Worth’s Paradise

Worth’s Paradise is the third garden I visited a few weeks ago as part of the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days Program. It was actually the first garden I toured but since I took more photos there than at any of the others, it took me a while to go through all my pictures.

Located in Mill Valley, this ½ acre property belonged to well-known fine-art photographer Don Worth who passed away in 2009. Here is the description from the official program:

“When I was in the fourth grade, I saw an overhead photo of tree ferns growing in Australia. Living in the bitterly cold winters of the Midwest, it was like a small opening to paradise, and became imprinted in my mind. In Mill Valley thirty-five years ago, I planted a number of Australian tree ferns, black tree ferns, and Tasmanian tree ferns. They have grown to more than thirty feet tall. More than forty different species of palms, some grown from seed, and more than 300 specimens also inhabit the garden. I planned something naturalistic, a concept located at some point between the meticulous look of a Japanese garden and the luxuriance of a tropical rain forest. The design of the garden is based on a foundation of seven different ground levels connected by meandering paths that are broken up by groups of steps.” – Don Worth.

The late Don Worth, pianist and performer, Guggenheim Fellow, professor, and assistant to Ansel Adams, with his own photographs included in countless international museums, including the Getty, MOMA and Chicago Art Institute, was the owner and creator of this paradisiacal garden. His book, Close to Infinity, is known as a “landmark volume.” Worth’s one-half acre garden is rich with giant towering palms and rubber trees, mature cycads that include the four-cone Eastern Cape giant cycad, bromeliads, agaves, philodendrons, staghorns, many unusual succulents and much more. His greenhouse holds a number of his own hybridized and patented echeveria, including ‘Morning Star’.

I had never been to this part of Mill Valley before, but when I saw the towering palms and blooming beschornerias lining the road, I knew I was in the right place.


This is the view of the road from halfway up the driveway…


…and this is the first glimpse of the house as you approach the garage.


Painted a sage green, the house blends in beautifully with its surroundings. In fact, the view shown in the following photo reminds me more of Hawaii than California.


Pathways lead through the hillside garden but they quickly disappear behind the lush foliage.


While Don Worth loved palms and tree ferns, he was equally enamored with succulents, as evidenced by the many different genera and species tucked away throughout the “jungle.”

Look at this beautiful spiral aloe (Aloe polyphylla)!

The tree ferns (mostly Cyathea cooperi and Dicksonia antarctica) are impressive. I haven’t seen specimens this tall outside of Tasmania.


Many tree ferns were severely damaged or killed in the “freeze of the century” in 1990 but you wouldn’t know it now. The odd-looking tree below on the right is actually the trunk of one of the tree ferns that died then; the crown is a staghorn fern!



Other staghorn ferns (Platycerium sp.) can be found throughout the property, including this one mounted to the side of the house. While it rarely rains in Mill Valley in the summer, there must be enough moisture in the air to keep these epiphytic ferns hydrated.


Tucked away behind the house was this row of bonsai trees. Clearly, the current owner of the property is as much a plant lover as Don Worth was.


Similar to the gardens on Alcatraz, jade plants (Crassula ovata) as tall and wide as shrubs grow throughout the property.


As you walk down the steps to the far side of the house, you enter an area of the garden that basks in the sun: succulent central.

I believe this is an Agave parryi ‘Truncata’ that gets only partial sun, resulting in a less tight rosette than would be the case in full sun

Furcraea selloa 'Marginata'

Agave filifera and Agave parryi

Agave applanata 'Cream Spike'

A few cycads, like this encephalartos, are interspersed with the succulents, adding a tropical touch.



Encephalartos cone


Agave parryi var. truncata


The structure visible at the bottom is the greenhouse. I’ll have some more photos further down.




The “tunnel” behind this large Philodendron deliciosa connects the back of the house, seen in the photos above, with the driveway seen at the top of this post.



Agave attenuata underplanted with Aeonium tabuliforme

Another Aloe polyphylla

And another one, more yellow because it’s growing in the sun

Echium candicans and aeoniums

Another fat jade plant

The greenhouse is surprisingly small but thanks to the mild climate (it almost never freezes in Mill Valley) it’s probably all that is needed. It houses a treasure trove of intriguing plants.






I recognized quite a few plants in the greenhouse—echeverias, dudleyas, tillandsias and such—but most plants weren’t labeled so I don’t know what the bromeliads in the next two photos are.



Below the greenhouse the terrain drops yet another few levels until you finally get to the edge of the property. This part of the garden is home to dozens, maybe hundreds, of palms. Below them grow a variety of succulents, such as this Aloe arborescens and Agave parryi. They don’t get much sun, but they look vibrant and happy.


While I know little about palms and wasn’t able to fully appreciate the many different species growing here, I thoroughly enjoyed walking through the “jungle.”





While the other gardens I visited—Under the Sea, High in the Hills and Mediterranean Marin—were heavy on landscape design and entertaining, Worth’s Paradise is a place for plants. A private botanical garden if you will. It exists primarily for the plants, and comfort features for humans—like seating areas, fancy fountains or art—were completely absent.

Beautiful beschorneria at the edge of the driveway

I had been wanting to visit this garden for a number of years, and I’m still thrilled that I was finally able to see it.

Kudos to the current owner of this property who is continuing Don Worth’s legacy. It’s obvious he’s as much of a plant lover as Don was.

Other gardens I visited:


  1. Beautiful. This this one is my favorite. If you blur your eyes on the close up of Agave parryi ‘Truncata’ it looks like a flock of penguins! Pretty neat!

  2. Wish I had stopped at this one, but I wimped out in the heat.Hopefully it will be open again some day !

  3. I wanted to call this paradise but then I realized you did just that in your title...ah well, it fits!

  4. Great conclusion of the trilogy, and must say this is my favourite of the lot. A private botanical garden (paradise) indeed!

  5. Just amazing. Glad you took so many photos!

  6. I hope that when I retire I will have a chance to move to a bigger place and to establish my own private paradise. Lots of bamboo, succulents, palms, exotics and even a pond for water plants. I guess I should play the lottery regularly so my dream can come true sooner!

  7. This is also my favorite of the gardens you visited and makes me want to move south! Great pictures - thanks for taking us along! It's wonderful to see a garden that has continued on after its gardener has gone!

  8. This garden is the creation of my Great-uncle. It is wonderful to see how his past efforts are so appreciated. Beautiful photos!

  9. Mark, your uncle was one of a kind. I've been a big fan of his photography for 20 years and I'm still excited I got to visit his garden after all this time. I have a large Echeveria 'Afterglow' in my collection and whenever I see it, I think of Don Worth's genius.


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