JJ De Sousa’s bold garden digs: Portland Garden Bloggers Fling

What’s black and white and red-orange all over? The stylishly mod yet playful garden of JJ De Sousa, that’s what. Owner of Digs Inside & Out home-and-garden shop, which I visited pre-Fling, JJ has an enviable talent for creating inviting, colorful garden rooms, perfect for entertaining, which wrap around her home on two levels. Nothing is pretentious or precious here. JJ spray-paints garbage bins orange and makes them into planters. She encases ordinary concrete pavers in gabion wire to create retaining walls. Gnomes, tentacled planters, and even flying shrimp populate her garden.

But let’s go back to the start — and JJ’s carrot-orange front gate. I visited JJ’s garden earlier this month on the 2nd afternoon of the Garden Bloggers Fling, held this year in Portland, Oregon. The carrot gate sets the orange color scheme and perhaps fools you into thinking you’re entering a front-yard edible garden.

Instead, the gate opens onto a narrow walk bordered on one side by a lush, green shade garden, on the other by a “living room” of garden benches and chairs boldly anchored by four enormous hostas in round-bellied pots. A horizontal, wooden-slat fence screens the street from view.

A few feet away, a dining table with spicy orange chairs sets the scene for front-yard entertaining.

The front walk runs arrow-straight to the front stoop, dressed up with a jazzy assortment of black and red-orange pots spilling over with chartreuse and dark-leaved plants.

The left side echoes the right, and a skinny fountain masks street noise.

Still water has a place here too — a serene vignette in a foundation-hugging bed of forest grass and fern.

But for the most part, serene is not what JJ is after, as this riotous palm planter attests.

To the right of the front door, JJ has tucked a third seating area into her small front garden, this one consisting of two black mod chairs enlivened with colorful, graphic cushions and a cylinder-style table, backed by a large tree hung with garden art, floored with dark gravel.

A tiny deck accessed via French doors offers yet another sitting nook, with planters made of bins that JJ spray-painted orange. If you ever thought your garden too small for multiple seating areas or entertaining large groups, JJ’s small garden — on a lot that’s only 77 by 127 feet — shows you how to do it. She tucks chairs, benches, and tables throughout her garden, easily providing space for 40 people at a time to circulate and converse in comfort.

A buddha head — orange, of course — glows in the shade garden.

A side fence of horizontal metal rods and wooden posts capped with whimsical, fired-clay finials runs alongside the path to the back garden.

Down-lights are attached to the fence posts to softly illuminate the path. JJ reminded me that lighting is an essential element in a garden — something I need to work on in my own garden.

The side garden is not an afterthought but densely planted with interesting and beautiful specimens.

A wood-framed, corrugated-metal fence encloses the back garden, and the gate posts rise high to support an arbor of metal rods draped with a vine. An antique wooden door serves as the gate, which opens to a shining line of white hydrangeas…

Across the path is a retaining wall creatively constructed of stacked concrete pavers bound gabion-style.

The wall supports an upper-level garden accessed via an elevated deck and patio off the back of the house. Stairs lead up between the wall…

…and a fantastic, ground-level patio with a cushioned sectional sofa and a firepit. How does a cushioned outdoor sofa work in soggy Portland, I couldn’t help wondering? Does JJ store the cushions when not in use, or cover them? I should have asked. At any rate, I love it when outdoor seating is as comfortable as indoor seating, giving you every reason to linger outside.

Ceramic “woven” side tables hold orange trays of succulents.

Graphic pillows add zing to the dark sofa. A Dr. Seussian planter holds single succulents up for inspection.

A golden barrel cactus in an orange bullet planter — da bomb!

Climbing the steps to the upper level, you get a nice overhead view of the conversation-pit patio.

To the right, here’s the garden planted atop the gabion-paver wall — a shimmery, silvery dry garden and a stock-tank pond.

This stock-tank pond just happens to contain leaping shrimp!

Yes, shrimp. Is this not one of the quirkiest things you’ve ever seen? I absolutely love it. Someone pointed out that a grevillea was growing next to it — not a plant we grow in Austin, but I’m familiar with its flowers, commonly described as shrimp-like. Delightedly I asked JJ if the shrimp connection was intentional, and she (wisely) said, “Of course!”

Another view, just because. I like the glass floats too.

