Taft Gardens in Ojai, California: from A(loe) to X(anthorrhoea)

Over time, some gardens achieve near mythic status. They're talked about in a hushed voice, like a secret only a select few are privy to. Sometimes there's a hint of uncertainty, as if the speaker isn't really sure that the garden even exists. This reputation seems to be directly related to how (in)accessible it is. Gardens that are virtually impossible to get into are the most likely to become the stuff of legends.

Out of all the gardens I've visited, the Taft Gardens fit into this category the best although they're not impossible to get into, as this post proves.

The Taft Gardens are located in a bucolic undeveloped part of Southern California, outside the town of Ojai southeast of Santa Barbara. The project was started in the late-1980s by developer John Taft and his wife Melody on their 265-acre property in the foothills of the Topatopa Mountains near Lake Casitas. Since the climate is very similar to what you find at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, the initial idea had been to grow South African proteas. This was soon expanded to include a wider range of plants from South Africa's Cape Province, especially aloes, as well as proteacea from Australia.

The South African Garden was created by Laurence Nicklin, a landscape designer and botanist from Cape Town who left South Africa specifically to accept this commission. While working on the garden, Laurence fell in love with John Taft's daughter Jenny and the two soon married—romance blossomed, one might say. Today, Laurence works as a landscape designer in Ojai.

The Australian Garden is the brainchild of Jo O'Connell. Her story mirrors Laurence Nicklin's. As you may remember from my recent post about Jo, she relocated from Australia specifically for this project. And just like Laurence, she found love in Southern California and settled there. Today, Jo runs Australian Native Plants Nursery with her husband Byron and still maintains the Taft's Australian Garden. 

If Jo O'Connell hadn't had an appointment the day I visited her in Casitas Springs, she would have given me a tour of the Taft Gardens—what a special treat that would have been! Instead, I set out on my own, and I ended up being the only visitor!

The Taft Gardens are privately owned, and you need a reservation to visit (easy to do: simply fill out the form on their website). You're then given directions as well as a code to unlock the gate; the code changes daily so you need to specify the exact date of your visit. Admission is free, but you're asked for a donation, which you can leave at the small kiosk next to the parking lot (see below).

The gardens occupy 12 of the 265 acres of the property. You're free to wander as you please. I took a lot of photos, and I'll let them speak for themselves. I've added captions where needed. Grab your favorite beverage and get comfortable because this is a long post.

Getting to the Taft Gardens:

Lake Casitas

Private road to Taft Gardens

It goes on for a number of miles

There are several creek crossings before you get to the Taft Gardens proper. The locked gate isn't far from this spot.

At the Taft Gardens:

Fall color at the parking lot (remember I was there in early December)

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of Aloe ferox and Aloe marlothii

Kiosk where you sign in...

...and leave your donation (optional but appreciated). There's nobody there, it's all on the honor system.

Euphorbia resinifera

Yes, cycads too!

Big cycads, in fact!

I cannot describe how peaceful this place is!

South African Garden:

Aloidendron ramosissimum

Australian Garden:

Now we're in the Australian Garden

It has a more subtle beauty, less flashy that the flowering aloes

Queensland bottle tree (Brachychiton rupestris) in the back, Grevillea 'Ned Kelly' or similar in the front

Tranquil and almost ethereal

Doryanthes sp. and Xanthorrhoea sp.

Banksia sp.

Lawn area near the main house

Glimpse of the main house. That's John Taft reading on the patio. I don't think he saw me—I was trying to be very quiet and respectful, seeing how this is a private space.

Magnificent oak trees, too


California meets South Africa...

...and Australia

These are the largest Australian grass trees (Xanthorrhoea sp.) I've seen outside of Australia


In nature, xanthorrhoeas and aloes grow 7,000 miles apart, but they do look like they belong together, don't they?

More Queensland bottle trees (Brachychiton rupestris)

And before I knew it, I was back in aloeland. It would be wonderful to go back in early January when the aloes are at their peak.

There's more to the South African Garden than just aloes—this is a restio...

...and there are plenty of leucadendrons, too

Cabbage trees (Cussonia sp.)

Another restio variety

I had a hard time tearing myself away from the aloes

Small New World section:

Agaves, yuccas and cactus along the road to the main house

There's plenty of space for Agave parryi var. truncata to flourish

The Taft Gardens are a quiet sanctuary off the beaten path. I've never been to a place quite like this, and I'm very grateful to the powers that be—the Taft family and the Conservation Endowment Fund founded by John Taft in 1981 to preserve this unspoiled piece of nature—that they allow visitors at all. 


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  1. Thanks for the memories! My visit was on a Christmas Eve 2015, and I too was the only visitor. It was an experience, a gift, I will never forget. Things seem a little more organized now, with a website, reservations system and locking gate. I suppose that’s for the better. It was an odd sensation that I was alone and nobody knew I was there.

  2. Ah Gerhard thank you so much for a wonderful journey. I live in Cape Town, South Africa, and have only in the last two years begun to develop a love to aloes and succulents which is very absorbing! This garden is an example to such insight and instinctive feeling for plants. A wonderful gift.

  3. In addition to missing the opportunity to see you, I rue the lost opportunity to see this garden in person. I'll get there one day! Thank you for sharing the photos. You made good use of your visit, despite as I recall less than perfect weather. The Australian grass trees there look magnificent. The LA Arboretum has large specimens too but they're not nearly as well sited.

  4. Thank you for this wonderful tour. I wondered how far it is from Santa Barbara where my sister lives? I hope that this garden in a private development remains and is well funded. Wallace Gardens here in the Scottsdale area ran out of funds after the owners died. The garden has been moved out to Boyce Thompson Arboretum but, to me, it will never be the same. At least they were able to rescue many precious succulents and other plants.

  5. I am hoping to visit this garden at last when I re-do my rain-out road trip next month. My last planed visit was undone by mudslides and road closures.

  6. Such a special place. Almost like going to Aussie and S.A. Particularly taken with the spectacular oak trees, the Australian grass trees and the restios. Thanks for the great tour.

  7. Wonderful. What a kick seeing so many A. ferox/marlothii everywhere, among such gorgeous oaks. That oak in the 4th photo from last, wowza!

    And a distant glimpse of the fellow who made it possible is double-special.


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