Cocktail party at Flora Grubb Gardens: San Francisco Garden Bloggers Fling

The San Francisco Garden Bloggers Fling wrapped up on June 30 with a cocktail party at Flora Grubb Gardens, a chic garden center named for its owner — and, yes, that’s really her name. Flora is a rock-star nursery owner, her image and her garden style recommendations appearing regularly in magazines like Sunset and Garden Design. How many nurseries can you say that about? (In Austin we do have local gardening celebrity John Dromgoole, owner of The Natural Gardener, though so far as I know he isn’t known nationally…yet!)

While Flora was not present, we did meet her helpful, friendly staff, who had set up drinks and a snack bar for us in the nursery yard. Shopping and drinking — a dangerous, if fun, pursuit.

While Annie’s Annuals and Perennials, the other Bay Area nursery we visited, is all about the plants, Flora Grubb gives equal time to furnishings and decor, although their plant selection is seriously tempting too. You won’t find any traditional wrought-iron benches or plastic Adirondacks here. It’s all hip contemporary with a colorful, sunny-California vibe.

Their succulent containers are to-die-for.

A closer look

Do you like hot color? I do, and the nursery has pots and glazed spheres to add sizzle to the garden.

‘Hot Lips’ salvia adds its own sizzle, and this beauty grows just as well in Austin — yay!

Sinuous concrete chaises for poolside, perhaps

And for color lovers, a wall of rainbow-hued bistro chairs. This cool display is essentially an art installation.

Matching bistro tables

And fabulous Fermob side tables. I want one! Why have I never seen these for sale in Austin?

Trays of cactus and succulents make a tempting display.

Another gorgeous succulent container

Potted pitcher plants!

Indoors, one-of-a-kind Esther pots. I couldn’t resist and picked up a small pot to bring home.

Check out the tillandsia display, with mint-green containers against a lilac wall.

Melissa of Houston Garden Girl perusing the seed packets

Ooh, look, another whole room full of colorful pots, including more Esther pottery (foreground).

These brightly painted bowls attached to the wall caught my eye too. Fun but also a little odd.

Wooden forms in every letter are available for planting up into personalized succulent signs, or monogramming, for your garden walls.

An enormous succulent “picture” adorned a colorful, painted wall. I love everything in this display area.

A closer look at the succulent picture

Mod seating — crisp white with navy cushions — with giant hesperaloe (I think) Furcraea providing vertical screening

Sleek furniture against a rustic wooden wall. Love! I even want the hotel sign.

Not that I need any more garden furniture at this point, but I couldn’t help thinking I could make copies of these chairs myself. (Yes, but would you?)

Cheerful, graphic paint makes the simple design pop.

One more example

A beautiful gate or trellis

Flora Grubb has a coffee shop, and quite a few customers were taking advantage of the nursery’s numerous seating areas — all for sale, of course — to sip their lattes.

A visit to Flora Grubb wouldn’t be complete without gawking at their famous Edsel-turned-planter in the nursery yard.

A post-apocalyptic commentary?

Or just an over-the-top display of garden humor? It certainly brought a smile to my face.

A relaxing happy hour (and shopping trip) to Flora Grubb was the perfect way to end the Fling. I sat for a while with blogger friends and talked about plants, our purchases, and plans for next year. The Fling moves to Portland, Oregon, next year, and I know it will be another spectacular destination. If you have a garden blog, I encourage you to make plans to attend. Follow the Fling website and Fling Facebook page for more information as it becomes available. Huge thanks again to Kelly Kilpatrick and the San Francisco planning team for putting together such an awesome 2013 Fling!

I hope you’ve enjoyed my coverage of the gardens I visited during this 3-day tour in late June. Can one ever really get enough of California gardens? Ha! For a look back at the magical Nichols Garden, click here. Coming up soon, a few posts about Bay Area sightseeing I did with my family following the Fling.

