended but welcome purpose – to meet some of the neighbors. We used to have 8-10 ft arbor vitae running the entire length of the front yard, right at the sidewalk. Sure, the privacy was nice. We could have run around the front yard naked if we’d wanted to. But we never really got around to doing that much, plus we got robbed twice. So we replaced it with a 3ft hog panel fence, now covered in grape vines. We see our neighbors, they see us and the yard, and several people have commented on how much nicer the yard is since we moved in, much nicer than when “those people” lived here. 😉

    One of my next projects is putting a Little Free Library in the front yard right up against the sidewalk. I’d like to think that will also encourage the meeting of neighbors.

    • WendyP – YAY!!!!!!!!!! for you planning a little free library!!!! books and gardens – two of my fav things!!!

  9. I really enjoyed this garden for its room-like divisions and multiple intimate seating areas. It was a garden perfect for strolling and exploring thanks to all the “walls” hiding the full view and the interesting vignettes the owner had created.

  10. loved this post and hope to take that garden tour in SF one day. I also love the train trip from Fresno (FNO) to SF by Amtrak—good times! and tons of interesting yards to peek at.

    My ideal yard would have edibles (mostly fruit trees) and stone area that would be good for entertaining, but I think the main purpose would be a very cool place for my dog to relax and of course meet her “potty” needs. She gets easily overheated so it would have to have many super shady spots and maybe a small pond area for her to play in—hehe. “dreams!”

  11. Pingback: The Friday Five: My Picks of the Week (July 8th – July 12th, 2013) | Jeff Parker Cooks

  12. I feel genuinely encouraged that the focus both in your post and in the comments is on function/use/purpose. I’m at the point that I see “garden design” and I brace for the all-to-common exterior decorating content and reflexively roll my eyes just to get it over with. Design is about making things work on whatever level they need to and good design is making it aesthetically pleasing and apparently effortless. I wish I’d known about the OGs before my last trip there.

    But to answer your question, the primary space I work with now functions to relax and focus me, contain my botanical collections and–if judging by what’s going on as I type this–provide a stage for firefly shows.

Comments are closed.