The dry garden contains agave, prickly pear, blue oat grass, kangaroo paws, and a beautiful, fuzzy, silver plant that JJ told me is a new variety of something, but I’ve forgotten what. Does anyone know? Update: It’s Stachys ‘Bello Grigio’. Thanks, Alison!

Another view. The metal piranha in the background lights up at night, JJ told me.

Stachys ‘Bello Grigio’, with an agave and orange nasturtiums

Panning right, two garbage pails with silver ponyfoot spilling out create a vignette that’ll make you do a double-take. I notice JJ often uses pairs of pots instead of the usual groups of three in her arrangements.

A side view

Looking right, a low wall lined with black pots of succulents divides the deck from a concrete patio near the back door. That’s JJ in the hat.

Four pairs of pots and galvanized flower buckets-turned-planters soften a hard corner.

Pots are everywhere in this garden, tucked into niches, sitting atop walls and stairs, hung on fences, adding height to planting beds.

An eclectic assortment of small, white pots, including a baby head, is gathered on a galvanized tray.

A wider view

Whimsical garden art adds humor and the delight of discovery as you explore.

JJ’s garden goes vertical, climbing the walls of her home, with fun wall planters and trees in tall pots.

I absolutely coveted one of these squid wall planters when I was in JJ’s store, Digs Inside & Out. JJ has two, one planted up with an appropriately tentacle-like rat tail cactus, the other with a trailing sedum.

More pots

And tucked into a niche, a cast-iron squirrel and — what is that, a planted brick? Adorable!

Tawny New Zealand sedges sit like discarded toupees here and there in her patios and paths, planted, I suppose, in small gaps in the paving.

A sunny, orange garden room invites lounging at the far-back corner of the house.

But when nights turn chilly, a tomato-red chiminea stands ready to warm things up. Notice the chicken nesting boxes on the fence planted with hens-and-chicks sempervivum.

A wide view shows that JJ managed to squeeze in a greenhouse (behind the screening fence) and garden shed into her small garden as well. The shed helps to form one of the walls of this garden room.

Our group was on the 2nd bus to visit JJ’s garden, on an unusually hot day that was just starting to shade into cooler evening temps. JJ welcomed us warmly and gamely answered our questions about plants and her design. Her garden was such an inspiration for me: fun, bold yet intimate, and very liveable.

It got my wheels spinning, and I’m already thinking how I might create a few more “rooms” in my own rambling garden.

Up next: The enticingly textural and colorful Chickadee Gardens. For a look back at the spiky plant lust of Danger Garden, click here.

All material © 2006-2014 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

39 Responses

  1. Alison says:

    The silver white plant is Stachys ‘Bello Grigio.’ I’ve seen it at several gardens this spring and summer, and Ciscoe Morris featured it in his weekly column back in June. I saw it and had to know what it was, but I haven’t found it yet at any local nurseries. I love JJ’s garden, I saw it last year, but I discovered that it is on a tour again in August, so I’m planning to come down to Portland to see it (along with Lucy Hardiman’s.)

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Thanks for the plant ID, Alison. It looks like this is the plant du jour! I wonder if I can find it in Austin. Lucky you to be able to visit JJ’s garden on a regular basis. It’s so inspirational. —Pam

  2. Cheryl says:

    Oh my gosh! SO much inspiration! Our Death Star is supposed to back off and let us enjoy 80+ temps next week instead of triple digits… maybe I can get a few fun things done with orange paint and old buckets….

  3. Your comment about JJ spray painting the bins took me back to my first visit to her garden years ago, when I arrived she was in the middle of spray painting those (now) black mod chairs in the front garden. They were being painted blue, I later saw them as orange and now black. This is a woman not afraid of color and always changing things up. So glad you enjoyed her garden, it’s a fav of mine (of course). Oh and regarding “soggy” Portland…it’s not soggy in the summer!

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Quite right, Loree — I remembered that summer is your golden season. I just was wondering whether JJ left those cushions out winter through spring, during your rainier months. But Denise answered my question in her comment below: JJ leaves them out and takes no special care of them. If that furniture can withstand the Death Star, it sounds perfect! —Pam

  4. ricki says:

    I’ve been looking forward to the wordsmith in you taking on JJ’s garden and you did not disappoint. You even point out a few subtle jokes that I missed, like the hens & chicks in the nesting boxes. I’m going to be watching for one of her evening open gardens to experience it when all of that carefully planned lighting kicks in.

