Taft Gardens: one of California's best kept secrets

Most people have heard of Huntington or Lotusland. Ask them about Taft Gardens though, and the response may well be “huh?”

Taft Gardens & Nature Preserve is home to impressive gardens with plants from South Africa and Australia. It’s definitely under the radar, and part of it is by design – or necessity. Located at the end of a gated private road in the middle of nowhere outside of Ojai, California, Taft Gardens is subject to a strict conditional use permit and as a result limits the number of daily visitors to about 25. When you make your reservations (required, $20 per person), you receive detailed driving directions and the gate code for that particular day. Without it, you won’t be able to get in. Currently, two 2-hour time slots are available for visits: 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.

The 45-minute drive from Santa Barbara takes you by Lake Casitas, a reservoir completed in 1959

Private road leading to Taft Gardens – it really is as steep as it looks in parts

The 2½ mile drive from the main highway includes fording a couple of creeks

After a major rainfall, the road might be flooded and impassable to passenger vehicles

The sign at the entrance is as low-key as the garden itself

Taft Gardens was started in the late 1980s by businessman John Taft and his wife Melody on their 265-acre property in the foothills of the Topatopa Mountains near Ojai. Since the climate is very similar to what you find at the tip of 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. Today, Laurence Nicklin works as a landscape designer and Jenny Nicklin is on the Board of Directors of the Conservation Endowment Fund (CEF), the non-profit that manages the property. Jaide Whitman, Jenny’s niece and John’s granddaughter, is president, carrying on the family’s legacy.

The Australian Garden is the brainchild of Jo O’Connell. Her story mirrors Laurence Nicklin’s. She relocated from her native 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. I visited her in 2019; click here to read my post.

15 acres, with 1.5 miles of trails, are dedicated to curated gardens: the South African and Australian Garden as well as a Zen Garden, a Pollinator Garden, and a Cactus Garden. The remaining 200 acres are open space designated a Humane Society wildlife sanctuary. For a more detailed history of how this unique garden came to be, read this 2021 article in the Los Angeles Times.

When I visited on April 19, 2024, I was one of a handful of visitors who had made a reservation for the 11 a.m. slot. As I was walking around the gardens, I crossed paths with only one person. With no road noise or other man-made sounds, it was wonderfully quiet: just me and the plants.

Check-in kiosk

Plants for sale, some of which were from the garden, all priced very reasonably ($10 for a 1 gallon)

Aloe rubroviolacea and Cotyledon orbiculata

Cotyledon orbiculata has naturalized in the South African Garden – it’s everywhere. To celebrate John Taft’s 90th birthday (he still lives on the property), every visitor received a 4" Cotyledon orbiculata as a gift. I love that I now have a piece of Taft Gardens in my own garden.

Cotyledon orbiculata

Cotyledon orbiculata

The South African Garden is dominated by countless aloes ranging from small to tree size. Many of the tallest specimens are Aloe ferox and Aloe speciosa. The larger ones were done flowering, but a few of the mid-sized specimens were still going strong. Late January through mid-February would be a good time to visit to catch the peak of the aloe bloom.

The larger aloes may not have been flowering, but plenty of other South African natives were, including bulbs, perennials, and shrubs. The combined effect was breathtaking – possibly even more so than the aloe bloom might be.

Here are some of the most spectacular plants:

Leucadendron discolor

Leucadendron discolor

Leucadendron discolor

Leucadendron discolor and Leucospermum sp.

The orange flowers are Tritonia gladiolaris

Yellow- and orange-flowering Tritonia gladiolaris

Tritonia gladiolaris

Orange and yellow Tritonia gladiolaris, with Osteospermum in the background

This guy is part of the garden, too

Erica arborea (guessing) and Leucospermum sp.

Leucadendron discolor and Erica arborea (guessing)

Leucospermum reflexum

Cussonia paniculata

A sea of Cotyledon orbiculata

So many Leucospermums

But the standout shrub for me was Leucadendron discolor

Aloe striata

Back at the entrance to the South African Garden

To wrap things up, a few close-ups of Leucospermum flowers (no IDs, and I’m not expert enough to guess). There were dozens of Leucospermum, or pin cushions, in glorious bloom. I love them, but I’ve never been able to grow any of them successfully in our garden. I don’t think they like our hot summers all that much. The invaluable San Marcos Growers website has an in-depth article on growing proteas in California; here is a related FAQ.

When I visited Taft Gardens in April, I spent most of my time in the South African Garden, but I did take a few photos in the other sections. I’ll share them in a separate post.

Here’s a quick map showing where Ojai is located. Santa Barbara is to the west, Los Angeles to the southeast.

Ojai is an easy drive from Santa Barbara (45 minutes) and well worth it if you ever find yourself in that part of California. The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, Lotusland, and Taft Gardens would make a great itinerary for a weekend getaway.

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


  1. Such a wonderful garden. They are a lucky family to have the stewardship of it. Proteas are beautiful plants that I first saw in Santa Barbara. You sure don't find them in Phoenix!

  2. I feel so lucky to have visited this garden twice. The first time was before they had the reservations system or even a website. It was absolutely magical to be there alone.

    1. I meant to ask what the future might look like for Taft Gardens, but I figured the volunteer who greeted us wasn't at liberty to say. Fingers crossed I'll be able to visit again in a year or two.

  3. Cotyledon orbiculata is one of the few succulents I brought up north, so I applaud their high status at Taft. Thanks for the update on visiting protocols, very different from when I visited in 2014. It sounds like any hope for Taft as a profit-making event destination may still be in limbo, as far as tour buses etc, but so glad they've worked out a way for the plant crowd to visit such an incredible garden/nature preserve. Looking forward to more photos!

    1. I hope they'll be able to keep the garden open to visitors, even on such a limited basis. I first found out about Taft Gardens from your 2014 blog post .

  4. What a treat to see this garden, and without crowds. It must have felt magical. I haven't had luck with leucospermum either, they are alive but never seem to bloom. 245 acres, I can't even imagine having that kind of space.

    1. Being there without a crowd made the place feel even more special!

  5. So otherworldly to my Austin eyes! Thanks for this tour, Gerhard. I'd never heard of this garden but hope I can make it out there one of these days. How far is it from your own fair city?

    1. I wonder how many other hidden gems there are out there???

      Ojai is a bit of drive from Davis, about 370 miles.


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