SoMa condo garden takes advantage of enclosure

How does a garden grow between buildings?

With The Palms, a 300-unit condominium complex in SoMa near AT&T Park, the challenge for Kevin Conger and his team at CMG Landscape Architecture was to create a green, verdant garden in a space walled in by high towers.

“It was a difficult garden to do, in an environment like that,” Conger says. “The garden is sited on the fourth floor. The garden space is a canyon, and the two sides of the courtyard are only 40 feet apart, with the buildings rising five stories above.”

Conger set about creating a “nontraditional, nonhierarchical garden” that touches all senses.

It looks like an oasis, with tall palm trees, ground cover, ferns, and various perennials and annuals at midheight. It has a surreal look, like an outdoor arboretum.

Conger combined man-made and natural elements into a base of green foliage, with splashes of color. He built and placed giant pavers, which hold the palm trees, on the deck. Then he added shrubs, rooted plants on dirt mounds and designed a medley of tree lights around the area to highlight the garden. 

It’s all about focusing attention on the space — a treat for the eyes. 

With the vertical layout and views from different angles, there are diversions in sight lines — looking up at a palm tree from floor level or down from the buildings at a lush, tropical garden. Even the palm trees rise to different heights.

Conger first set about establishing a meandering path along the garden.

“We wanted it to be like a jungle, where the plants and concrete planters are bigger than you are,” he says.

He and his team allowed no direct sight lines through the garden. They wanted it to feel like a self-enclosed playground.

They first precast concrete that was custom-designed for planters, and made a mold to hold the large amount of soil and giant palms.

They filled the planters with big chunks of slag-blue material and added LED lights for drama.

Everything is self-contained. There’s no dirt underneath the garden; its base is concrete pavement on top of a parking garage.

The team planted different kinds of palms, including Royals, added ferns, philodendron and banana trees, some 15 feet tall, and mounded everything up with rich, lightweight soil.

They crafted a field of lights with ring patterns on the ground, lit in such a way that palms become tree canopies. And at night, the garden becomes a fantasy delight.

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