I like quirky things that are unexpected and outside the daily ‘normalness’ in our lives. That is why I have fallen in love with the city of Austin, Texas, which prides itself on being “weird.” Another reason this Texas capital city appeals to me is their beautiful gardens and rich gardening culture, and my friend, Pam Penick’s shady, colorful garden personifies the uniqueness that is found throughout Austin.

Pam Penick (facing front wearing a hat) greeting garden visitors.

On a recent visit to Austin, I took part in the Garden Bloggers Fling, where garden bloggers from the U.S., Canada, and Great Britain, gather and tour gardens within a particular city. This year’s Fling was held in Austin, and one of the gardens I was most excited to see was Pam’s.

As two long-time bloggers in the Southwest, Pam and I have been friends for several years and I was fortunate to have hosted her in Arizona four years ago, while she was researching for her latest book, “The Water-Saving Garden.” For years, I’ve wanted to visit her garden and now was my chance.

Pam’s garden flourishes underneath the filtered shade of beautiful oak trees. However, the shade does present some challenges in that there aren’t a lot of colorful plants that will flower in shady conditions. But, Pam expertly works around that obstacle, using her unique design style that she describes as mostly contemporary.

Concentrating flowering plants in the few areas that receive bright sun is one way to add needed color to a shady landscape. Here, the bright colors of this autumn sage (Salvia greggii) contrast beautifully with the blue-gray leaves of a whale’s tongue agave (Agave ovatifolia). While both of these plants flourish in full sun in this Texas garden, they do best with filtered or afternoon shade in the low desert region.

In the absence of flowering plants, texture is introduced with the use of spiky agave and yucca plants. Elements of color are added using garden art such as these blue balls.

I love blue pots, and I’ve found a kindred spirit in Pam, who has them scattered throughout her landscape.

As you walk through the garden, you need to pay attention as Pam adds lovely detail in unexpected places, like this rusted garden art.

There are garden trends that are unique to specific areas of the country, and I found several of what I call, ‘pocket planters’ hanging on walls. Right at eye-level, it is easy to explore the tiny detail of these small containers.

Walking along the driveway, toward the backyard, the soft shape of bamboo muhly (Muhlenbergia dumosa) adds a beautiful blue backdrop, and in front, a container filled with Dyckia and a blue heart adds interest.

A sage green garden gate led the way into the backyard.

A potting bench sits along the wall in the side garden where four “Moby Jr.” whale’s tongue agave are planted, which come from Pam’s original “Moby” agave – I have one of the babies growing in my front garden.

Masonry blocks are artfully arranged into a low wall and filled with a variety of succulents.

The garden sits on a slope, which provides a lovely view from the upper elevation where a blue painted wall adds a welcome splash of color as well as a touch of whimsy with the “Austin” sign.

The shadows from an oak tree make delightful patterns along the wall while planters add a nice color element.

Gardening in Austin isn’t for wimps. They have to deal with thin soils that lie atop rock, which is quite evident along the back of the garden.

Blue bottle trees are a popular garden ornament throughout the South as well as other areas of the U.S. Here; they serve the same purpose as a flowering vine would.


As I got ready to leave, I walked among the deck that overlooked the pool where I am greeted by more examples of Pam’s unique garden style. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen octopus pots anywhere in my garden travels, until now. 

I had a wonderful time exploring this shady oasis and the innovative ways that Pam has introduced colorful elements. I invite you to check out her blog, Digging, which is one of my favorites.



Did you ever read the book, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett?  It was one of my favorite books as a child, and I always imagined myself exploring a hidden garden.

Well, on the second day of our road trip, I was able to explore a very secret garden that very few people have seen.

To be honest, this hidden garden wasn’t on our original itinerary.  We were to travel by boat to the Channel Islands and explore Santa Cruz Island for the day.  But it was canceled at the last minute due to the high winds.  So, we had to find something else to fill our do for the day.  What better than to find a garden to visit?

We did some searching for gardens near the town of Ojai, which was near our hotel and found a reference to the Taft Garden, which is a 265-acre garden that couldn’t be found on a map and wouldn’t come up on a GPS search.

We were given a map with landmarks provided such as a cluster of mailboxes, creek crossings, forks in the road and a big white barn.  With my reliance on GPS, it was somewhat surreal to navigate the way most people used to a long time ago.

The bottom of the map had large, bold print that advised us against sharing the location of the garden with anyone else, so I won’t spill the beans.

Our route meandered through the foothills of the mountains outside of Ojai, and we passed large homes that sat on large acreage.

Three peacocks were perched on a corner watching us drive by.

The road was so little traveled that we only saw one car on our way to the garden.

Groves of oak trees stood in natural areas along our route, which took us across two creeks, pass a large barn and finally to our destination.

The entry to the garden is unassuming so as not bring attention to the fact that it is there.

Our rental car was the only vehicle in the parking lot as we were the only visitors.

Walking toward the visitor center, I was filled with anticipation for what discoveries awaited us along the meandering paths of the garden.  I also like to learn about new plants and how I may be able to incorporate them in my garden as well as in those of my clients.

Stepping inside the small visitor center, you are asked to give a donation of $5.

Then you sign the guestbook.  

Believe it or not, we hadn’t seen anyone else in the garden at this point.

Near the visitor’s center, a lovely bed of colorful plants was on display.  The plants in this garden are primarily from Australia and Africa, and I was familiar with many of them, although a fair few were somewhat foreign to me.

The main path ran along one side of the garden with smaller, winding pathways branching off, encouraging exploration.

Aloe arborescens
This aloe was enjoying the dappled sunlight.

On the right side of the path was a nice collection of agave and prickly pear cacti.  The other side was filled with shrubs native to Australia and many different species of aloe, which are mostly native to South Africa.

Yellow Protea flower

Elk Horn (Cotyledon orbiculata)

One of the things that strike you right away about this garden is that this isn’t you typical botanical garden filled with beds of flowering annuals and perennials.  While there was plenty of plants flowering, many were somewhat unusual, although most could be grown in California as well as many other arid climates.

Scattered throughout the garden were bright red benches, which guests to stop and rest, to enjoy the beauty around them.

Agave is my favorite type of succulent, and they had several varieties including Agave angustifolia and Agave parryi ‘truncata’.  

Toward the center of the garden, is a large group of majestic oak trees that stand amidst an expanse of St. Augustine grass.  Interspersed throughout the lawn were small islands of I believe, clivia plants.

As I mentioned earlier, this Australian grass tree (Xanthorrhoea quadrangulata) is not your everyday plants – but very interesting – I’d say almost like a plant out of a Dr. Seuss novel, don’t you think?

There were so many lovely vistas as well as unusual plants and combinations; I was very busy taking a lot of photos.  However, my legs were quite sore the next day from bending and squatting down for the perfect photo shot – at least I don’t have to feel guilty for not being able to visit the gym on our trip 🙂

Mexican Marigold (Tagetes lemmonii)

Toward the back of the garden stood a large guest house.

A floss silk tree is surrounded with a variety of succulents.

Bright orange aloe blooms around the house.
The house was planted with a large variety of succulents, which were in full flower on this lovely spring morning.
Bougainvillea, yellow iris and a container filled with succulents add welcome color toward the entry.

Artichoke agave (Agave parryi ‘truncata’) and ‘Blue Glow’ agave

Across the lawn from the house, a desert area filled with several agave species, columnar cacti, golden barrels and yucca create a lovely contrast to the darker green plants surrounding them.

The dark pink flowers of rock purslane (Calandrinia spectabilis) grab your attention along with the bright orange flowers of soap aloe (Aloe maculata).

Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha) with Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima)

This was by far my favorite combination of plants.  The contrast of textures with the grasses waving in the breeze and the upright purple flowers of the salvia was just breath-taking.

I took a video of how it looks with the wind blowing, which it was quite a lot that day.

In a nearby field, the bright orange flowers of California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) were in full bloom creating a carpet of color that could be viewed from the house.

Up the hill from the house stood a Japanese garden.  The raised terrace was built around a large oak tree, which I appreciated the shade it offered since I didn’t wear my hat 😉

Japanese statues and a Zen area completed this section of the garden.  

In the back of the raised terrace, was a vine-covered walkway with arches that looked out into an enclosed outdoor area.

Between the two arching oak trees was a circular stage.  Majestic oak trees were used to great effect throughout the entire garden.

As I walked back toward the house, I could see one of the gardeners hard at work, pulling weeds from around the succulents.

As we walked back toward the entrance, we took another route along a gravel path lined with tall tree aloes, pink flowering ice plant along with daisies of all colors blooming.

Despite the high winds, it I had a fabulous time in this very secret garden.  It is without a doubt one of my top 5 gardens of all time with its use of beautiful, drought tolerant plants from around the world.

If I had to pick my favorite vista of the garden, it would be the one pictured in this photo…

This is how I envision what heaven will be like.  I hope that God has a nice little garden cottage prepared for me next to a lovely garden like this one.

If you would like to learn more about this secret garden, here is a link to an article written about a few years ago with more photos.

Visits to the garden are by invitation only, and you can contact the garden through their Facebook page here.

Native plants have become increasingly popular choices for the landscape due to the fact that they not only survive, but thrive with little fuss.

On a visit to California last month, our family decided to spend a morning exploring the Santa Barbara Botanical Garden.
The city of Santa Barbara has always held a special place in my heart.  When I was a child, my aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents lived in Santa Barbara.  We only an hour away, so we made many trips there throughout the year for family gatherings, including Christmas.

Aside from being a special place where I spent many happy times as a child, I also fell in love with Santa Barbara.  I attended a small Christian college called Westmont, which is located in the hills above Santa Barbara, where I met my husband.  So, it’s not surprising that we often find our way to this picturesque city whenever we can.

We were visiting our daughter, who is stationed with the Navy a short distance away and we had come out to spend a long weekend with her.  Her service with the Navy is due to end soon so we wanted to take advantage of spending time in Santa Barbara.  The decision to go to the Santa Barbara Botanical Garden was an easy one.  Surprisingly, I had never been there before and wanted to experience its beauty.

Anyone who has visited gardens with me knows that I am always lagging behind as I observe the beauty of plants close up and pause to take a lot of photos.  I just tell them to walk on ahead as I do my best to keep within visual range of them.

The first part of this garden consisted of open meadows planted with native wildflowers.  Being that it was January, most weren’t flowering yet, but it was easy to imagine how beautiful they would look in just a month or two.

Looking off in the distance, you could see the ocean and the Channel Islands.
One of the things that are unique about this garden is that they only grow California native plants.

‘Arroyo Cascade’ Manzanita

Santa Barbara has been hit very hard by drought several times in recent years and as a result, residents are looking for drought-tolerant alternatives.

Erigeron divergens

Botanical gardens who feature native plants serve as inspiration for homeowners, landscape architects and designers to help them create landscapes with plants that thrive in the local climate with no little to no fuss.

My family waiting patiently for me to catch up.

In addition to wanting to learn more about California native plants, I was also looking forward to exploring the California landscape that I grew up in with its graceful oak trees and stately redwood trees.

The garden trails are winding and go up and down hillsides.  It often felt like we were on a camping trip while hiking through the mountains.

At first, the trail is level, but then you are faced with steep steps, called the Indian Steps.  This steep trail is thought to be the trail taken by the Indians who built the dam that is located farther in the garden. 

We had brought a stroller for my one-year-old grandson but soon learned that it wouldn’t make it down the steps with him in it, so I carried him down the steps with his mom following with the stroller.

At the base of the steps, we were greeted by the sight of tall coast redwoods, shading the pathway.

As much as I love oak trees, as a California native, visiting redwood forests scattered throughout the state has always been a special treat.

The sheer size, age, and beauty of redwood trees are truly majestic, especially when you realize how small you are when you stand next to one.

As we journeyed on, I was excited to see the old dam, which was built by the Indians to funnel water down the mountain toward the historic Santa Barbara Mission.

The redwood trees weren’t the only large things in the garden – the boulders were very big too.

The Mission Dam and Aqueduct were built in 1807 to help direct water toward the mission.

This old aqueduct had to be cleaned out frequently to keep debris out so that the water could flow freely.

As we continued our journey through the garden, I must tell you that it was a beautiful, sunny day in the upper 60’s.

I took a moment to take a photo of my daughter and grandson in front of a fallen tree.  As you can see, my grandson is having a great time!

So were my husband and I.

Eventually, our path took us to a ‘fork’ in the road where we had a decision to make – walk further on and take the bridge back to the entrance or walk across the marked creek crossing.

When you are with a 13 year-old boy, there is no question about which way you will choose.

I was especially excited to see the Home Demonstration Garden section, which showcased ways to use California natives in a residential landscape.

The house was built onsite in 1926 from a Sears Roebuck kit.  It now houses the offices of the garden.

There were nicely designed garden beds filled with California natives, clearly marked.

It was easy to envision seeing oneself landscaping their house in natives that are equally as beautiful as the more flashy non-natives. 

Newly planted landscape beds.

After seeing a wonderful example of a residential garden planted solely with natives, it got me to thinking again why so many people in the desert southwest coddle gardenias, hibiscus, and even queen palms in order to get them to do well in our hot, dry climate where they struggle.

As I walked around to the back of the house, I found my husband.

I did tell you that I always lag behind whenever I visit gardens, didn’t I?

My husband is always so patient and doesn’t complain.  I always keep this in mind when he gets excited about looking at cars and motorcycles.

At the end of our tour through the garden, the fun was just beginning for me because they have a nursery filled with California natives grown on site.

My camera and I went on an expedition, exploring the different natives.

Like many desert natives, these California natives aren’t very exciting in their containers, which can sometimes cause shoppers to skip them in favor for high-maintenance, flashy non-natives.

Erigeron cultivar ‘Wayne Roderick’

But, once planted and given a little time to grow, they put on a show.

