Nichols Garden – San Francisco


When I came back from my jaunt to San Francisco with the Garden Bloggers Fling I have to admit to being rather punch drunk and gardened out.  I wrote a couple of posts at the time but it is only now a month on that I have found myself with time and a clear head to look through my photographs.  I can tell which gardens I liked and enjoyed by the number of photographs and also I can tell which had interesting plants as there are more close-ups than views.


The very last garden we visited was the Nichols Garden in Oakland.  Having seen everything from arid succulent gardens to formal English style planting I think this garden was one of the few that was probably more typical to a typical San Francisco garden, albeit it at the highest level of horticulture. Throughout my visit to San Francisco I noticed an interesting dichotomy between planting that could be considered English: lawns, roses, apple trees, lavender etc and planting that was more relevant to the area and climate: succulents, sub-tropical plants, no lawn.  The Nichols garden really encapsulated this contrast.


The house and garden are sited on a steep hill which makes my garden seem quite flat by comparison.  I always find it interesting to visit gardens on slopes particularly those in suburban locations to see how they have dealt with the gradients and to see what tips I can pinch.  The front of the house is the most recently planted and is full of sub-tropical planting, with aloes, echeverias and a vast Canary Date Palm.  I liked this planting, it was exuberant and generous and I especially liked the way that is flowed down and filled the area between the pavement (sidewalk) and road.  Something I noticed in quite a few gardens and which I think we should copy here in the UK.

You then go up the side of the house and this was my favourite area although the shade may have contributed to this view, as you can see from the light in the photographs it was a very bright and hot day.  The side garden was a steep ascent of steps but full of interest.  One side there was a rill working its way down the slope to a small formal pool.  On the other side a screen made of old branches artlessly tied together and dotted with air plants.


However I was less keen on the main (back) garden.  This was terraced with brick walls and had lost that carefree feel that I appreciated in the front and side gardens.  Although, as you can see above, the retaining wall had succulents going into the garden from here was a rose garden, step-over apples and I suppose what I would call a psuedo-English garden.  You couldn’t fault the horticulture and plant health but somehow for me it jarred. I don’t think the planting combinations work as well in other parts of the garden and I wonder if this is because it is a style which is borrowed from abroad.  Often in the UK you find Mediterranean or Tropical Gardens and few of them really deliver.  It could be the light, the surroundings or just an unfamiliarity with the style being aspired to – I’m not sure.  I also didn’t like, and I do apologise for being so negative, the orange/apricot hues but again that is a deeply subjective thing and I know I am in a minority here as everyone was raving about the garden.


As I said I loved the side garden and the rest of the photographs are from that area or the front garden.  Not only did I like the thoughtful plant combinations but I loved the use of objectives to enhance and lift the planting.


In two of the photographs above you will see the use of mirrors and I particularly liked the second one which reflects the plants back adding extra depth to a narrow area.


I liked the contrast here between the broad dark leaves of the eucomis and the thin strappy light green grass whose name I know but I can’t for the life of me bring to mind at the moment.  We saw it frequently in the gardens I visited and I learnt from one of the gardeners that you have to be patient with it as it can take a number of years to really start looking good.


I liked the use of a gate in front of the side path.  I’m not sure  if it is actually used but I thought it helped to add a sense of mystery, a sense of journey and again there are air plants adorning it.


More air plants this time decorating a chair but this did make me wonder if anyone ever sat on the chair!


and again adding interest to the screen.  I must see if air plants would survive outside in the UK during the summer as using them like this really excites me.

As I have said in my other posts on San Francisco gardens one of the overriding impressions I got was the use of objects and found items in the garden.  I really like this idea and think that it  personalises a garden and brings it to life much more than an expensive sculpture could.  Certainly in my suburban setting it is more appropriate.

Finally a view of the front garden.  I found this area hard to photograph due to the steep slope and the light but here is one shot.  If you look carefully you can see one of my fellow garden botherers in the back ground and this will give you a sense of scale.


Victoria suggested at some point during the Fling that I secretly had a sub-tropical plant addiction.  I have pondered this and yes many of my photographs  would support this summation but I don’t think she is right.  I think I was more fascinated with seeing these plants grown so well and so much larger than anything I have seen similar in the UK.  I liked the casual style of planting that seemed to go with them, it felt much looser and relaxed than your traditional English style of herbaceous  border and I am moving in that direction.

