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.

28 Responses

  1. Alison says:

    Thank you for this look at Ann Nichols’ garden, my hands-down favorite of the entire Fling. I loved everything about this. And your post brought back so many details, and pointed out things I hadn’t realized. Thank you! This garden was just so inspirational for me. I’m going to borrow (steal) so many ideas from this.

    And they’ll translate so well to your lush climate, Alison, which I’m feeling a bit envious of as the usual summer doldrums continue here in Austin. Writing about this garden was a great escape for me. I look forward to seeing what elements you incorporate into your own garden. —Pam

  2. Wow. Just wow. Never have seen a garden like this. Thanks so much for the photos and the path-through-the-garden organization of them. Now I feel even worse that I was not able to attend this year!

    Hey, you’re not supposed to feel bad after reading my posts, Jim. You’re supposed to feel like you were there. I did miss seeing you at the Fling this year though. Hope to see you next year if it doesn’t conflict with Garden Walk. —Pam

  3. sandy lawrence says:

    This is my favorite, too. I’ll be revisiting this garden a lot through your lens eye, Pam. Thanks so much. “Scrumptious” is indeed the word! And for me, Hope, in the midst of our triple digit heat and drought (we totally missed the last 2 rain systems. It’s ugly here.)

    Soon we’ll be back in our gardening season — just another 8 weeks. Hang in there! —Pam

  4. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    I am just gonna say it…OMG. How could you pull yourself away from this hillside oasis. You would have to be there a very long time to take in all the treasures in this garden. Just marvelous.

    It was hard to pull myself away, Lisa. I kept discovering new details even on the way out. I’m glad you enjoyed it too. —Pam

  5. There’s no mistaking your delight here, Pam. I love your exuberant descriptions of the charms of this very personal garden. I don’t think I have ever seen you more enamored of any garden since I’ve followed your posts! While I loved all the gardens we toured in one way or another, this was in my top two, as well!

    I did go kind of bonkers over it, didn’t I? It’s definitely in my top tier of great gardens I’ve toured. —Pam

  6. Diana Studer says:

    Isn’t your blue mystery a little more Tillandsia? On the ground instead of on the palm trunk?

    I just don’t know, Diana. It does have a tillandsia look. —Pam

  7. It’s hard for me to pick a favorite, I loved elements of everything we saw, but I would certainly be very very happy living here! I realized as I was reading your post I was on edge scrolling down wondering what beauty I would see next, almost forgetting I had been in the garden in person. Wonderful photos Pam!

    So glad you enjoyed them, Loree. Yes, I could be very happy living here as well! —Pam

  8. Leslie says:

    I loved that garden as well. So much more around every turn, inspiration overload! And the faucet in the loo was amazing as well. I am pretty sure though that that is a begonia, not a heuchera in that pot.

    Thanks for the plant ID correction, Leslie. I remember that music came on with the water in the bathroom, or something like that, right? —Pam

  9. Jean says:

    I like seeing the exclamations of Wow and OMG. It’s exactly how I felt seeing it. Thanks for the trip back. The detail was incredible and that lovely water feature on the side – heavenly. And then there’s the sense of humor with the cat details. I could go on and on.

    Oh, so could I, Jean. Or wait, maybe I did. —Pam

  10. Wow! That is amazing!!

    It must have been hard to know just where to look….so much to see.

    Thanks for sharing.

    It was my pleasure, Linda! —Pam

  11. Peter/Outlaw says:

    Every post about this garden takes me back to the excitement I felt in this incredible garden, also my fling favorite. You got some wonderful pictures here! I’d love to revisit this garden someday! Thanks for the great post Pam!

    Wasn’t it thrilling to explore, Peter? I’d love to go back too. —Pam

  12. Denise says:

    What a comprehensive post you’ve done of a garden I missed. Can’t thank you enough for the detailed commentary and illustrative photos that really give a sense of the scope and layout. Maybe the blue mystery plant is a puya (terrestrial bromeliad)?

    I wondered if it might be a puya. I have no experience with puyas, though, so am hoping someone else will know for sure. —Pam

  13. ricki says:

    Fabulous account of a fabulous garden. Your love is showing.

    My heart is on my sleeve, Ricki. —Pam

  14. kathy says:

    My favorite too Pam, and I didn’t realize that Bob Clark was involved..no wonder it’s so brilliant ! This garden really had it all to me, the tropical elements were there, the xeric and in the upper levels of the back garden you had colorful flower borders. I think the Berkeley /Oakland region of Northern Cal has a very enviable climate- I live only 50 miles or so away , but winter temps in the 20’s close the door on many in ground plantings we saw here. Your photos are wonderful. I’m crossing my fingers this garden will be on GC open days at some point .

    Oh, I hope you get to see it on tour for the GC Open Days, Kathy! It’s such an inspirational garden. And yes, I’m envious of the climate too (especially as it’s 104F all week here in Austin). —Pam

  15. The first several photos remind me of the fascinating creatures you would see on a coral reef.
    Is this a large garden? I thought it was huge as you showed us each of the garden rooms and then the last photo gave the garden some perspective and it seemed smaller than I imagined.

