One of my favorite flowers is night blooming jasmine. The first time I was exposed to it, I actually bought it at Home Depot (equivalent of Bunnings for my Australian mates) in the garden department, along with a beautiful teal glazed pot to plant it in. I was 27, and I’d just bought a condo in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley/Lower Haight with my now-ex. I’d always wanted to own my own home, and while things weren’t going well with her, I convinced myself to move forward because I was “fulfilling a lifelong dream.” I began at once, determined to make that place a home, come hell or high water. Our relationship was broken, but I could make the investment my home. Let’s not get into the baggage and the extent of how bad of an idea that was in hindsight. I did gain a great experience of owning a home, and that part, I certainly don’t regret. I got great experience going through a bidding war, the GFC hitting after we’d put the offer in on our home. I understand mortgages with an intimacy of someone who’s felt the unbearable weight of their responsibility.
One of the first projects I took on was landscaping the backyard to my own tastes. To this day, that is on my list of top accomplishments. I don’t know why. Perhaps I could pontificate on that and build to a crescendo as I find some deep and meaningful purpose, but I’m not really feeling that right now.
It was a bottom floor Victorian style railroad flat built in the 1800’s with another condo on the level above belonging to a great couple. There was a very rare, nearly new, spacious deck for both levels, and stairs that went all the way down to a simply designed backyard. I obtained the permission of the couple who owned the condo above to design the landscape in the backyard as well as our private lower level deck. I knew what I wanted to do to that space from the very moment I saw it.
The condo, from the front:
You can’t tell by looking at that photo, but across the street, from the point of view of the photographer, was actually low income housing, or what-I-call “the projects.” It was the nicest condo on the worst block – kind of backwards from the way you’re supposed to do it. But, it had a stoop, and once you were away from the front door, it was truly an oasis inside.
I wish I had a picture to show you what it looked like, as I don’t know that I can do it justice with words. This was a stage of my life before digital cameras, and I never thought at that time that I wouldn’t be around it, so I didn’t need photos. It was beautiful to me.
First, I focused on our private deck out the back door, which was just off a kitten bedroom/sunroom and laundry room, another rare feature in San Francisco real estate. On our private deck, I wanted a great table, 2-seater bench, and 2 chairs, to enjoy food or drinks. I loved potted plants and chose quite a few to go in our area too. Side bar: hilarious New Zealand deck commercial. With their accent, it just sounds so dirty.
The Pièce de résistance was a slate water feature along with fairy lights. Here’s the closest I can find to what exists out there today for the fountain – but imagine copper edging around the base and a vertical grain for the slate, rather than horizontal.
I stained the wooden deck furniture myself. I guess part of why I loved this backyard so much was because 1) I put in the sweat equity, and 2) it was my aesthetic; it was me. I put myself into that space. And I never knew my aesthetic was so beautiful. It makes me want to redesign my very own backyard right now, again.
Included in the potted plants on our private deck was a star jasmine plant, a Douglas fir I used as a Christmas tree in a pot that I would recycle and reuse every Christmas, rather than cutting a tree down every year, or using a horrible plastic one. I had a ficus, some ferns which flourished on our shady deck that hardly received any sun due to the wonderful San Francisco fog.
After our private deck was sorted, I moved on to the area down a half flight of stairs and on the ground, under the stairwell of the deck. There, I wanted to lay pavers down, sealed and glossy of course, and put a fire pit with places to sit.
Our firepit most closely resembled this model that’s out now:
If you can imagine under a massive two story reddish brown deck off of a Victorian building painted a soft lemon butter yellow, there would be space under the stairs as well as the landing sort of mid stair which had its own supports, it sort of created “rooms” on that ground floor level. In the room adjacent to our bottom deck, was the fire pit room, but the supports for the landing above created a sort of pathway down the far corner of the backyard and around the back behind our deck. Our private deck did not extend all the way back to the edge of our property, which left a yard down below our deck as well.
So the walkway under the deck stairs led to that back patch of yard. I completely redid everything. The pathway started like a hallway next to the firepit room. On either side of the entrance of the walkway is where I put the night blooming jasmine in their large teal and slightly distressed vertical pots.
