Jim Bishop's one-of-a-kind garden in San Diego

A few days ago, a friend asked me if I’d ever been to Jim Bishop’s garden in San Diego. Sure, I said, and proceeded to give him the link to my blog post. Except, it turned out, that particular post had gotten stuck in draft mode and was never published on Succulents and More. I really dropped the ball on this, especially considering Jim’s garden is one of the most spectacular private gardens I’ve ever visited. High time to remedy that. Without further ado, here’s a write-up of my visit in February 2022.

Jim Bishop and his partner Scott Borden live in a 1938 hacienda-style home in Mission Hills, a historic hilltop neighborhood overlooking Old Town and San Diego Bay. Their house is on a quiet, narrow street, and from the front you’d never guess what’s hiding in the back: a garden unlike any other I’d ever seen.

Jim and Scott’s property is almost an acre, most of it on a steep slope which plunges 100 feet (the equivalent of 10 stories) from Mission Hills down to Mission Valley. When they bought the property in 1998, there was no landscaping and no irrigation. The slope was covered with over a hundred eucalyptus trees, chaparral and scrub – plus rocks and decades worth of discarded roofing debris, which made it impossible to get down to the bottom of the hill. In spite of the tremendous potential of the site, most people would have walked away, overwhelmed by the amount of work that would need to be done. Not Jim. Over the next few years, with dogged determination and boundless enthusiasm, he cleared the slope, hauling away the debris and eventually removing the eucalyptus trees and scrub. Now there are 300 steps leading down the hill. There’s still no wheelbarrow access, so everything – tools, supplies, and plants – has to be hand-carried.

Today, the slope is terraced and home to a huge variety of drought-tolerant plants, ranging from California natives to Australian and South African shrubs and trees, from succulents to cycads, and from palm trees to bromeliads. As I was walking through the garden, I never knew where to look first – my eyes were constantly darting around. I felt a childlike sense of wonder, because this garden, more than any other I’d seen, is larger than life, beyond real. It's living art.

Jim’s professional background is in software. After retiring, he started his own landscape design business, Bishop Garden Design, dedicated to climate-appropriate horticulture. He’s been chronicling the evolution of his garden and his plant-centric travels around the world on his blog My Life with Plants, and he’s in great demand as a speaker. His garden has gained recognition far beyond San Diego and has become a sought-after destination for garden groups and professionals alike.

Note: Going forward, I’ll refer to it as Jim’s garden, although of course it’s Scott’s as well. When in 2019 Jim was honored as Horticulturist of the Year by the San Diego Horticultural Society, he gave a touching tribute to Scott, calling him “the most significant person in my world, plant or otherwise … He has enabled me to truly follow my passion for plants and led me on journeys around the world.”

When I visited Jim in February 2022, he was working on overhauling the streetside plantings so I didn’t take any photos of the front of the house. What you see above and below is the entrance courtyard. It’s jam-packed with succulents and bromeliads; on my next visit, I want to spend a lot more time here.

Below are a couple of views of the veranda, the largest garden on top of the hill:

View of the San Diego River valley beyond

In a garden full of superlatives, the casita tops them all. It looks like it’s been around since the late 1930s when the main house was built. In reality, it was built in the early 2000s on top of the original pool. Located on the north side of the house, which receives a good deal of fog, the pool was almost unusable; Jim called it “the world’s coldest swimming pool.” For more details on the pool removal/conversion project, read this post on Jim’s blog, My Life with Plants.

Tower (left) with staircase leading down from the main house, casita on the right

Inside the casita. The exquisite tile work was done by Jim and Scott themselves.

Dinah the dinosaur on the left, massive Euphorbia ammak ‘Variegata’ on the right,

Walled garden next to the casita:

The terraced garden extends all the way down the hill. Starting at the top:

Dragon tree (Dracaena draco)

Agave attenuata

Aloiampelos ciliaris

In many of the photos below, you’ll see retaining walls made out of bottles. The walls were created by Jim himself. It all began with the bottles from Jim and Scott’s New Year’s Eve party in 1998; when people saw what he’d done with those, they started to bring him more. Today, there are over 10,000 bottles throughout the garden. The dominant colors are blue and green: blue primarily from Bud Light, and green from Pellegrino. In this video by Debra Lee Baldwin, Jim demonstrates his bottle installation technique.

Grevillea ‘Austraflora Fanfare’

Agave bovicornuta

Most of the rocks you see in these photos are right from the garden. Jim says it’s impossible to dig a hole without hitting some.

Aloe ‘Moonglow’ (left), Aloidendron ‘Hercules’ in the middle

One of five or six metal mariachi musicians

Arguably the most striking (and best-known) features in Jim’s garden are the mosaics embedded in the walkway in the lower garden. They’re his biggest accomplishments as an artist. Some mosaics incorporate old roof tiles, others pebbles and rocks in various colors. On his blog, Jim has written extensively about making mosaics; read this post and this post if you want to learn more.

While much of the terraced section of the garden is in part shade or shade, the lowest part of the garden is bright and sunny. It’s home to South African shrubs like Leucadendron and Leucospermum as well as a large variety of aloes that bloom at different times of the year. On the right (not shown in the photos below) is the Australian garden featuring a variety of grevilleas, banksias, acacias, etc.

Finally, a photo of Jim’s garden taken from the bottom. You can see how steep the slope really is.


Jim’s garden has received widespread acclaim. Below are some of the articles written about it (and him):


If you have a few minutes, please watch Debra Lee Baldwin’s videos listed below. They show many architectural and horticultural details I wasn’t able to capture in my photos:

It’s been two years since my visit, and Jim’s garden has continued to evolve – more so than many others because Jim is such an active gardener. I look forward to visiting again to see what has changed.

© Gerhard Bock, 2024. All rights reserved. To receive all new posts by email, please subscribe here.


  1. This is fabulous, in every way. So artistic and dramatic. So much to see, and the amount of work is incredible.

  2. This has long been a garden I would love to visit, thanks for sharing your photos. I (briefly) served with Scott on the Pac Hort Board and have followed the Jim's garden and travel adventures ever since.

  3. I'm glad you rediscovered this post, Gerhard. It's wonderful. I've seen other posts about this garden but nothing this extensive. The very idea of gardening on a slope that steep, much less dealing with 100 eucalyptus at the start, is daunting and my awe and respect is for the effort involved is boundless. In addition, I love the mix of plants, the mosaic walkways, and those extensive bottle walls. (Where did he find that many blue bottle?!) Thanks for sharing your photos and the various links, which I'll explore later.

  4. I'm glad you located this fantastic lost post. It took me a couple of days to get through it as I had to explore all the links you provided. It is inspiring on many levels: the house, the garden (Grevillea ‘Austraflora Fanfare’!), the mosaic: I'm gobsmacked!
    This garden must be a prime destination for a San Diego Fling.
    I hope you get to see it again.

  5. Bless you Gerhard for this post! I loved visiting Jim's garden long ago with the Horties and I knew you with your eye for detail and voracious camera you would transport me back there. Thank you! Just an amazing garden both for the plants and the architecture. Jim truly leads a charmed life with plants.

    1. Oops, I'll have to come back and savor every page! My dog is literally nosing my hands off keys to be fed so I shall relish the rest of the show soon!

  6. My favorite garden of all I have seen in so many blogs! I am in awe of what Jim and friends have done there. I can not imagine how with the steep heights and those heavy rocks and soil and plants! I saw Debra Lee Baldwin's posts back when she put them out. It just seems to get better and better. Also, I follow Jim on Facebook. I saw where he broke 7 ribs about a week ago. Oh, my, the pain! I broke 2 working in my garden and I thought that was bad. The pain lasted for months. I hope it will not slow him down. Thanks, Gerhard, for the wonderful tour!

  7. Spectacular garden! Thanks for the tour, Gerhard.

  8. What a special, magical place. I’m at a loss to describe how I feel after exploring it here and on Jim’s blog: awe? Reverence?
    Thank you so much for sharing.

  9. Wow, amazing amount of work. I would love to see some before pictures and will check out their blog!


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