San Francisco’s Microclimates Pose Landscaping Challenges

Written by Carolyn Koenig, Angie’s List contributor
Updated July 16, 2013
Golden Gate Bridge
Microclimates in cities such as San Francisco can make gardening more of a challenge. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

San Francisco is a unique city with an extremely diverse climate. Get tips on gardening and landscaping in the city's different microclimates.

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The Western Gardening Book puts San Francisco squarely in Zone 17, where marine effects create “mild, wet, almost frostless winters and cool summers with frequent fog or wind.”

That’s a truism here. But what residents also know is that, within this zone, there are microclimates that vary from neighborhood to neighborhood -- even house to house. In fact, “the temperature can vary some 9 degrees between climates in the city, which is really a considerable amount when you’re looking at plant selection,” says Brian Ott, of highly rated Zenscape, a San Francisco-based landscape design company.

This temperature spread and other conditions, such as location, moisture, slope and direction your property faces, makes “landscaping in San Francisco very challenging,” Ott says.

So, as landscaping in San Francisco isn’t a one-size-fits-all model, we’ve asked Ott and two other San Francisco landscape designers to weigh in on gardening within the city’s microclimates.

Your particular microclimate

Twin Peaks is generally considered the “fog line” in San Francisco: the west-facing slopes often experience fog and strong winds, while the east-facing slopes are warmer and sunnier.

In neighborhood speak, the Richmond, Sunset and Twin Peaks are the city’s “fog belt.” Here you have only about half the number of plant materials to work with [as opposed to the more sunny areas], says Adam Wooley, of Adam Wooley Landscape Design and Construction. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have options.

“Over the past 10 years I’ve come up with a list that will do well—maybe 300 plants will survive in the fog belt; it’s not as limited as you might think,” he says. Examples include those found in an English garden, camellia and boxwood, and native grasses.

(Photo courtesy of Adam Wooley Landscape Design and Construction)

Because of their locations east of Twin Peaks, the Mission and Noe Valley are banana-belt sunny, as are Bernal Heights and Potrero. These neighborhoods will support a wide variety of tropical plants such as citrus, bamboo, ferns, orchids and hibiscus. Some varieties of palms do well, also.

Two other factors weigh in when determining what will thrive in your own microclimate: wind exposure and shade. The city’s east-west street grid creates a wind-tunnel effect, which is very damaging to plants and trees, says Janet Moyer, of Janet Moyer Landscaping.

If your street is prone to being windy -- or if the wind bounces off your house into your garden -- you’ll need to keep plants compact and close to the ground, Ott says. You’ll also need to know the shade pattern in your yard.

Climate of the soil

Soil varieties are all over the board in San Francisco: Some neighborhoods, such as the Marina, are on fill sand. Some are on clay. And some neighborhoods are built on rock, such as Diamond Heights, Castro hills, Cole Valley and Potrero hill.

“A majority of the city doesn’t have ideal soil conditions; it limits the types of plants you can do,” Ott says. “You need to do a lot of compost and amend the soil, especially if there’s clay.”

For do-it-yourselfers, it’s possible to test the soil in your yard, Ott says.

“People can dig a soil sample in their yard and send it off to a soil lab -- there’s one in San Jose. You’ll spend a couple hundred bucks and they’ll tell you what kind of soil you have, and what to do to the soil for the type of plants you want to put in.”  

Watering your garden’s microclimate

Water conservation is a hot button issue, and there’s an increasing demand for drought-tolerant gardens and other solutions. Permeable gardens are popular, as are “smart” irrigation controllers, which adjust water usage daily, based on the previous day’s temperature, Moyer says.

Another trend in San Francisco is to plant fewer lawns.

“More homeowners are considering artificial turf,” Wooley says. “There’s been a huge improvement in them the past few years, and there’s less stigma now.”

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