Night blooming jasmine:
Funny story: the firepit room had pavers for flooring. My ex and I had rented a Zipcar truck (if you’ve never heard of them, it’s basically a city car share, or a GoGet in Sydney) and brought home all the pavers from Home Depot. The second we got onto the freeway and upped the speed, the truck started fishtailing… we’d loaded the bed of the truck with too many pavers and the truck didn’t have that kind of towing capacity. I’m a lesbian. It’s a truck. We’re supposed to go together. So we ended up pulling over to the side of a very busy freeway on-ramp and had to call a tow-truck. Because our truck didn’t technically breakdown, we basically paid the tow truck driver $100 to tow our truck, pavers loaded, to our condo in the city. Brilliant. When life throws you pavers, make lemonade. We unloaded the Zipcar truck, returned it, and carried on our merry way sealing the pavers to lay them the next day. Boom.
I had redwood planter boxes along our fence on the left and the fire pit room was on the right. I laid large slate stepping stones, with a fill of black volcanic igneous landscaping rocks. I ensured I laid a plastic liner under the rocks to prevent weeds, or at least keep them from rooting allowing for easy upkeep. So imagine following the footpath of slate stepping stones toward the back left corner of the yard. Along your left were the redwood planter boxes of rain lilies and dwarf bamboo.
Then in the back left corner were smaller pots of ferns (shady area) around a large Japanese maple in a half-wine barrel planter. It was beautiful as it was fall when I took on this project, so the maple started green, but I got to see it change colors to a beautiful red with yellow hues.
As you viewed the beautiful Japanese maple, the path curved to the right, putting you past the fire pit room, past a giant bushy pant with pink flowers. In this wide open backyard space (by San Francisco “wide-open” standards that is, probably 12 feet wide), we put in a redwood deck to support a custom 2 person spa.
The model of spa we got, but with a redwood finish frame and a black interior:
My father built (at my request) a set of redwood stairs so we could climb into the hot tub easily, since I have bad knees. I hung hooks on the deck so we could hang our bathrobes there when we used the hot tub. On the deck, just next to the hot tub, I put a giant climbing pink jasmine with a trellis about 7 feet high in another half-wine barrel planter.
If you kept walking past the hot tub, to the back right corner of the yard, and turned right at our deck, we had another 3 feet of space to the fence. There, I put bamboo, the kind that grows quite tall and can get out of control easily, in more half-wine barrels. Those grew tall to provide some privacy from the neighbors.
It was truly a peaceful oasis for me. Two kinds of bamboo, 3 kinds of jasmine, water, earth, air, fire, wood, metal. I was truly in a northern California, redwood, Asian, fragrant, zen place. It was me. My as-secret-as-it-gets-in-San-Francisco garden.
I would get up early on weekends, after it was finished. I would make espresso at home, take my canvases and paints outside, and paint on the back deck. I’d turn the water feature on, put on my favorite music, and feel inspired to create in that space. That was my favorite place in our whole condo, and I could just breathe and be there. It was my happy place.
More recently, when I was going through my own personal shitstorm last year, I felt like night blooming jasmine was me. It only opens and blooms at night, when times are darkest. Then you know how strong and beautiful it really is. It’s a weed, so it can become invasive easily. I will get to you if you let me in. Night blooming jasmine doesn’t really photograph well; it’s definitely a better experience in person. Just like me.
Be careful though, as it’s poisonous for pets and humans, so you have to be careful if you have pets or a partner with a voraciously vegan diet. Some people get headaches just from its fragrance. Luckily, our kittens were indoor kitties, though they loved looking out their sunroom window and watching the happenings of birds, flying by, or other cats coming to our yard (only to find rocks and not soft grass to poop on.)
I bought two kinds of jasmine for my apartment when I moved back from Sydney to San Francisco – pink jasmine and night blooming jasmine. The downside to the night blooming jasmine in that wonderful backyard years ago was that because it was so shady, it never bloomed. In my apartment now, I only have a tiny plant. It’s just a baby compared to the huge, mature, full grown 4-foot plant in that backyard. But my tiny night blooming jasmine is getting its first round of blooms, just being potted in the coffee cup it is in.
So while that backyard was designed to my every specification, to every desire and aesthetic that made me happy, I didn’t bloom there, nor did the jasmine, not even at night. But now, here, it grows and blooms, though it is small. As do I.
This is my night blooming jasmine, enjoying this morning’s sun, growing hard (I named it Sultan, after Jasmine’s father in Aladdin), and yes, that is my south-facing view of the Mission District and in the distance, beyond the hill, SFO: