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Behind the Scenes in San Francisco Parks

With more than 200 parks, San Francisco has more green space than any other municipality in the United States. Where do all the plants for those parks come from? The Golden Gate Park Nursery. It’s not open to the public, but I got the “50-cent tour” from George Vaughan, the chief nursery specialist.

Sprawled over 8 acres, the nursery has only seven employees for the propagation and growth of all the plants necessary for the city’s parks. Created along with Golden Gate Park in the 1870s by master gardener John McLaren, the nursery has long served not only parks, but also provided plants for special events (such as Stern Grove concerts), flower arrangements for City Hall and Board of Supervisors meetings, and the floral plaques in front of the Conservatory of Flowers.

Flats of seedlings or cuttings occupy space in one of the greenhouses. Once rooted, the plants are transferred to rose pots and finally one-gallon pots. The potted plants are spread out through the nursery, organized by type. It looks like a huge, green quilt. There’s a large section of California natives, which are becoming more and more popular with the gardeners who visit the nursery, looking for the right mix of plants for other parks. They either take what’s available at the time, or place orders in advance.

For optimal growing conditions, greenhouses are outfitted with a hot-water heating system that’s laid out on tables for the flats or pots to be placed on. Fans provide air circulation. An on-site compost pile supplies material for the potting mix, which may also contain perlite, peat, sand, or sawdust depending on the needs of each plant.

When visiting one of the city’s parks, it’s easy to get lost in the beauty of the landscaping and not think of the work that went into growing the plants and maintaining the space that we enjoy. My visit to the Golden Gate Park Nursery has inspired me to spend a little more time working in my yard.