How to Garden in San Francisco

Carrot, coriander, tomato and basil plants on windowsill

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Maybe you want to liven up your tiny San Francisco apartment with some greenery. Or maybe you’re one of the lucky ones to even have a little yard in the back or the Mission's wealth of sunny days. Whatever your living situation, don’t let Karl the Fog dismay you. You can grow a lot of things (yes, even tomatoes). Here are some important rules for making sure your houseplants and garden thrive.

Get in the Zone

Or, otherwise known as the gardening zone. For this, we will turn to the trusty, dusty U.S. Department of Agriculture. They’ve mapped the United States into 13 “plant zones,” essentially the climate of each area and which plants will grow there. It’s based on the average lowest winter temperatures in an area over a 30-year period, spanning a 10-degree Fahrenheit difference in the average annual minimum temperature. Zones are further sub-divided into 5-degree F differences, indicated with "a" and "b." Find your location on their interactive map by entering your zip code.

Of course, this map will only tell you where plants will survive the winter. Sunset magazine's climate zones map lets you see where that plant will thrive year-round. On Sunset's map of the San Francisco Bay Area, which really includes everywhere from California's Santa Barbara to Humboldt counties, the city is in zone 17 (a "heat-starved climate" where fog tends to smother light and sunshine). But don’t let that sunshine-smothering fog make you think that plants can’t grow. Instead, become the master of your microclimate.

Master the Microclimate 

Unfortunately, none of the above sources explains the microclimate phenomena that our dear friend fog creates. According to local nursery Sloat Gardens, San Franciscans can grow nearly anything. Citrus trees (lemons, oranges, kumquats) do great anywhere in the city, as do all the greens—kale, spinach, arugula, and lettuce. Tomatoes can even do well in foggy climates (just not large varietals).

The key is understanding your little slice of microclimate. Live atop Twin Peaks with very little wind shelter? Opt for grasses like lavender, sage or yarrow, which have adapted to dealing with high winds (plus all three of those smell great and can be used for cooking, too). Have an extra shady patch in the corner of the garden? Plant some ferns or try a little lettuce patch. Most trees and tropical plants can grow well anywhere in the city, as long as the wind isn’t knocking them sideways. Even if it’s foggy in your area, it's quite possible to grow healthy tomatoes, just the smaller varietals like cherry tomatoes. Those in the Mission, Noe Valley, and the Castro—you’re in luck. You get enough sun to grow just about anything. When in doubt, grow succulents. They’re nearly impossible to kill and thrive both inside and out in San Francisco.

Get a Dealer

A plant dealer, that is. If you build up a rapport with an employee at a plant store, they’ll serve as a fountain of gardening information. Aside from Sloat mentioned above, a few other reputable plant stores throughout the city are Paxton Gate, Succulence, Flora Grub Gardens, Bay Natives Nursery, Hortica, and Cole Hardware, with locations in Russian Hill, Cole Valley, and North Beach.

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