Ann Nichols's exotic East Bay paradise (bromeliads! succulents! more!)

The first garden I visited on the Garden Conservancy's recent East Bay Open Day was the garden of Ann Nichols in Piedmont, a small residential enclave surrounded by the city of Oakland. In the Open Day directory, it was described like this:
This is a garden of many levels consisting of a number of outdoor rooms, each with its own plant and color scheme. The front garden, designed around an existing Canary Island date palm, is home to a variety of tropical and subtropical plants and bulbs. Passing by a small orchid garden and through the front gate, one meanders past gurgling water that flows downhill from a waterfall and through a mini-canal into two ponds. A free-form fence constructed of tied tree limbs parallels the length of the walkway, and a mosaic mural at the top invites the visitor into the backyard. Inside the gate is the “entry parlor” filled with foliage of black and silver. A walkway continues through the shady white garden into the sun-filled mid-level lawn, bordered by beds of red and orange. Higher on the hill is the rose garden underplanted in blue and accessed through an arched walkway of weeping sequoias.
As if this blurb wasn't exciting enough, my tour companion Kathy Stoner of GardenBook was raving about Ann Nichols' garden. She had visited it in 2013 and couldn't wait to go back. (To read Kathy's post about our visit, click here. It's great seeing the same garden through somebody else's eyes.) 

This is the front garden. I wonder how many fender benders have happened on this street because people slowed down or stopped altogether to get a better look at this exotic paradise.

I almost pinched myself to make sure I wasn't dreaming. Yes, this is somebody's front yard, just a block or two up from downtown Piedmont.

There's not a square inch of bare dirt here. 

It's no secret that winters in the Bay Area are mild, but if you ever needed proof, here it is. Where else can you grow bromeliads (many of which are very cold sensitive) in the ground?

Not to mention Agave attenuata (here the cultivar 'Kara's Stripe'), one of the wimpiest agave species.

The riot of color from the bromeliads was breathtaking.

×Mangave (hybrid between Agave and Manfreda) near the sidewalk

And just when you think it can't get any better, you spot this spiral aloe (Aloe polyphylla):

It was just one of two, the other being much larger. I'd say it was two feet across, forming a perfect spiral. In fact, this specimen is so large now, it sticks out onto the sidewalk.

Speaking of sidewalk, even the hellstrip (the bed between the sidewalk and the street) looked great.

This is the walkway along the front of the house. The bromeliads you saw above are off to the right.

And a view of the street across the front garden:

I couldn't get enough of all these bromeliads. In the Sacramento Valley, they'd never survive outside: too cold in the winter, and too hot and dry in the summer.

One of the biggest show stoppers in the front garden is a massive Canary Island date palm, specifically its trunk. It's jam-packed with tillandsias. I don't know if more are being added or if the plants originally installed simply have grown so much, but the tillandsiascape has marched half way up the trunk!

More lushness near the steps going up to the front door:

Stappy Furcraea underplanted with Echeveria

What I wouldn't give to keep even a smaller arrangement like this alive!

View of the side garden from the front steps

Abutilon megapotamicum against the wall of the stairway to the front door

More picture book-perfect bromeliads:

It's easy to be enthralled by the spectacular bromeliads, succulents and other plants growing in Ann Nichols's front garden. But there's something else I found just as impressive: Virtually every square inch of ground is covered. The variety of low-growing plants is staggering. This is a good example:

Now let's walk around the side of the house. It's hard to imagine but in the late 1990s this apparently was a "boring narrow walkway [...] that led up from the street to the back yard" (source).

This is the "free-form fence constructed of tied tree limbs [that] parallels the length of the walkway" (source). It's adorned with many different bromeliads.

This is the first of three small ponds:

The water flows from the upper pond (you'll see it a minute) through a narrow channel into the lower pond.

No nook and cranny, no matter how small, is unused.

Looking down toward the street:

And up toward the gate to the backyard:

Upper pond (left in the photo above, right in the photo below):

This whimsical wind chime on the backyard gate is just one of several cat-themed decorations I spotted: 

This is the "entry parlor" just inside the backyard gate: the very epitome of tranquillity.

View of the lawn and house:

While the back is much more open than the front and side gardens, it's just as packed with plants.

The topmost garden (the rose garden) is reached through an allée of weeping sequoias:

The rose garden is yet another spot that invites visitors to linger. In fact, time at the Nichols property seems to follow a different clock: more measured, more deliberate, more meditative.

Which year is it? Here it doesn't matter.

But eventually it was time to leave. The next garden was calling...and then Annie's Annuals.

Just a few more photos of the back garden:

I assume this door leads to either a storage shed or the garage

I had the opportunity to speak with Ann Nichols briefly (as the host, she was in high demand). She's full of energy and speaks of her garden with a passion that is contagious. In spite of her age, she still does much of the garden work herself. She and her hushand have completely transformed the property since they bought it 30+ years ago. The only thing remaining is the Canary Island palm out front--and it certainly didn't have tillandsias growing on its trunk then!


All posts about Garden Conservany Open Days


  1. What a treat to have Kathy's post and yours on this garden that looks like it'd be a source of inexhaustible blogging. If only this garden had open days every month!

    1. I know! At least much of front yard is visible right from the sidewalk.

  2. Heavy sigh. I saw the Nichols garden during the San Francisco Fling and would give a body part or two to go back. It was inspiring. Thanks for sharing your photos, they're great!

    1. I've seen a lot of beautiful Bay Area gardens, but this one may be the most spectacular yet.

  3. I can't post any better than this Gerhard. My photos sucks compared to yours. I am sharing your blog Thanks.

    1. Oh, come on, I'm sure you took great photos yourself! I was lucky in that it was still overcast when we got there, which made for less contrasty photos.

  4. I well remember this marvelous garden from the '13 Fling. It looks even better now. Not only is every square inch planted, but every plant looks so darn happy.

    Thanks for the photos. I never tire of seeing this garden.

    1. Yes, every plant looked happy as a clam. Never too cold, never too hot--I could go for that.

      In addition, I suspect the plants in Ann Nichols's garden get a bit more water than mine do.

  5. It was hard to know what photos to pick when we took so many! I'm glad you too the time to give readers more detailed into about the garden too. And very glad you mentioned the ground covers, I was hoping you would;I took no pictures of those lovely ground hugging tapestrys and I didn't even notice that Tillandsia wall arrangement next to the door. There sure are some fantastic gardens in the Berkeley-Oakland area. I happened upon another tour (already in the past unfortunately) by a group called the Oakland Hillside Gardeners of Montclair. I'm going to keep an eye out for other tours in that area.

    1. YES, let's keep each other (and our readers) up to date on garden tours. I'm thinking of creating a page dedicated to garden tours. Maybe Google has a calendar plugin we can use!?

  6. It's a remarkable garden! I remember aspects of it from the SF Fling posts but it's good to see it again. All those bromeliads have me wondering if I could do more with them here. I have quite a few plants outside year-round in pots but I've only tried planting Billbergia nutans in the ground here and keeping it properly hydrated proved a challenge.

    1. Bromeliads should do fine in your garden as long as you protect them from the worst of the sun and give them regular water.

  7. It's been heavenly getting to relive this garden via your and Kathy's posts. I do think I was the last person to board the bus that day we "fliggers" got to visit... I didn't want to leave!

    1. I'm not surprised at all that you were drawn to this garden. If you lived in the East Bay, I suspect your garden would look quite similar :-).

  8. Breathtaking Gerhard, really inspiring! Must have been overwhelming to see in person ( I mean that in a good way)!

    1. It was. There was so much to see, I didn't even know where to begin.

  9. Wow!
    And as usual, incredible photography.
    Wish I could see it one day.

  10. Fabulous photos, you've really captured the feel of Ann's garden. It's been several years since I last saw the back garden, it's looking better than ever. You might be pleasantly surprised how many bromeliads could be grown outdoors in Davis, given the Aloes I see you succeed with, but most would need dappled shade or lath house conditions aside from the Dyckias and Puyas. The showiest foliage bromeliads such as Neoregelias and Vrieseas in Ant's garden are generally more sensitive to hot sun and cold, but there are dozens of Aechmeas and Billbergias to choose from.

    Thanks for sharing.

  11. A needed highlight of my June 2013, but even better now. Especially the palm with all the bromeliads and those front steps and the load of containers...this is knowing how to design effectively with infinite elements!

  12. Fondly I remember this garden from the San Francisco Fling! It was hard to decide which to love and admire more, Ms. Nichols knowledge, enthusiasm, and hospitality or the timeless magic she's created. Scenes from this garden often play in my memory. The song says,"I left my heart in San Francisco." In my case my heart remains in Oakland. Wow. Just wow! My idea of heaven.


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