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Tea Garden Treasure

by Leslie Finlev

Tea Garden Treasure

The guides who lead the walking tours through the Japanese Tea Garden are the fortunate beneficiaries of the fabulous work done by its gardeners. When I ask my visitors, as we walk around the Garden, to guess how many people keep this place so lovely, I hear bids of fifteen, even twenty. My answer, "three professional gardeners," always brings gasps of amazement and incredulity. One of the three gardeners - in reality, only 2 ½ since one employee also works in other parts of the Park - is Steven Pitsenbarger. His path to employment at the Japanese Tea Garden was anything but random. Steven is a San Francisco native, born and raised in Visitacion Valley. As a child he spent lots of time in our local parks and developed a love of nature, which grew as he hiked in state and national parks.

In 2006, after some years at an insurance company, then as a housepainter, Steven began studying in the Environmental Horticulture Program at City College with a goal of some day working in Golden Gate Park. During his studies he was lucky to get an internship among tropical plants at the Conservatory of Flowers.

In those years, the city parks were suffering from a lack of funding and staffing, so a permanent position as gardener was not a likely outcome. Enter the parks activist, Isabel Wade, who sparked a campaign to repair and restore Golden Gate Park. Then-mayor Gavin Newsom authorized 15 new gardener positions for the city and 2000 people applied. Having little professional experience, Steven had no hope of being one of the lucky winners, but he applied anyway. Thanks to a hiring process that involved interviews and testing, where Steven's near-obsessive knowledge of plants proved advantageous, he ended up at the top of the ranking list. And, to his great joy, he was offered a position in the Japanese Tea Garden. "I ran lap tours around the house," he tells me.

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Steven Pitsenbarger, in the Japanese Tea Garden

In 2008, Steven won the Alice Eastwood Award given to outstanding environmental horticulture students. With the prize money, he spent a month in Japan, traveling the country and visiting gardens. He discovered that many of the techniques he intuitively used for pruning seemed to be in sync with the gardening methods he observed in Japan.

When asked how he would improve the garden if funds were available, Steven said he'd replace all the asphalt paths with natural materials, like granite or stone. He'd also like to see the pagoda restored before it collapses. A more doable wish is for an informational brochure to hand to guests at the entrance.

Does he have any tips or comments for the guides? Steven is a bit saddened when he hears guides apologizing to walkers for the garden's inauthenticity. As he told me, there is no such thing as an authentic Japanese garden outside of Japan. What makes our local garden interesting is its age and its history. Anti-Japanese fervor during and after World War II was responsible for the destruction of a number of Japanese gardens in the U.S. Although our garden's name was temporarily changed from Japanese to Oriental, the garden was mostly preserved. Steven encourages guides to feel free to ask him any questions, and we ended our talk with his thank-you to all the guides who help spread appreciation for the beautiful spot that is San Francisco's Japanese Tea Garden.



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