All material © 2006-2013 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Hillside magic in the Nichols Garden: San Francisco Garden Bloggers Fling

Our 4th stop on the final day of the San Francisco Garden Bloggers Fling was my absolute favorite of the Fling: the Ann Nichols Garden. Gorgeous plants, beautifully combined and meticulously maintained, adorn a series of intimate garden rooms on a hillside lot. A subtropical front garden — a tapestry of bromeliads, aloes, and various other succulents — offers a showy welcome. Lucky neighbors who get to enjoy this view every day!

As soon as I stepped off the bus, I made a beeline for a large spiral aloe casually planted by the sidewalk. What a treasure! I covet this aloe, but this species grows best bathed in fog, in mild climates with cool summer nights — not even close to any description of an Austin summer. I was thrilled, however, to see one growing so beautifully here.

The front garden appears quite tropical, with flowering bromeliads…

…’Chocolate Chips’ manfreda…

…and agaves and other succulents creating strong silhouettes, underplanted with mats of delicate groundcovers. Not an inch of bare soil is visible, and every plant looks healthy and happy, which indicates a high level of maintenance.

A star-shaped bromeliad and frilly kalanchoe are color-matched.

Smooth-skinned Agave attenuata contrasts with an egglant-colored oxalis.

Everywhere I saw wonderful textural and color contrasts. What is the blue plant? Aloe? Dyckia? Something else? Update: It’s Tillandsia albida, a terrestrial tillandsia that grows in the canyons of Hidalgo, Mexico.

Along the street, I admired this variegated, trunking tropical — a type of ponytail palm maybe? A water-holding bromeliad picks up the yellow-green color.

A majestic Canary date palm — all that remains of the original landscaping since the purchase of the house 30 years ago — shades the facade.

A collection of tillandias colonizes its craggy trunk — so clever!

Ascending to the front door, red-brick steps offer display space for a collection of potted plants.

But we’re not going through the house. Instead, let’s follow a stepping-stone side path to a vine-cloaked fence and bent-rebar gate bejeweled with tillandias.

Just before the gate, this ground-covering mix of plants invites close inspection.

As does the gate itself — an industrial-style work of art.

A cheery red abutilon is espaliered against the foundation of the house.

On the left, a tall fence of lashed tree branches — a la the Swiss Family Robinson — studded with more tillandsias and overhung with dangling, trumpet-shaped flowers, promises that this garden will be a treat to explore. Here’s Mary Ann Newcomer coming back for a second look.

A bundle of tillandsias (I think), shaped like a hornets’ nest, is attached to the top of the fence — an unusual living finial.

The steeply sloping side garden contained only a “boring narrow walkway” in the late 1990s, when owner Ann Nichols brought in designer Bob Clark to help create a one-of-a-kind garden. Today you climb several short flights of steps broken by landings and intimate patios. A stream flows from the top of the slope through a series of pipes and channels, pooled here and there for your enjoyment, all the way along the stairs to a small pond near the bottom of the hill…

this pond, in fact, which is transformed into a sculptural piece of art thanks to a raccoon-foiling, ripple-like grate that rests over the water. A gap in the “ripples” leaves room for one upright stand of horsetail to emerge from the pond, while goldfish swim beneath.

Emerging from under a stacked-paver retaining wall, a U-shaped scupper divides a clump of moisture-loving sedges to spill water into the pond.

Climbing another short flight of steps, you find the stream zig-zagging in its course through dwarf mondo grass…

…and past a tiny patio that holds two wooden chairs adorned with tillandsia “bouquets.” There’s so much to look at here, and it’s all put together so beautifully. I loved this section of the garden.

A square pipe spills water into the zig-zag stream.

Above, another retaining wall built of concrete pavers is half hidden by lush plants.

We’re now about halfway up the hilly side garden, and a look upward reveals an enticing mosaic mural and mirror adorning a vine-draped wall. The stream crosses under the path here, reappearing on the left side of the steps.

A closer look at the terracing, which contains more small pools, as well as the striking feature of several plants in vertical pipes.

A sedge spills fountain-like over the edge of a vertical pipe in the lower pool. Green glass orbs pick up the fresh color of the sedge.

