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Bringing the outside in

Designer John Wheatman’s  garden is an extension of his home.

Designer John Wheatman’s garden is an extension of his home. Photographs © David Wakely


At the corner of Jackson and Steiner Streets, atop a garage once filled with rooms for servants, rests a handsome experiment in rooftop garden design created by John Wheatman, San Francisco’s eminent emeritus designer.

“I am as old as this building,” Wheatman declares, gesturing skyward at the elegant 12-story apartment tower built in 1926 at 2500 Steiner Street. “I have squatter’s rights.”

His decades of experiments in bringing the outside in, blending home and garden, are evident in the extraordinary design of the small rooftop space Wheatman has been tending for the last 30 years.

“This is one of the best living rooms in San Francisco,” he says of the garden he looks out on and uses almost every day. The largest of three garden rooms — just outside the glass doors of his den — holds immediate interest. Against the wall on the right is a fountain first heard, then seen, and surrounded by greenery.

Wheatman’s light touch — tossing aside azalea deadheads as he weaves through the garden — is one of his secrets to success. A garden, like a home, is always a work in progress, he insists. It’s advice he’s offered clients through the years and distilled into his book, A Good House Is Never Done.

The lessons he’s learned during 30 years in the same garden might fill the notebooks of his former students at Mills College and UC Berkeley, where he taught interior design. His own professor’s advice years ago — to steer clear of “cheap designer tricks” — has worn well over the years, judging by the handsome results in his own urban garden.

In a subtle nod to another fabled San Francisco designer, Wheatman points to the weathered wooden panels separating and defining each of the three garden rooms. They were brought in by pioneering landscape designer Thomas Church decades ago for the previous owner of this maisonette on the first floor of the elegant highrise.

From the 1930s through the 1960s, Church worked with architects and thousands of clients to match the casual, smaller town and country California gardens emerging off drawing boards with an eye to better blending of indoor and outdoor space in the milder western climate.

In John Wheatman’s garden, on a rooftop above a garage, every plant is growing in a pot.

In John Wheatman’s garden, on a rooftop above a garage, every plant is growing in a pot.

Wheatman did, however, cover the old brick flooring with larger gray slate slabs, drawing less attention to the flooring than to the massed greens. “You get a better sense of flow when you use the same material throughout,” he says. The three separate sections of the old roof garden are now knit together, but with different purposes.

The long narrow entrance from the former maid’s quarters along the outdoor pathway to the old incinerator, since disabled, is now filled with low scented greens in thin pots lining the outdoor hallway that Wheatman describes as “an informal plant treated formally so it has good manners.” He credits the greenery as the secret to success in small narrow walkways. He says: “It stays in place and doesn’t shout ‘Look at me.’ It just says ‘Enjoy me.’ ”

The fading color on sturdy Japanese maple trees securely settled into enormous background pots lies behind the narrow walkway in the bigger space.

Moving deeper into the garden, Wheatman marvels at each well-positioned chair, table and historic art work. Two chairs — one metal, one wood — show natural inclinations to age, which pleases Wheatman. He particularly notes the green clump growing on the wooden chair. “The moss is absolutely fabulous,” he says.

Wheatman early on made a bold move to tie together the outdoor rooms: He placed large mirrors — more than a half dozen scattered about — to open up the small garden spaces. Staged in strategic spots along the edges to reflect far corners, and now half covered with patches of spilling greenery, the mirrors enlarge the garden.

An eye-catching Italian art piece by Giovanni Hajnal separates the nearest garden room from the others. A giant circular stained-glass window, purchased at the artist’s studio in Rome, reflects light through one room into the other, bouncing bright colors into the darker far room.

Wheatman’s garden is divided into three “rooms,” giving a sense of wandering through a wood.

Wheatman’s garden, divided into three “rooms,” gives a sense of wandering through a wood.

“The window hung in the Vatican and I was privileged to acquire it years and years ago,” Wheatman says.

Like the fountain, the circular stained glass piece is lit from behind at night. “You have the glow in the intimacy, which is quite wonderful,” he says.

Near the side entrance is the pride of the garden collection: a gate depicting sheaves of wheat. “This is a gate I had made with my name in mind,” he says. Past the gate is a sheltered, narrow room for protected plants and warmth on windy days. A smaller table beneath the stained glass window is in perfect scale with the small enclosure.

Back in the garden, flowers — mostly white to keep the design simple and catch the moonlight — set off the thick green patch of azaleas and other reliable greens spilling from pots everywhere. “A little bit of everything,” he acknowledges. The many pots are mostly the unseen underpinnings to the massed greenery spilling over the pottery, and the flowers are the icing on top. Flowers and trimmings are picked for indoors, and set in distinctive bowls, when guests come.

All longtime gardeners inevitably witness plant failures. When a creeping fig plant tenaciously embedded against the building wall around and above the doorway withered without warning, Wheatman simply planted a new fig in the same giant pot. Now the young creeping fig is climbing and clinging to the ghost of the old

Small gardens need even more maintenance than larger ones, he admits, but the results of time spent every day sweeping, clipping and pruning show immediately.

When clients and students arrive at his imposing doorway to see his design techniques put into practice, they find none of the “cheap design tricks” inside or out that he learned to avoid long ago.

“Teaching is the most honorable of professions,” Wheatman says. “Once taught, I am now always teaching.”

Joan Hockaday is the author of The Gardens of San Francisco.



Use windows as links, not barriers.

There’s a big wonderful world outside your windows, and my belief is that you should borrow as much of it as you possibly can.

Claim the view outside your window by breaking down the barrier between interior and exterior. If you have a bush with white flowers outside your window, place an arrangement of clippings on the table directly in front of it. That visual connection brings the view inside, creating the feeling of a much larger room.

Make your neighbor’s property blend into your yard so that it feels bigger. See if you can plant a climbing rose on the other side of the garden wall so that it can grow and spill over the top. Cover the face of your fence with clinging vines, or paint it the color of the bark on the trees next door, thus erasing the divide between the two spaces. Panel your fence with mirrors to reflect your own space and double its visual depth.



John Wheatman in his garden.

John Wheatman in his garden.

You can put some furniture in your back yard, or you can construct outdoor rooms from which you will get unending pleasure. Europeans know how to do this, but North Americans have forgotten how to use walls outside. Places like Versailles have intimate corners within the framework of a great public space. You can learn how to bring that kind of complexity into your 12-foot-square plot. Add mirrors to enlarge the space. There are all kinds of joy to be had in the intimate use of light, space and the sound of water.