Steven Pitsenbarger at�San Francisco's Japanese Tea Garden. Photo: Beth Spotswood
Photo: Beth Spotswood

Steven Pitsenbarger wasn’t quite sure what substance was caked all over the Buddha statue in San Francisco’s Japanese Tea Garden, but the head gardener, resident historian and overall garden gatekeeper eventually figured it out. Recent rainstorms had turned ashes into clumps of mud. That’s right — in an attempt to lovingly sprinkle the remains of the dear departed, some garden visitor had defiled Buddha.

Born and raised in San Francisco, Pitsenbarger has spent the past decade falling in love with the 123-year-old garden. The Golden Gate Park garden is a surviving remnant of the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition and carries with it all of the history that comes with spending more than a century in San Francisco.

Pitsenbarger knows that history almost as well as he knows himself. The 48-year-old Mill Valley resident not only cares for just about every blade of grass in that garden — he’s also writing a book about it. “The story that most people know is that there was a Japanese man that ran the garden, and that his family was interned during World War II,” Pitsenbarger said before launching into a complex, detailed history involving a man named George Turner Marsh who originated the idea of the garden in the late 19th century. Marsh “kind of gets pushed to the margins in the history of the garden.”

Pitsenbarger plans to correct that history with his book. But first he’s got to keep thousands of plants alive and thriving. A team of three gardeners and a collection of volunteers care for the garden that today’s visitors explore and, on rare occasions, use to illegally dump their dead. San Francisco doesn’t employ a fancy garden curator or general Japanese garden expert to oversee the beloved sanctuary. It all…