In the next level above, an old bottle and a weathered pipe pour water into a black, octagonal pool decorated with a Japanese fishing float. Again, small groundcovers colonize every available bit of earth, softening the stonework and giving the garden the appearance of having always been here.

So magical! The owner isn’t afraid of placing whimsical, inexpensive garden ornament here and there, giving her garden a very personal feel and eliminating any whiff of pretentiousness.

At last you reach the top of the side garden and can admire the mirror mural. Cat images pop up later in the garden as well.

A wavy-paneled wooden gate opens invitingly to reveal…

…tinted concrete steps that lead the eye directly to a trompe l’oeil mural on the wall of an outbuilding (a detached garage, perhaps?). The sweet scent of star jasmine in bloom distracts you from charging ahead. Looking left…

…you see a romantic black-and-silver garden — a tiny space visually enlarged by a mirror — which the owner calls her entry parlor. A frilly, wrought-iron chair enticed fellow Flinger (and appropriately attired in white) Lucy to rest for a moment and enjoy the New Orleans-esque courtyard.

A silvery Begonia ‘Gryphon’ dramatically underplanted with black mondo grass zings next to the mirror. Creamy white star jasmine blossoms scent the air.

Exiting this garden room and continuing along the concrete steps, you see a Little and Lewis column-fountain, topped with sedge and dripping with water. I’d love to have one of these in my garden.

Directly ahead is the trompe l’oeil mural — of a wooden gate topped by a metal cat ornament. The mural is cleverly painted over a door, with the door handle serving as the painted gate’s handle as well. Surrounded by vines trained along the wall, it really does create the illusion of more garden where there is only a blank wall.

To the right, the garden opens into sun, and flowers and cannas flourish. Strolling to the side of the building…

…you see another short flight of steps leading to a dramatic allee of weeping sequoia trees! Like furry arching Christmas trees, the allee leads the eye straight to a wooden gate surmounted by a brick arch.

And — surprise! — the gate is identical to the one in the trompe l’oeil mural, except that the cat ornament sits atop the brick arch rather than the gate.

The allee leads to another secret surprise as well — this sunny patio tucked into the very back corner of the garden and hidden from view below by a leafy screen of plants, including espaliered apple trees.

What a charming spot to rest.

Pots of frilly…

…and fan-like succulents add ornament.

A sundial is a classic accent for a sunny garden patio.

A last look back at the weeping sequoia allee, with blazing orange cannas marking the entrance — cannas that announce a new, hot color scheme…

…of orange, burgundy, peach, and bright green. Two large, potted loropetalum mark the entrance to a small, rectangular lawn anchored by a single chaise. An ivied wall provides a lovely, green backdrop for the rich colors of this perennial garden.

The small lawn provides a green throw rug on which to cool the feet and rest the eye amid a tumble of flowering plants.

Behind the chaise, in the garden bed, stands a contemporary sculpture made of curving sections of steel pipe. The rusty color harmonizes perfectly with this garden’s color scheme, as well as with the soft terracotta of the house itself.

Reddish orange, peach, and a hint of golden yellow — the plants are masterfully blended.


Looking across the lawn from the ivied wall (by the sculpture), you see the full effect. Two shallow steps lead to a skinny lower terrace of lawn and a jazzy border of succulents…

…that sits atop a retaining wall along a terrace at the back of the house.

Beautiful details

The back of the house, with plenty of windows overlooking the garden

Ann Nichols generously invited us into her home for refreshments and even upstairs to take in a bird’s-eye view of the garden, seen here.

A great design for a challenging site transforms purely functional into an extraordinary place of discovery. I found this garden completely enchanting and was grateful to have a lengthy visit here so that I could take in so many of the details that make it unique.

Up next: A happy-hour and Fling-ending visit to Flora Grubb Nursery. For a look back at the color-crazy Keeyla Meadows Garden, click here.

All material © 2006-2013 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Fearless color in Keeyla Meadows Garden: San Francisco Garden Bloggers Fling

Our 3rd stop on the final day of the San Francisco Garden Bloggers Fling was the garden of artist and garden designer Keeyla Meadows, a scene of riotous, exuberant color in both plants and structures.

