This conversation happened last winter when the author chatted with a fellow professional gardener as they worked side by side in the San Francisco Botanical Garden. This is the third in our series of interviews with working gardeners in the greater San Francisco Bay Area.
I meet Pat Quinn at the front gates of the San Francisco Botanical Garden in mid-January; the day after the Bay Area was hit hard by rain. This morning, the skies are clear and the weather is mild; wet plant foliage glistens with water. Sections of the garden are closed off due to unsteady trees, and Pat has already been at work for hours, sawing and clearing fallen branches and cleaning up damaged herbaceous plant material. He leads me to his corner of the garden, the Mesoamerican Cloud Forest collection. As we talk, Pat makes cuts with his loppers and passes me branches that I put into piles to be hauled off later.
When winter storms roll through this part of the garden, the towering Monterey cypresses (Hesperocyparis macrocarpa), relics of an old planting plan, drop limbs and smaller branches until the garden floor is littered with a foot of debris. The falling branches crush perennials and knock vines off their supports. Pat worries about winter weather, periodic storms, and freezes. He shows me a rare climbing Paullinia vine that an intern planted last summer at the base of a tree and trained it to grow up the trunk on a wire mesh support. When water in the garden was shut off for repairs, the intern watered the vine by hand. The plant took off and had grown to about four feet until earlier this week when a cypress limb fell on top of it. After clearing the limbs and brush, Pat saw that about three-quarters of the vine’s growth had been broken off and its roots were torn. He cleaned up and mulched the vine and is hopeful that the plant will recover, “I’m always surprised at how resilient plants are—not always, but usually.”
Late winter marks the beginning of one of Pat’s favorite times of year in the garden. By mid-February, the chance of frost has passed in San Francisco and herbaceous perennials in the Cloud Forest have finished flowering. That’s when Pat gets to work pruning to prevent the plants from developing leggy growth in the coming year. Pat cuts some perennials entirely to the ground, others he tips back more conservatively. “You have to get a feel for it, depending on how old the plant is and observing what it likes. Some of them really thrive when you just cut them right down,” he explains.
Pat has worked at the San Francisco Botanical Garden for more than 15 years. The way he speaks about and moves in the garden reflects his long tenure. After we finish clearing debris, Pat shows me a vigorous clump of Begonia fusca, a plant he found languishing in a shady corner years ago, that he has cultivated and successfully propagated by situating the plant where it gets more sun than you might expect it would like. We continue walking passing a patch of Leandra subseriata, from the Melastomataceae, that was hit by a bad frost a few years back. Pat recalls deciding to cut the plants back and leave them in place rather than removing them. They have since sprouted healthy new growth from the base.
After working for many years in the garden, Pat still finds opportunities for surprise and discovery. He tells me that he recently saw the pink throat of an Anna’s hummingbird for the first time, “for some reason I had never seen that before, and it just made me feel really lucky to be here.” This sense of discovery while gardening comes up often throughout our conversation. Pat became interested in gardening and exploring nature as a young boy. He would ride his bike miles from home to play in vacant wild places like an empty lot or the beach. He wants visitors to the San Francisco Botanical Garden to experience that sort of freedom in the Cloud Forest, a piece of deep jungle in the heart of the city.
Situated on 55 acres in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco Botanical Garden is organized into a variety of collections in which more than 8,000 different kinds of plants are grown. The garden is open seven days a week; San Francisco residents enjoy free admission. www.sfbotanialgarden.org.