Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Pleasure Garden in San Francisco

In 2006 I was asked to draw up a design for friends for a small garden behind a Victorian house that was under major renovation in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco.  I wound up backing out as the scope of the project was stressful at the time with so much work and money being funneled in to the house.  What was originally there was a sad garden with  terraced decks and a brown fiberglass hot tub.

They undertook the initial garden project with the help of an energetic wheeler dealer kind of guy who oversaw the hauling of tons of material through a new underground garage and narrow flight of steps.  My original design was rectangular to reflect the lines of the house and fences, but they successfully opted for a round flat space surrounded by curved retaining walls to deal with the slope.  Re-sculpting the Earth's surface is how I describe much of garden building, having to move huge quantities of soil and bringing in truckloads of material.  I was happy to have skipped the re-sculpting phase due to the difficult access to the site, and all the chaos of other work that was going on.

A bath tub was added to one side of the circular area, and small beige colored tumbled granite pieces were chosen for the paving and wall caps.  They set tiny pebbles in to the mortar joints between the paving stones and stuccoed the curved concrete blocks walls.  Funky vertical mixed stone sections were used to create transitions between the walls and steps.
Round patio in the new garden

The round area was planted with sod, which soon became a muddy mess where the dog liked to poop, and was none too inviting.  So I was asked to come back and build a pebble mosaic patio, and a tile mosaic to cover concrete retaining walls directly off the new kitchen.

Since my friends are very artistic we put a great deal of effort in coming up with the perfect design.  Eric owns the E.G. Smith sock company which makes a line of thick baggy socks that are hugely popular with school girls in Japan, so he and his partner Marc have a strong connection with that country.  Marc works at the DeYoung Museum and Legion of Honor, two world class institutions.  We went to Japantown to look at books for inspirations and found one with illustrations of various medallions that are essentially like western Coat of Arms for prominent Japanese Families.  We were particularly drawn to a simple lotus design.  So we adapted that form in a rather Islamic way to create a knot pattern lotus flower.  We cut out plywood jigs to use to lay out the design on the ground.

Pietra dura inlay of colored stone in marble at the Taj Mahal
The tile mosaic design for the concrete terrace walls was based on Pietra dura inlaid patterns in the marble walls of the Taj Mahal in India.  Curving arabesques frame botanical images on this most marvelous of buildings.  Flowers and geometry are popular in Islamic architecture because it is considered idolatrous to depict images of people or animals.

I used a brown tile for the background to match the stone they had already used, purchasing seconds from the Pratt and Larson Tile Company in Portland.  These are tiles that had small imperfections when made to order and are then sold for a couple dollars a pound.  The quality of the tiles and matte glazing are premium.  I have purchased over a ton of various colored tiles for a number of mosaics, though I stopped doing this work because nipping tile caused me to have severe tendonitis in my hands.

Grouting the tile mosaic
I hand cut all of the tile with nippers in Portland and overlaid the composed mosaic with wide masking tape so that the panel could be cut in to sections, which I then drove down to San Francisco.  I used acrylic tile thinset to adhere the panels to the wall and then grouted the mosaic.  The panels form the backdrop for a concrete bench which is large enough to place a small bed in the summer.  This forms the terrace that fronts a planter dividing the lower area from the patio.  There is a nice view of the bed and mosaic from the kitchen and makes a nice place to take a nap.

Matty takes a nap on the bed.  A Taj Mahal inspired tile mosaic forms the back wall 
Sorting white quartzite pebbles in San Mateo
We had the guy who's crew did most of the previous work come back to prepare the site for the new mosaic.  First the grass was dug out and hauled away.  We had a drain pipe installed around the perimeter, and had a bed of compacted gravel put in where the lawn used to be.  All of this had to be hauled in 5 gallon buckets through the garage and up the stairs.  This is one of the reasons I opted to live and work in Portland rather than San Francisco, where row houses make up the majority of urban residences.  Difficult access can make a project many times more difficult to execute.

I then went about the laborious job of finding the right pebbles to construct the mosaic.  I went to three different Bay Area stone yards to find black Mexican Beach Pebbles, Indonesian turquoise, white quartzite from the Sierra Nevada mountains, and red sorted out of a mix from Montana which is called Pame at the yard.  A pastel  blend from the same mix was used to make the border, and to fill in the drainage strip around the perimeter.  This part of the project took about 5 days.  Once an adequate supply of pebbles had been collected we were ready to start constructing the mosaic.
Pouring a concrete sub-slab

We hand mixed bags of concrete to pour a wire mesh reinforced sub-slab so that the patio wouldn't crack if there was an earthquake.  We had calculated the grade so that the finished mosaic on top the sub-slab would be at the perfect height, being highest in the center and gently sloping toward the edges.  Then we laid out the plywood jigs and used green marking paint to transfer the design to the slab so that we could begin setting the mosaic, starting on one side and working toward the other.
Marker paint was used to transfer the design to the poured concrete sub-slab