    It’s not so big, Michael, but the extensive side yard garden — although not wide, it’s terraced with garden rooms — makes it live larger. The lawn garden, which you see in the last photo, is only a portion of the back garden; there’s the hidden patio garden in the back-right corner. So I’d say it’s a fairly average size lot by Texas standards (bigger than yours but smaller than mine), but it feels bigger thanks to its division into distinct garden rooms — a classic design trick. —Pam

  16. I totally wonder the same thing as Michael above, I felt the same way when I saw the last photo. What a magical place, every photo was incredible…all the color….the plants…so so beautiful. the sequoia tree allee….WOW!!!!!!!!!!

    Amazing, isn’t it? I’m so glad you enjoyed the tour, Heather. Come Fling with us next year if you can get away! —Pam

  17. Bird says:

    Incredible drool-worthy garden. Amazing that this is a home garden, and how generous of the home owner to allow the tour and photos, so that we can all experience it. I love the low, small-scale gardenscapes that are like tapestries. As you wrote, they invite close inspection. This is the type of garden that I like to have along my front path and around my patio… a magic carpet!

    Oh, me too, Bird. Wouldn’t it be incredible to look out on this every day? —Pam

  18. Anna K says:

    Wow -stunning! Fabulous photos with lots of great details. Hard to even pick a favorite feature, but I loved the joyful use of metal everywhere, and the fabulous color. That grate over the pond, and the wasp nest tillandsias – so cool! An utterly magical place, and very inspiring. Thanks so much for inviting us who missed it to share in the abundance!

    It was my pleasure, Anna. I love sharing beautiful gardens like this one. —Pam

  19. Ann Nichols says:

    Hi Pam,
    I just received this link from Bill Holliday who you met on the tour of my garden. I want to let you know how much I appreciate your wonderful description and beautiful photos and am thrilled to learn that you enjoyed your visit here. It was a real pleasure meeting everyone and having the opportunity to share the garden with all of you.
    Happy gardening!
    Ann Nichols
    P.S. The blue, mystery plant on the ground in the front is, in fact, a tillandsia. The silvery, big leafed potted plant in the black and silver garden is Begonia Gryphon.

    Hi, Ann! Thanks so much for popping by and providing plant IDs for my two mystery plants. I really LOVED seeing your garden. Thank you so much for sharing it with us. —Pam

  20. Thanks for perking up my day! What a scrumptious garden, beginning to end. The weeping sequoia tree allee is over the top…plus so many perfect details.

    Yes, great structure plus the wonderful, personal details that distinguish a gardener’s garden from the rest. —Pam

  21. Eileen C Halpern says:

    This is the most exquisite garden that I have ever seen. Wow! What an amazing, breathtakingly beautiful sight. Ann Nichols is a genius!

    I agree, Eileen. :-) —Pam

  22. Rose says:

    I don’t know what to say, except the same thing everyone else has said–WOW! I can see why this was your favorite, Pam; what an amazing garden. I love that spiral aloe, too, and the clever and artistic grate over the pond. I hope you had lots of time to explore this garden–there is so much to see I would think it would take several visits just to see everything!

    I’m going to come back later and read some of your other posts on the Fling when I have time; looks like you all must have been on sensory overload during this trip!

    I did have lots of time in this garden, Rose, although I could have stayed another hour or so. I’m sure there’s much that I missed. Including you! Hope to see you again at next year’s Fling. —Pam

  23. I sent Bill Holiday the link to this post, asking if he could ID your mystery Tillandsia. Here’s what he wrote back “That’s Tillandsia albida, a terrestrial Tillandsia that grows in the canyons of Hidalgo, Mexico. Actually, I am in Guadalajara right now, and am departing tomorrow to Hidalgo to see that and a multitude of other botanical treats.” Bill rocks.

    A plant explorer — cool! Thanks for asking him for the ID, Kelly. I never even knew there were terrestrial tillandsias. —Pam

  24. Heather says:

    I’ve been really kicking myself for not attending this year’s Fling and this garden is making that regret flare up so much. It’s so wonderfully peaceful and exuberant at the same time.

    Heather, you’ll just have to resolve to go next year. It would be great to meet you! —Pam

  25. Janet says:

    Absolutely wonderful! Enjoyed every picture, enlarging each view and looking at every small item… Thank you!

    My pleasure, Janet. —Pam

  26. Keith says:

    Awesome! Fabulous garden, great photos, and great descriptions that help make you feel like you were there (kinda). A collector’s garden fabulously landscaped. Thanks for sharing.

    I’m so glad you enjoyed the virtual tour, Keith. —Pam

  27. Kathy says:

    Hi! Where would I look to find something like the “ripple-like grate” to go over a pond area in our garden? I had never thought about needing something to protect the fish…love this grate!
    Thank you so much…look forward to hearing from you.