How the Garden Grows at the Sunnyside Conservatory

Rec and Parks gardener Jason Mueller and Friends of Sunnyside Conservatory volunteer John Priola discussing succulents.

Rec and Parks gardener Jason Mueller and Friends of Sunnyside Conservatory volunteer John Priola discussing succulents.

Story and photos by Murray Schneider

Sun smiled on rows of succulents hugging the soil in front of the Sunnyside Conservatory last Saturday morning, but frowned on weeds that a squad of neighborhood volunteers removed from the array of agave, aloe and aeonium.

Supervised by two City Recreation and Parks gardeners, a dozen men and women, even two kindergartners, worked together on May 10, shadowed by nearly a dozen conservatory Canary Island palm trees first planted on the Monterey Boulevard property in the late nineteenth century.

“We try to work every other month,” said Sally Ross, representing Friends of Sunnyside Conservatory, which co-sponsored the weekend work party. “People have their own gardens and there’s also a lot of competition from other worthy City projects.”

Sally Ross weeding among Sunnyside Conservatory succulents.

Sally Ross weeding among Sunnyside Conservatory succulents.

Ross tugged at an alien and interloping strand, deposited deep into the ground only a few feet from a building once derelict, now gingerbread refurbished after the City diverted resources its way, making the conservatory a destination for weddings and musical events.

“But I’m very grateful for the great turn out,” she said. “People are very generous with their time.”

A tarp rested near her, filled with invasive stalks, ready to be hauled to a waiting City truck.

Rookie gardener Jason Mueller, only nine months on the Rec and Parks payroll, muscled it over his shoulder.

“We’re adding what’s working and removing what’s not,” he said. “Succulents, such as leucadendron, work because they’re drought tolerant.”

No stranger to succulents, John Priola, who lives on Surrey Street, looked up from weeding. Priola has single-handedly landscaped and beautified the Bosworth Street medians, which are now carpeted with pleasant-to-the-eye, water-tolerant plants. He stood, watching the corps of volunteers.

“I could use help such as this on the median project,” he said, removing dirt from his knees.

Mueller carried the tarp to his truck, which has a view of the conservatory’s eastern Monterey Boulevard boundary.

“What isn’t working,” said Mueller, who devotes two days a week to the Sunnyside Conservatory, and the remaining days to his Walter Haas Park and Playground beat, “is the vine plumbago, which intrudes onto adjacent property.”

In its earlier incarnation, the storybook building, believed to be a gift to a Victorian wife from her husband, housed exotic plants. But the conservatory eventually fell upon hard times, and much of the twentieth century witnessed it morph into a hulking, ramshackle shell of itself, home not to rare ornamentals but respite to vagrants until Friends of Sunnyside Conservatory rescued it.

Ross, who lives on Joost Avenue, rose and surveyed the fencing that Mueller had constructed in his brief half-year tenure at the conservatory. Mueller, once a high-end home gardener, wandered over. Mueller looks as if he’ll be a perennial twenty-five year old for the rest of his life. He’s bearded and enthusiastic, and one gets the impression that the City and County of San Francisco was lucky to have brought him to the Show from the bush leagues of private gardening.

“The fence serves two purposes,” he said. “It is aesthetic, and it keeps people away from the plants.”

The fencing surrounded lots of flax, cordyline and sedum, and the effect was not unlike having a multitude of mini-arches resembling the Gateway Arch that benchmarks St. Louis, which is both fitting and coincidental. Jason Mueller, it turns out, hails from St. Louis, as did Don Mueller, the New York Giants outfielder who patrolled right field in the Polo Grounds and who played a pivotal role in the 1951 Bobby Thomson “Shot Heard ‘Round the World.”

“The fences are made from sycamore because the wood is malleable,” said Mueller, clearly proud of his engineering feat. “I went on-line and hodgepodged the design.”

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” said Sally Ross. “Some parents allow their children to run among the plants and it’s dangerous because they can fall and hit their heads on the concrete.”

Five-year old Cameron inspecting a bug he found while his mother volunteered at the Sunnyside Conservatory.

Five-year old Cameron inspecting a bug he found while his mother volunteered at the Sunnyside Conservatory.

At the moment, a boy and a girl were doing more than racing while their parents continued working. Each rested near a ledge on the correct side of the fencing, huddled over a bug that the five-year old boy cupped in his palm.

“It’s pregnant!” announced Cameron, who attends Sunnyside Elementary and who was clearly fascinated by the bug being in a family way.

His playmate, six-year old Sydney, who attends St. Thomas More School, studied the bug, whose swollen underbelly confirmed its delicate condition.

If the two biologists had had a microscope, they’d have put the bug beneath it. But they were busy skipping back and forth to a table of oatmeal and chocolate chip cookies and cherries that Sally Ross had set out.

John Priola looked at the comfort food, especially Sally’s neighborhood favorite, her legendary blueberry coffee cake.

“Sally gets around,” said Priola.

Indeed she does. When Ross doesn’t have a trowel or a rolling pin in her hands, she’s busy typing grant applications that bring additional financial support to the conservatory.

“The San Francisco Parks Alliance is offering eight Action Grants up to $3,000 each to park projects like ours,” Ross said. “And it’s giving people a chance to vote on their favorite. You just have to go its website. But voting ends May 30th.”

Ross spoke while surrounded by a parade of succulents, an earthy hunk of weeds smothering her opened hand.

“If we become one of the winners, we’d like to use the money for two purposes,” she said. “First, none of the plants have signs and it’s a shame the visiting public can’t identify them. We’d like to correct this with the installation of appropriate botanic signage that makes the conservatory not only a beautiful place to visit, but a place to learn.”

“Our second wish is to add more plants that fill in places without plant cover,” she continued. “Some of these places have become obliterated where people have been prone to walk off paths.”

Sally Ross's blueberry buckle, silhouetted by volunteer behind it. Looks like the delicious buckle has been sampled.

Sally Ross’s blueberry buckle, silhouetted by volunteer behind it. Looks like the delicious buckle has been sampled.

Nevertheless, on conservatory Saturdays, there’s a beaten path that no one ever objects to, a well-trodden one to Sally Ross’s blueberry buckle.

By noon volunteers cradled sugary wedges of it in their hands, convinced it had the power to change their lives forever. Voters are allowed to vote only once for a Parks Alliance deserving green project, but if Ross’s neighbors’ blue-stained fingers were any clue as to how the election will turn out, then the Sunnyside Conservatory will win hands down.

As for her blueberry buckle, Sally Ross has the recipe:

It’s straight from Betty Crocker!”

Anyone who would like to volunteer with Friends of Sunnyside Conservatory should contact Sally Ross at

Anyone who would like to volunteer on the Bosworth Median project with John Priola should contact John at

Anyone who would like to cast a vote for a $3,000 Action Grant for the Sunnyside Conservatory can vote at the SFPA website at Deadline: May 30, 2014


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