Water & Drought

San Francisco’s ugly yard contest seeks to encourage drought-tolerant gardens

Wilson Ng’s front yard is a scrappy corner patch full of weeds, cracked concrete and dead plants. It has been ravaged by gophers, snails and the drought in the Outer Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco. The yard is in the running for the Ugly Yard Contest sponsored by the San Francisco Department of Environment.
Wilson Ng’s front yard is a scrappy corner patch full of weeds, cracked concrete and dead plants. It has been ravaged by gophers, snails and the drought in the Outer Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco. The yard is in the running for the Ugly Yard Contest sponsored by the San Francisco Department of Environment. mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

Wilson Ng is certain he has a homely yard. His scrappy corner patch near Ocean Beach is full of weeds, cracked concrete and dead plants and has been ravaged by gophers, snails and the drought.

But in a city known for quirky microclimates that tend to either mold or dry up plants, is Ng’s garden the ugliest? He will find out in mid-May, when the city announces the winner of its first Ugly Yard Contest.

“At this point, I’m not ashamed anymore,” said Ng, an administrative analyst for the city who made several unsuccessful attempts to create an attractive garden before entering the contest. “Let’s just do it.”

The contest, sponsored by the city’s Department of the Environment, is the latest effort to curb water use and highlight the importance of gardens that can thrive in a drought. At the same time, the local planning department launched a website identifying drought-tolerant plants and trees that will flourish in different city climates.

By late April, dozens of contestants had entered, posting pictures and pleas for their odious yards. The winner – chosen by a panel of experts – will get a landscaping consultation and makeover with drought-resistant plants. Three contestants with the most votes (anyone can go the website and weigh in) will win a consultation. Everyone who enters will get a packet of native plant seeds.

“We are trying to redefine what is beautiful,” said Guillermo Rodriguez, communications director at the Department of Environment. “You can still have a beautiful yard in San Francisco, but it doesn’t have to be a well-manicured, water-wasting lawn.”

The contest was unveiled coincidentally as Gov. Jerry Brown held a news conference to praise brown lawns and call for cuts in water usage. Urban water users across the state will have to reduce consumption by 25 percent, under new state mandates. Some communities will face cuts as high as 36 percent.

San Francisco, where users on average consume slightly less than 50 gallons per day – compared to the statewide average of 77 gallons – has already met its 8 percent cut but isn’t stopping there.

City officials acknowledge they have fewer obstacles than many other areas.

A densely packed urban environment with fewer large lawns and landscaped spaces, San Francisco has its trademark fog that tamps down temperatures.

But officials also credit aggressive conservation and public education. There are water wasters who wash sidewalks, cars and run sprinklers at all hours, but the city has a long-standing respect for its water source, what Rodriguez calls a “love affair” with Hetch Hetchy, the picturesque reservoir that supplies 2.6 million customers.

Still, the city is considering how to increase use of recycled water, strengthen green building codes, and lately, find teachable garden moments.

“We can’t sit on our laurels,” Rodriguez said. “We celebrate them and set the bar higher and think of better ways to do things and be entrepreneurial.”

The next step will be to target the city’s biggest water users – its large institutions – and find ways for them to cut back, said Tyrone Jue, a spokesman for the city’s Public Utilities Commission.

San Francisco already uses recycled water to clean the streets and is investigating ways to harvest water from drains. The PUC’s high-rise building, which opened three years ago, treats and reuses its own sewage water in a self-contained system that mimics a wetlands ecosystem. Only drinking water comes from the public supply.

“For a typical office building, it would use 12 gallons per person per day,” Jue said. “We are at 3 to 4 gallons.”

Ng wants a drought-friendly garden that needs scant moisture, but most of all he’d like professional advice on how to keep his plants healthy, he said.

A first-time homeowner, he grew up in the Outer Sunset neighborhood where he lives now, but didn’t know much about gardening. When he bought his house a few years ago, he excavated dirt in the front yard, mulched and put in drought resistant plants and, at a neighbor’s suggestion, some lavender.

Nothing lived. He scouted the neighborhood for plants that seemed to be doing well and looked online for native species. He took pictures of flourishing street medians and plants at the beach and went to a local garden store.

“It was a failed effort,” he said. “Not only did they all die, but the ones I didn’t want came out. I have all these weeds. Being on the corner, my neighbors noticed. I had to apologize.”

Surfacing as a top vote-getter in his quest to win a makeover, Ng has strong competition from a field of failed gardeners around the city who have little in common but dead plants and scruffy lawns. What grows in the sunny Mission District won’t make it in the soggier ZIP codes, and residents in all of them want help.

There is the yard that’s a pile of mud, the one with weed-covered paving stones, another dominated by a huge dying shrub, the next choked with blackberry vines.

“The scary part is that skunks live in there,” wrote one contestant, below a snapshot of a massively overgrown thicket. Contestants’ yards can be viewed at www.sfenvironment.org/ugliest-yard.

Ng has alerted his family and friends to the contest but said most of the votes for his garden seem to have come from strangers.

“I’m really glad people are voting for me,” he said. “But one picture doesn’t do it justice.”

Katherine Seligman is a San Francisco-based freelance writer.

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