By Murray Schneider
On February 16 over 20 neighborhood residents stood at the corner of Bosworth and Congo Streets and applauded the Bosworth Gardens, the creation of Surrey Street’s John Priola. For seven months, John Priola, 52, has been beautifying street medians with drought tolerant plants along Glen Park’s busy thoroughfare.
“Thank you,” said Priola, who surveyed the group. He donned an orange vest, which he wears when planting his succulents along one of the City’s busiest traffic arteries. “I’m both touched and impressed.” Cars breezed past as he pointed at some 60 plants, many of them Agaves that thrive despite this rainy season’s paucity of precipitation, each a perennial and some boasting large rosettes of thick fleshy leaves.
“The great thing about these plants,” said Priola, an artist and art teacher who has lived on Surrey Street for 13 years, “is they require little overseeing and only small amounts of water.”
Julia Brashares, Stewardship Manager, of San Francisco Park Alliance stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Priola, who has worked single-handedly to spruce up the pedestrian space. “It’s so important to connect nature with our lives,” said Brashares, who is charged with overseeing streets-to-parks programs that establish and maintain community gardens on City property. “Community stewardship is a win-win for everyone.”
A dog walker idled beside a traffic light at Elk Street, waiting for it to turn green before he adventured into the crosswalk. He looked at Priola’s verdant median, no doubt marveling at how a silk purse can be fashioned from a sow’s ear.
John Priola, on his own dime and his own time, has planted hundreds of environmentally friendly plants, most of them donated by him, others by neighbors such as Chris and Dan Channing who kicked in an Agave Americana. “I ran out of room in my own backyard and it’s now filled to the brim,” he said. “I love growing plants and we’re so lucky to have a Mediterranean climate here.”
“I collect, gather and solicit at other gardens and obtain cuttings, most of which have spines, thorns or irritating sap,” he said. “The majority of the plants I find come from new homeowners who have children and who don’t want spiky plants that come with the house.”
“They have both good sense and generosity and don’t want to green waste them,” he continued. “I propagate the succulents, which are very easy and very fast to grow.”
The reason for the Saturday morning gathering was as much to showcase Priola’s green thumb as it was to gain the imprimatur of the San Francisco Parks Alliance, which must sign off on Priola’s voluntary endeavors as well as green lights any future work.
A good thing too, offered Jake Sigg, Conservation Chairperson of the Yerba Buena chapter of the California Native Plant Society, when asked to weigh in on the impact of Priola’s efforts. “These medians are basically for traffic calming,” Sigg said. “I’m glad there are no invasive such as Pampas grass and that the project is approved by Department of Public Works.”
Surrounded by Glen Park villagers who also approved Priola’s efforts, Julia Brashares looked pleased, as well. “In addition to medians, we oversee public stairs, traffic circles and parklets,” she said. “We have over 100 volunteer groups now and this signals neighbor getting to know neighbors, as well as minimizing negative behaviors such as dumping.”
One such neighbor, Barbara Lanson, who lives on Chilton Avenue chimed in: “This looks just great.”
Bosworth Gardens is not a stand-alone. Farther up O’Shaughnessy Boulevard, additional John Priola gardening sculptures complement traffic-calming medians, and community members in the Sunnyside are doing similar work along Monterey Boulevard.
Halfway along O’Shaughnessy, at the Malta Drive turn, a tiny Priola-fashioned rectangle acts as a safety island for Muni riders disembarking busses, preparatory to crossing the busy boulevard on their way home or possibly on their way to another iconic garden, this one Jeanne Halpern’s Valletta Court’s California native plant oasis.
“The Malta-turn island has had the least number of accidents,” said Priola. “It has better signage.”
Automobiles have crashed into his creations laying waste to his plant mosaics and litter has been tossed from moving cars, most conspicuously a banana peel recently impaling itself on a plant’s spike. Priola shrugs it off. “At least banana are compostable,” he said. Dogs and their custodians are another matter, though.
“Medians aren’t a place to hang out,” he said. In fact, they can be downright dangerous. A familiar sight, Muni busses lumber past as he bends his back weeding plants and he’s been pleasantly surprised. “I thought at first the drivers were beeping their horns at me,” he said. “But they’re doing it as a warning, as a courtesy because each bus gives off a gust of wind as it passes.”
Others walk by, most recently Alison Draper who arrived in San Francisco from Brighton, England last November and who now lives on Chenery Street. “Back home we had guerilla gardeners,” she said. “Then the city council donated plants and it made Brighton so much better.”
Draper is the Friends of Glen Canyon Park’s newest volunteer. She’d just turned her hand to pulling mustard on a steep canyon hillside the same day she wandered past Bosworth Gardens. “I’m so lucky to have found Glen Park,” she said. “It’s quieter, it’s a bit quirky, but it has its own identity.”
It now has Bosworth Gardens, too.
“All the plants are donated, so as they come in they get added,” said Priola. “This is not the traditional way of garden design, which creates a planned layout and a specific look.” It looks good enough to even find its way to PBS’ “Downton Abbey,” despite Yorkshire’s different climatic patterns.
“I haven’t watched the show yet,” confided Alison Draper, too busy acclimating herself to her new Glen Park environs and tugging invasive weeds with Rec and Park’s Natural Areas Program.
Priola welcomes assistance, but understands that volunteers may not feel all that comfortable straddling a traffic median only a few feet wide. “I like to work alone, though,” he said.
Failing to net volunteer help, he’d settle for a few accouterments to keep his plants company. “I really hope I can find some substantial rocks to add to the plantings,” he penned on his blog last October. “The plants look vulnerable out there.”
In her turn, Alison Draper, with characteristic British understatement worthy of Alistair Cooke, looked one last time at John Priola’s Masterpiece. “We need more of this, don’t we?” she said.
Readers can find more about Bosworth Gardens by linking to John Priola’s blog: bosworthgardens.blogspot.com. Readers can contact John at firstname.lastname@example.org. Readers can also contact Julia Brashares from San Francisco Parks Alliance at Julia@sfparksalliance.org.