Keeyla is the author of Fearless Color Gardens, which I reviewed here at Digging in 2010, preparing me for a house as Crayon-colorful as the garden, with plenty of one-of-a-kind sculptural accents that serve as focal points, like the pot at right and the woman-with-flowers at left.

Keeyla does a great job of matching flower and foliage color to her sculptures and to the flamboyant colors she uses on her two-story bungalow.

After the foliage-centric Ruth Bancroft and Dudan gardens, which we’d seen earlier in the day, Keeyla’s garden presented an unapologetic explosion of floral extravagance, and felt softer and more homey to some of the bloggers who’d felt put off by the foreign spikiness of the earlier gardens.

Keeyla’s open gate invited us into the back garden…

…where your eye is first drawn to the raspberry-colored house with green trim. Ahead, a work-of-art garden arch beckons you forward.

Rounding the back of the house, you see a marvelous tiled bench and hand-painted tiled patio, color-matched with the plants on either side.

Tile patio detail

Lilies, gold and rich red, pick up the colors as well.

An outdoor sink and grilling patio are tucked into a sheltered corner of the house.

Behind the house, Keeyla’s art studio beckons with blazing red doors, but you have to pick your way carefully around and over several boulders, which seem to form the banks of a dry stream. The boulders — including a small mountain of them in the center of the garden — were brought in by Keeyla to sculpt her flat lot and give it hilly topography.

Potted plants mingle with in-ground plants, providing adding elevation.

Hot flowers

To the left, a sculptural “window” reveals a glimpse of an outdoor shower.

Here’s a side view. The middle panel of sculpted clay appears to be folded down — or melted a la Salvador Dali?

Keeyla’s art permeates the garden as gateways, windows, flooring, paths, pots, and sculpture. The overall effect is rather overwhelming, as your head swivels this way and that trying to take it all in.

Keeyla opened her studio to us as well, and it was fascinating to traipse through and see the pieces she’s put on display.

I particularly liked this sculpture of a dress bedecked with flowers, which stands gracefully as if worn by an invisible woman.

A cheery yellow door leads to the rear of the garden…

…and a garden room adorned in shades of acid yellow and purple.

Looking back at the door you get a preview of the color scheme.

Artful paving continues it.

The plants are perfectly coordinated.

So are the pots.

As I recall, Keeyla explains how to construct colorful concrete posts and corrugated walls and benches like these in her Fearless Color Gardens book.

She uses concrete form tubes to make these columnar accents and then paints them in eye-popping colors. Notice how carefully she chose her plants for this shady section, with Japanese forest grass echoing the chartreuse yellow and purple flowers for contrast.

I had trouble photographing the center of the garden, a crazy-quilt of tropical foliage and flowers atop a small boulder-built hill.

However, this sculptural brugamansia arch caught my eye, placed perfectly beside a living brugmansia in full, trumpet-shaped bloom.


Lilies match the hot hues of the studio.

Keeyla generously opened her house to the blogger paparazzi as well, and I enjoyed her bold color choices for her living room and kitchen.

Climbing the stairs to the second-floor master bedroom, you’re rewarded with a bird’s-eye view of the back garden. There’s the “dry stream” path to the studio in the center, with the folded-window sculpture and outdoor shower on the left. On the right, just out of the frame, is the hilly central mound of the garden.

Fun painted chairs sit atop the studio roof. An enormous pink cordyline matches the color of the building.

A hair-raising sculptural piece

Heading back toward the front garden, two more pieces of art caught my eye: a verdigris-colored sculpture of pears…

…and a spiral snake patio — fun!

Along the street a Crayon sculpture, bleached to beige, stands amid colorful flowers. It’s as if the garden absorbed all the color — sucked it right out — and left the Crayon an ironic neutral — just one more playful element in a creative garden bursting with color.

Up next: The enchanting Nichols Garden, my absolute favorite of the tour. For a look back at the hilltop-with-a-view Dudan Garden, click here.

All material © 2006-2013 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.