  5. What a great garden!
    So many good ideas to steal…uh, borrow.

  6. Peter/Outlaw says:

    JJ is amazing as is her garden which I also got to see last year. At that time the trim of her house was blue and her pots were a riot of blue and orange. It was great then and it’s great now that she’s exchanging black for blue! Such an inspiration! I wonder if she does garden design consultations?

    • Pam/Digging says:

      How interesting to hear from you and Loree that JJ changes up her colors as the mood strikes. I wonder what colors you’ll see the next time you go. And yes, I read on the Digs Inside & Out website that she/they offer both interior and garden design consultations. —Pam

  7. Jean says:

    I should have been on your bus that day – you all caught all the shade, ha! I thought this was such a fun garden. So many container ideas! One thing I suspect though – black pots would cook our plants down here. Still, I was quite jealous of them.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      I was on the shade-catching bus? Well, we must have baked in the garden before this one. :-) Seriously, though, this was an amazing garden, and I was wishing I could stay after the sun went down in order to see her garden come to life with all the outdoor lighting. —Pam

  8. Wow! I saw this garden, but feel as if I’m seeing it for the first time through this post. You not always find the perfect shot, you also get the inside scoop from the gardener.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Aw, thanks, Vicki. I didn’t meet all the homeowner/gardeners on the Fling tours (too busy taking photos at some of them), but I couldn’t miss the opportunity to talk with JJ! —Pam

  9. Kris P says:

    There are so many decorative and whimsical items in this garden but, even so, it doesn’t come across as at all busy or cluttered. The gardener is certainly a master in creating fascinating vignettes that enhance the flow of the garden rather than arresting it. Thanks, as always, for sharing the tour through your eyes.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      You summarize it well, Kris. JJ has created intriguing vignettes at every turn and managed to pack a lot into a small space. And yet the effect is one of spaciousness, not clutter. —Pam

  10. Mark and Gaz says:

    Such a fun garden with so many things worth taking note of that we don’t even know where to start. Every turn in her garden, there’s something wonderful to see. Wish we had the chance to visit her shop, maybe next time.

  11. Chris F says:

    What are the two succulents on the table with the bright orange chairs? (4th photo down)

  12. Helen says:

    I enjoyed this post. your reaction reminded me of how I felt when we went to that very colourful garden in SF.

  13. I loved this garden! I am glad you got the little squirrel in the brick niche : ) That was my favorite! Oh and the giant hostas in the 4 pots in the front…to die for!!! Thank you!!!

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Nearly everyone I spoke with was enamored of that little squirrel! Weren’t those potted hostas fabulous? So many great details in this garden. —Pam

  14. commonweeder says:

    A lot of good ideas here. I love those four hosta pots, and the corrugated metal fence. I am ever in awe of people who can really carry out a color scheme with accessories.

  15. Denise says:

    Fabulous comprehensive tour with wonderful photos. The back area was in blinding sun by the time we visited. I did overhear JJ speak to the cushioned couches, that they are indeed left out 365 days a year, and the weather-tolerant fabric handles it all. You get what you pay for, I think were JJ’s words. I’d like to try fall-planting that Stachys ‘Bella Grigio’ — I’ve already killed the one planted in spring.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      I’m so glad to know about the couches, Denise. Thanks for sharing that detail. Your conditions in L.A. are more similar to Austin’s than Portland’s; do you have any idea why your first ‘Bella Grigio’ croaked? And where did you find it? —Pam

  16. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    This garden is an inspiration. I love the bold colors. Those tentacled planters are fabulous.

  17. ks says:

    What a great post Pam, first rate photos of this great garden. I would have loved to see a big fat cloud drift over during my groups visit..

  18. Ally says:

    The chicken nesting boxes caught my attention right away. I saw some once at the Fredericksburg Trade Days and wondered what to do with them. I thought they were pretty cool, but decided to pass them up. In my garden they would probably just attract red wasps, but if I see some nest boxes again, next time I’ll grab them anyway. I think they are fun!

    • Pam/Digging says:

      The cleverness of the hens-and-chicks in the nesting boxes is irresistible. But I haven’t had much luck growing hens-and-chicks in Austin. Have you? —Pam

  19. Lisa C. D. says:

    I couldn’t believe how many good ideas there were in this garden. I was very impressed by its beauty.

  20. alison says:

    GREAT GARDEN- wondering what plants you used in/around the gabion wall that were able to creep over the gabion wall from behind?