The Nichols Garden was overall delightful and our  hosts were very generous laying on refreshments and letting 70 mad gardening people wander all over their garden.  Whilst  the back garden was for me only nice, the front and especially the side garden were wonderful.  Full of interesting plants, many I didn’t know, and lots of inspiring ideas and combinations all giving me food for thought and for me that is what a good garden should do – excite, inspire and delight.

16 Comments Add yours

  1. Peter/Outlaw says:

    Thanks for this lovely post! I also wondered about the tillandsia bedecked chairs.

  2. Ann says:

    Is loriope the name you couldn’t pull up out of the recesses? I enjoy your blog so much!

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Ann
      No it isnt – I have remembered the name, its Hakonechloa macra aureola

  3. Pam/Digging says:

    The side garden with the stream had a sense of magic and enticed one to discover all the wonderful details. The design made the most of a difficult slope and narrow side yard. It was simply stunning.

  4. Ricki Grady says:

    It’s always more interesting to me to see things through someone’s critical eye than a simply adoring one.

  5. I absolutely adore your comparisons to the UK! I wish I’d had a chance to talk with you more. I plan to read this post over and over, as well as enjoying your own garden!

  6. Desert Dweller says:

    I can’t wait to go through my photos of this garden – I missed the tillandsias on the chair! I agree with you on the back garden for the most part; the side and front blew it away.

    Everyone has subtropical plan addictions, just some are still in the closet, even pretending to ask “is it hardy?” when others use them without being approved for such use in their area! And many can pull them off, at least for their version of subtropical.

  7. Gwen says:

    I’m loving your blogs about your visit to San Francisco Helen. What a wonderful time you had there. I’ve always loved my trips out there and visiting friends gardens. I have Hakonechloa macra growing in a pot, and it is rather lovely, if I say so myself!

  8. Yvonne Ryan says:

    Thanks for your view of San Fran – I probably never get there so nice to see others photos. My daughter there the same time but not very many garden photos in hers! They did see one of the yachting races tho’ – go NZ. The last photo of the argave reminds me that here on the Whangaparaoa Peninsula 1/2 hour north of Auckland there are humdreds of agaves – they survived the drought last year well – and always look dramatic. At any rate the huge ones are flowering -huge 3 metre spikes drooping up and over. Thousands of tiny green flowers that the birds are going crazy on. them. I think I can remember them flowering once years ago. That yuka dies after flowering but no probs as lots of little plants around the base. Better in a big garden. People don’t realise how big it can grow and put too near paths or fences. It has a bit of a sharp point on the end but not too bad. Never seen them in the South Island – need warmth.

  9. Yvonne Ryan says:

    ps – I have a clump of air plant – grey leaves and tiny exquisite pink/purple flowers.

  10. It looks a lovely garden, with all the interesting bits of furniture and metalwork blended into the setting.

  11. b-a-g says:

    The fling sounds fun. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and photos. I’ll be interested to read how you get on with the air plants.

  12. An excellent review of the Nichols garden. You identify many of the qualities I loved in the front and the side. As to the back, I need to go back and look at Judy’s photos again. I remember liking the back garden very much, but maybe it was just all the fabulous snacks.

  13. Anna says:

    Enjoyed your post Helen. Air plants will survive here outdoors over the summer but – there’s always a but isn’t there – you need to be vigilant in a very wet summer as I found out last year.

  14. Pauline says:

    Thanks for sharing your trip with us, the garden looks amazing with its succulents and tropical plants. If you want to see the same sort of planting in the UK, then a trip to Tresco is a must for you!

  15. I always find it strange to see “English” gardens in foreign countries, particularly in climates that make such gardens hard to maintain. I found the number of struggling rose gardens and dying lawns in Arizona deeply depressing given the stunning array of cacti, succulents and other climate-appropriate plants available that would thrive. I am always a little envious of people who have the skill to find and place found objects well in a garden, the examples you show in this post are really inspirational.

Please feel free to leave comments as its always lovely to get feedback. I try to respond to comments as much as possible but sometimes life and work get in the way but I will do my best to respond especially if your comment is a question.

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