Fawning Over Flora
Jerry Seinfeld once quipped that when you name your child Jeeves you’ve pretty much laid out his career path, not unlike the way he’ll lay out frock coats, kid gloves, and cummerbunds. What vocation then for a buzzing, canny woman with the moniker Flora Grubb? An hour or so into our meeting, when I asked her if Flora Grubb was in fact her real name, she disarmingly replied, "Do I really seem like someone who would make up a quirky name for myself?" She does not. "Besides, there are a lot of weird names in my family. My brother is named Moses Grubb" (he is not, as I had initially suspected, the starting left fielder for the 1918 St. Louis Cardinals). Possessed of a green thumb or not, Flora Grubb was destined for the garden.
She is currently the owner and proprietor of Flora Grubb Gardens, the greenest and most charming garden store and nursery in San Francisco. Located for four years on a sunny patch between Edwardian apartment buildings on a heavily trafficked artery of the Mission District, Flora Grubb Gardens recently relocated to a much larger space in a much less traveled part of town: Bayview, one of the few industrial corners left of the increasingly condoed City by the Bay.
The new digs suit her, a kind of urban jungle overflowing with all manner of exotic foliage nestled between a Hells Angels club, a chandelier manufacturer, and a slate mason. The 8,000-square-foot store, a model of sustainable design, has ample indoor and outdoor space, a coffee shop, and a conference room for her landscape-design projects. Foot traffic is down significantly from the previous location (a natural effect of trading vintage stores and tapas bars for a sewage treatment plant), but the new Flora Grubb Gardens has succeeded in becoming something more than a quirky plant purveyor. It has quickly become a destination.
"What we intended was to create a hub for people who are passionate about gardening," Grubb enthuses. "We wanted a place where people could gather and geek out on their plants. We knew that the coffee shop would help create an atmosphere where people felt they could linger." Grubb’s avid following already has far more on its mind than merely geeking out. During my visit a giddy, brightly appareled shopper approached Grubb, saying that she’s an interactive comedian and would love to find new spaces to perform—ideally among the vegetation. Grubb was enthusiastic, if noncommittal about this odd, but not entirely unexpected, request. "I have been inundated with requests to hold birthday parties, wedding receptions, baby showers. I do think people like being near the plants."
Thanks in large part to the work of San Francisco architects Seth Boor and Bonnie Bridges, of Boor Bridges Architecture, people are near the plants everywhere they go. Grubb’s building looks like a massive barn—clad in corrugated steel and worn, charismatic Douglas fir recovered from an old hops barn in Petaluma, California—and like its architectural inspiration, it’s meant to openwide to the site. "With the design I wanted to mimic the industrial buildings around it but to have it dissolve at the edges, like an urban ruin overtaken by plants," says Boor. "We wanted a structure that supports the plants but doesn’t contain them."
This effect is best realized by the porosity of the building. "Indoor-outdoor flow is a real buzzword right now," says Grubb. "But that’s just what I wanted." Much of the outdoor space is covered by a massive steel roof reminiscent of an Erector Set. At the outmost edge sunscreens provide shade, but further in, proper steel panels shelter more delicate plants from the elements. "The building is more like a trellis that serves as a backdrop for the plants. We really wanted to open it all up," she says.
Barring inclement weather, two immense garage doors leave the inside of the shop en plein air, not unlike an airplane hangar. San Francisco’s often-cool climes are mitigated by radiant heat in the floor powered by the 72 solar panels on the roof that generate between 90 and 105 percent of the building’s electrical needs. Grubb’s bustling landscape-design practice is housed in the offices and conference room behind the retail space.
And yet for all of Grubb’s success as a business-\woman, a landscaper, and, increasingly, an advocate for her new neighborhood, there’s still something scrappy, improvised, and DIY about her. For one, she talks about Burning Man far too often to really become a suit. She mentioned it three times in my visit, most notably when describing the provenance of the sculpture to which patrons can lock their bikes: two huge steel lotuses, each of which once shot flames. I asked, given her building’s considerable green cred, if she’d gone for LEED certification. "No, we didn’t," she replied. "We were in a hurry and we were broke." Maybe they’ll pursue it someday, but it somehow feels too official, too by-the-books for Grubb’s operation. She seems the sort far more inclined, when not extolling the merits of sustainable gardening, to host a daffy interactive comedian.