Coronavirus shelter-in-place offers rare opportunity to revitalize SF's Japanese Tea Garden

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- A destination designed to inspire tranquility could be more calming and beautiful than ever when it finally re-opens its gate.

That's because gardeners at San Francisco's Japanese Tea Garden have taken advantage of the coronavirus shelter in place as a rare opportunity.

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"To have it empty, the way it is right now, I think I experience the garden more the way a visitor might," says head gardener Steven Pitsenbarger.

Since the garden opened in Golden Gate Park more than a century ago, it's evolved many traditions, including keeping its doors open year-round.

"It's typically really, really busy. Sometimes so busy you can't get a wheelbarrow through," he says.

But now, with the Tea Garden is closed because of the coronavirus crisis, Pitsenbarger and his team are rolling through at a pace that's helping to revitalize the garden and its delicate balance.

That means relaying stones, re-sculpting gravel beds and pruning trees, that have been shaped into geometric angles by decades of careful cuts.

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"And as you can imagine that kind of work is hard to get done when there's a lot of people around here, we have to close off part of the garden and not drop branches on people's heads," says Pitsenbarger.

He says they've also used the break to patch the stunning maze of ponds and streams that provide a home to multicolored Koi - and perhaps much of the garden's eternal feel.

"Water is life. The sound of the water, the fish we have in the water, those are the things that bring a garden to life," he believes.

On some mornings, birds are the first sound to break the silence.

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But for all its tranquility, Pitsenbarger is actually anxious for the return of the noise, the faces, and the wonderment that the crowds bring.

"Why I want to make the garden perfect, or as perfect as I can get it is for the people who come to see it, and if no one's coming to see it, I feel like we're all dressed up and not going anywhere," he says.

The crew is also hoping to finish a facelift on the garden's Pagoda now that the moratorium on construction has been lifted.

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