A hand-lettered sign at the entrance to the recycling yard behind Kezar Stadium on Lincoln Ave. reads “Native Plants from the San Francisco Peninsula.” Intrigued, I did some research and then visited. As I walked into the yard, a man with long, straight, gray beard called out: “Are you from the deYoung Museum?” I said “No, I’m here to see Greg Garr.” He said, “Oh, he’s the grumpy guy at the end of the yard, behind the compost bins. If you’re interested in native plants, he’ll be nice to you. If not, watch out!”
Greg Garr is the driving force behind this native plant nursery at the recycling center. He has been running it for about seven years and works there seven days a week. He is actually employed by the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council (HANC), although the facility is on park land (Garr told me it is listed as a “noncompliant use” in the park master plan). Hands gray with dirt, face weathered, short gray hair, he is a bit gruff, but passionate and extremely knowledgeable about native plants. Surrounded by compost bins and stacks of quart-sized plastic pots, he was potting seedlings from a flat into 1-quart pots.
This nursery looks a bit impromptu, but actually it operates on an efficient system. Garr has planted a garden all around the recycling center, including about 60 species of shrubs and herbaceous plants, all native to the San Francisco peninsula. With the help of a couple of interns, he collects the seeds from mature plants and starts them in flats laid out in rows inside the fence that runs along Lincoln Ave. Once sprouted, the seedlings are transplanted from the flats into one-gallon pots that people have dropped off for recycling. They are then moved to a propagation area behind the Kezar Stadium service building and allowed to settle into their pots and reach a decent size before they are offered to public for sale, displayed on racks along north side of recycling area.
Garr, who is now on the board of Nature in the City, told me that he first got involved in the park years ago, as part of early efforts to restore the Oak Woodlands. Work parties of concerned citizens sometimes removed invasive exotic species, like Eucalyptus and French broom, without permission from park authorities. In fact, this native plant nursery has a whiff of guerilla gardening about it, although apparently tolerated at this point by the park authorities. Native plants as squatters?! Garr told me that he doesn’t own a car and has converted his driveway into a native plant garden.
Here is an article in the S.F. Chronicle about the HANC Native Plant Nursery:
Greg Gaar is a controversial character, even amongst his allies in the local native plant movement. In about 1998, the Sacramento Bee reported that he was convicted of girdling non-native trees on public lands (girdling kills trees). He was permitted to do community service as restitution which is apparently the origin of his collection of historical photographs, according to the Bee.
There are hundreds of girdled trees in San Francisco’s parks from this period of the native plant movement (mostly on Bayview Hill, Mt. Davidson, and around Lake Merced). Before the public reacted to this destruction, Greg actually bragged (in a meeting of the California Native Plant Society I attended) about climbing over the fences of private property to destroy non-native plants and trees.
Then the public began to react to this destruction. Even if you like native plants, you don’t necessary want your trees destroyed. There were many public hearings about this controversy. I recall Greg testifying at the first hearing; he said the 101 freeway should be destroyed so that Islais Creek could be restored from the bay to its source. A collective groan came from the crowd of over 100 people.
I think Greg’s allies have since got a handle on him and they have learned that they can alienate potential allies if they are too extreme and too destructive. Support for the local native plant movement depends upon such moderation.