A Gentleman's Guide to Gardening

From kitchen herbs to cocktail planters (oh, yeah), San Francisco's Flora Grubb is here to help you cultivate your green thumb
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May 14, 2015 | By Liv Combe

dds are you haven't spent too much time or effort on gardening — you kill one too many unkillable plants and you start to get discouraged about the whole thing. The good news? Having abundant plant life in your house isn't as far out of reach as it might seem. 

Which is why we hit up our friends at Flora Grubb Nursery. This ain't your average garden center; out in San Francisco's industrial Bayview neighborhood, Flora Grubb is an oasis smack in the middle of an urban jungle. The shop flows from indoors to outdoors and you'll find hidden gems around ever turn — towering palm trees, rows of cacti, rusted-out cars covered in succulents, a huge selection of ceramics and garden furniture, and even a Ritual Coffee Roasters Bar tucked right inside. 

Opened about ten years by the eponymous Flora Grubb – yes, that is her real name — this spot has become known not only for its beautiful space and huge selection of plants, but for its dedication to native plant life. Every plant you pick up at Flora Grubb comes from or thrives in one of the world's five Mediterranean zones: the one Huckberry calls home, that stretches from San Francisco to Baja, California; the area around the Mediterranean Sea itself; a small slice of Chile; western Australia; and South Africa. The company's main ethos? Water conservation, an especially important issue in California these days, and why their top plant pick for any household is a cactus. 

But we digress — back to that green thumb of yours. On a sunny weekday, we biked on over to the verdant shop to hang with Clarke de Mornay, a co-founder who's been with the company for ten years, and Flora Grubb herself as they give us tips for bringing some more green into your lives. Because, as De Mornay says, "There are only a few things that women are going to be impressed by. If you're a man and you're growing something? Well, they're going to be impressed." Amen.

You've probably seen it in Day-Glo green gel form at the pharmacy, but have you ever considered getting one of the actual plants? Loved by everyone from the Egyptians to the Greeks to the Native Americans, aloe vera has been used for milleania to treat everything from burns to indigestion to dry skin. An easy way for you to incorporate one of these little guys into your daily routine? Use the aloe to treat small shaving nicks and as an aftershave balm in general.

It's easy to do: just snap off the end of a leaf and apply the liquid from the plant onto your skin. Hang onto the leaf, put it in a plastic bag, and stick it in the fridge; the broken-off end will turn black, but the next time you want to use it, just trim that part off and you're ready to go. 

Did you know that there's a kind of rosemary called "barbecue" that's got such strong, straight stems — not to mention amazing flavor and smell — that you can dry them out and use them as meat skewers for your next cookout? Well, thanks to de Mornay, now you do — and you can grow it yourself. When it comes to herbs for cooking, growing some of the classics at home is simple: think rosemary, thyme, oregano, and sage to start. (Basil doesn't grown too well out here in San Francisco, sadly; to all our east coast and midwestern friends, get to it!)

De Mornay does want to make something clear — your kitchen garden shouldn't actually be in your kitchen. "There's this thing I like to call the 'magazine myth,'" he says, "where you see all these little pots all lined up on a windowsill. You can't do that; they need to be outside." All these herbs need it a couple of hours of sun a day and they're good to go. 

A plant that grows cocktails? It sounds too good to be true. Flora Grubb's version might not serve them in a chilled glass on the rocks, but this little hack is about as close as you're going to get. Grubb and De Mornay took us through the steps of planting your very own cocktail planter with grapefruit and thyme. Note: gin not included.

Pick your plants. De Mornay chose an Oroblanco grapefruit — a large, pomelo-like fruit and the only kind of grapefruit that can grow in San Francisco, since they typically like warmer weather — as the main act in this planter. Next came the thyme, a coastal Mediterranean herb with nicely shallow roots that flowers twice a year. Choose from many kinds of thyme (English, hirsute, or creeping thyme are De Mornay's picks) since almost all of them are "culinary" — i.e., they taste good. 

Place the biggest one in the middle. In this case, the grapefruit. Start by pouring in a base layer of organic palm and citrus soil (it's important to use organic when you're growing things you'll eat) and pat it down; the soil is going to break down and compress over time, so you want to make sure it's packed in. Not sure how much soil to start with? Place the plastic pot the grapefruit is in in the larger planter and see how high off the bottom it needs to be for the top of the soil to be even with the rim of the pot. Fill in the space underneath with soil.

To get the grapefruit out of the plastic pot, carefully turn it onto its side with two hands and massage the pot to loosen up the soil. (Grubb's tip? Don't squeeze the root ball. "It's a thing that I see people doing a lot," she says. "Not sure where that one came from.")

Tip the plant rightside up, gently lift it at its base, and support the root ball with your other hand as you place the grapefruit into the planter. Fill the planter with more soil until it almost reaches the top of the grapefruit's tposoil; remember to pack it down as you go.

Place the smaller plants around the base. Since thyme has shallow roots, these little guys go perfectly around the base of the grapefruit tree. Start by patting a few inches of soil against the walls of the planter — you want to make sure there aren't any gaps in the soil around these roots. Follow the same process to gently loosen the root balls from their plastic pots and place the thyme plants one by one into the planter. Pat soil around the roots so none are exposed. 

Another tip? You don't have to treat plants like they're, well, delicate flowers. "Most are pretty resilient," says Grubb. You're not going to break them with a single touch. 

Add a few finishing touches. At Flora Grubb, they like to cover the soil with a layer of mulch or small gravel — not only does it give the planter a finished look, but it keeps the soil evenly moist. 

Enjoy. Your grapefruit won't flower for a while, and it'll bear fruit one year after it first flowers. In the meantime, make sure your planter is getting at least a half a day of sun (and start stocking up on Hendrick's). Pretty soon, you'll be hosting your own backyard happy hours. 

So you've got your aloe vera, your kitchen herbs, and your cocktail planter. Here are a few basic tips for making sure everything stays alive and well. 

Get advice from someone who knows what they're talking about. When in doubt, talk it out. "Those horticulturalists at the local garden center are there for a reason," says De Mornay. Not sure how much light or water a certain plant would need and whether or not it would work in your house? They can help you figure it out.

Choose a sunny window. It's a fact of life: plants need sunlight. No matter what season you're in, put your plants near a window that gets at least a few hours of light every day.

Be realistic with your commitment level. "Are you home a lot?" asks De Mornay. "That means you can have a needy plant. Do you travel frequently for work? Choose plants you can water every three weeks. The best thing to do is to pick a plant that goes with your schedule."

You heard him, gents. We'll see you at the garden center. [H]

Liv Combe has succulent fever.
She's the Associate Editor at Huckberry in San Francisco.
Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Images ©: Alex Souza