I purchased about a ton of Type S mortar mix in 60 pound bags since that is all I could find at the building supply store in San Francisco.  I prefer to use 80 pound bags but it made it easier to carry them up the stairs.  I do the mosaic a section at a time in a wet mortar base, so having the plywood jigs to overlay on top of each batch of mortar, aligning with the painted pattern underneath kept us from straying from the intended pattern.  I would do the outlines using the black Mexican beach pebbles and then fill in with the other colors.   I trim away the edge of partially set mortar in each section before setting the next batch so that the work appears seamless.  The mosaic is flattened with a 3 by 3 foot piece of plywood that I step on to press the pebbles in to the mortar.  The  excess the is forced up through the pebble is then rinsed away with a gentle spray of water.  This process is repeated over and over until the entire area of the mosaic is covered.  This took about a week of sitting stooped on a little stool over the work.  My poor back.  It is amazing that I can still stand up after all these years of mosaic building!
Setting the first batch of mosaic in wet mortar

Various people tried to help set pebbles along the way, but eventually I banned access to the area when someone stepped in a freshly set area a couple of times.  It can be deceiving because the dried mortared mosaic looks the same as the wet ones unless you are paying attention.  Once the mosaic was finished we had a wild party inviting Bay Area marvelous celebrity gardeners such as Marcia Donehue, Cevan Forrist, and Richard Ward.  I wont tell you what I wore, but it was slinky and outrageous.
Making progress
I came back a month later and cleaned the mosaic with Muriatic Acid once the mortar had cured.  The acid reacts with the base in the mortar to dissolve away the grey film that sticks to the pebbles during the work.  The patio looks wonderful, especially from the second and third floor balcony terraces.  Seeing it from above makes me think that if aliens were to fly over in a space craft, that they would be lured down to Earth to check out this cosmic symbol of a lotus.  I also wonder if it doesn't rotate when nobody is looking.
View from the second story terrace

Afterwards, Marc designed and built a form for a lovely little fountain, with a stone niche set in it that I brought back from India.  The shape of the fountain is sort of like a little Nepali temple, with flexible copper tubing set in the mortar that can be attached to flexible tubing connected to the small pump that recirculates the water.  This sits in a buried basin with a grille on top that is covered in river stones.  The water spits in to a stone bowl and overflows in to the reservoir basin.  It makes a lovely sound and birds like to come and bathe.  Hummingbirds also like to drink out of the little stream of water arcing in to the bowl.  It is quite magical.  I recently build a larger similar shaped fountain for another client who loved the design.
A simple fountain spills in to a carved stone bowl from China, surrounded by lush plantings
Dahlia imperialis in full bloom in November

We planted the beds with an odd assortment of experimental plants that have been fine tuned over the years to create a lush subtropical eden.  The garden is somewhat shady so there are a number of ferns, including tree ferns.  Potted bromeliads and orchids are set in to the beds for added color and texture.  In the sunnier areas we used succulent Aeoniums in varying colors.  A large Brugmansia hangs its night fragrant trumpet shaped flowers overhead.  At the back of one of the narrow beds they planted a lanky but impressive tree dahlia, Dahlia imperialis, that is in full bloom in November, towering above the garden and spectacular from the upper terraces.

Marc and Eric are avid flea market shoppers and have filled the garden with art, and covered the fences with a collection of mirrors, giving the garden a feeling of greater size.  The garden is simply furnished with a hand tooled brass table from Morocco and teak folding chairs.  Round cushions are set on the patio in summer for lounging.  It is a wonderful place to entertain, or to take a hot bath.  In fact it has the same allure as my garden does, a little slice of paradise.  I hope to do more work like this in San Francisco in the future.  If you have a garden you would like to develop, let me know.
Resin balls hang from a spiral staircase connecting the garden to the second story terrace

Thanks for reading, Jeffrey

Taking a nap on top of the bathtub


  1. This is so lovely & inspirational. My husband & I have talked about doing some small mosaics in our yard (right now it's native plants with DG paths).

  2. I am totally blown away by this, truly beautiful work Jeffrey.

  3. So, so beautiful.

    You are a passionate man!

  4. As I have commented to you before, I am amazed at not only your detail in describing your technique but your willingness to share with us all. This is world class work and I can see a book here.

  5. That is stunning! I'd love to know if those type of mosaic would work in an area where the ground freezes in winter and likes to heave things about.

  6. Absolutely beautiful! Thank you for sharing. What material is used to form the fountain?

  7. Can you let us know where you found the pebbles? I m in the bay area and am following your blog post on how to make stepping stone mosaics. About to get stearted!

    1. I went to Broadmore in San Mateo and hand sorted the pebbles from piles of pebble mixes that they had there. The black were from bags of Mexican Beach Pebbles, the turquoise from bags of Indonesian Turquoise, the white from a Sierra Nevada pebble mix and the red from a Montana mix whose name I don't remember. It is super tedious and takes many hours. More fun to go up to Sonoma County and collect from rivers and beaches!