I was drawn to the different colored California poppy seedlings, ready for planting in the spring wildflower garden.  I would have bought a white and pink variety, but have some already planted in my garden.

There were a number of California native plants that are also native to Arizona including desert marigold (Baileya multiradiata) and globe mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua).

If you ever find yourself in Santa Barbara, I strongly recommend that you take an hour or two to explore the garden.  It is a wonderful walk through the California countryside filled with the beauty of native plants.

I came away with three California native plants that I am unfamiliar with.  Since many aspects of our climate are similar, I am wanting to see how they perform in my garden.  The biggest test will be how they handle the summer heat.  My hope is that they will be fuss free and beautiful.  

I’ll be sure to let you know how they do. 

**If you love to grow and cook fresh vegetables there is still time to enter the free giveaway for the fabulous book, Growing For Flavor.**
A week ago, my husband and I took a stroll through our past, visiting the campus of Westmont College in Montecito, California, where we met 28 years ago.

What is special about this place is not only the memories, but the beautiful gardens that surround it.

Last week, I introduced you to the converted mansion, the courtyard with its iconic fountain, the ocean view from my dormitory window and a glimpse of a beautiful flower garden.

Today, I would like to show you the small chapel, hidden among the trees, a beautiful pond, an area burned by wildfire and a garden filled with bird-of-paradise.

This small chapel sits underneath the canopy of large oak trees.

I have always loved oak trees because I grew up in Southern California where the hills are dotted with with these magnificent trees.  

The chapel was built in the 1960’s to honor the memory of the then college president’s daughter who died tragically in an auto accident while attending college here.

Students can often be found spending a few moments in prayer here and I did my share, while attending.

Regular chapel services aren’t held here, but they do host weddings at the chapel.

I just love the view of oak trees from the windows, don’t you?

As you walk away from the chapel, you are greeted by the sound of water.

 I like the simplicity of the water fountain in the form of am earthen jug, which does not compete with the surrounding, lush plantings.
The Weeping Mulberry, while leafless in winter, adds a graceful, drooping element to the water.

Believe it or not, Weeping Mulberry is also grown in Arizona.  There is a large one at my other alma mater, Arizona State University.

As we left the chapel and its pond, the path led into a truly beautiful garden…

This was the favorite part of the landscape surrounding the college.

Boxwood hedges enclosed rectangular areas of lawn that were surrounded by staggered plantings of Tropical Bird-of-Paradise (Strelitzia reginae). 

The bright orange and blue color of this tropical plant are quite familiar to me.  They are the official city flower of Los Angeles, California where I was born.  

Tropical Bird-of-Paradise is native to South Africa, but thrives in warm climates all over the world.  Sensitive to frost, it is hardy to zone 9 and does grow in the low desert, when protected from afternoon sun.  However, it does not grow as well in desert locations as it does in milder areas such as Southern California.

Even unopened, I think that the flowers resemble birds.

It was somewhat surreal to be walking through a garden in full bloom at the end of December when most of the nation was blanketed in ice and snow.

Tropical Bird-of-Paradise bloom in winter and spring.

While I love this flower, I don’t grow them in my desert garden.  The reason for this is that they can struggle in our extreme heat and cold winters.  It is a rare occurrence when I see one that is thriving and blooming in our low-desert climate.

As we walked through the garden, we heard the sound of running water, but could not see where it was coming from.

So, we headed up the stairs toward the sound.

The sound led us to a narrow, stone-lined trench, filled with water.

As you can see, the fountain part is subtle and understated.  Its main purpose is to lend the sound of water to the garden setting.

As we continued our journey, we came to an area that is still struggling to recover after a wildfire burned parts of the school grounds in 2008.

A lone oak tree is the only survivor in this large, formerly treed area.  

As you can see, there used to be a lot of trees.  

There were signs that construction was soon to take place, so it will be nice to see what they will do with this area.

Our walking tour was almost over and I admit that I was doing a bit of huffing and puffing while walking up and down the mountainside where our college is situated.  It was much easier to walk up and down when I was a 19-year old student 😉

Before we leave, I’d like to show you where my husband and I met, by our old dormitory 28 years ago…

Our dormitory was divided into men and women’s sections.  It was connected by a bridge and you would often find us taking turns walking over to visit the other…

Our stroll through memory lane was almost over and I was sad to go.

Years after I left Westmont College, I finished my degree in horticulture.  As a new horticulturist, I was given the task of re-designing the landscape around a golf-course country club building.  
There is a popular saying with young women at the school, “I went to Westmont and came away with my ‘MRS’ degree.”  

While I did not get my bachelor’s degree from Westmont, I did meet my husband there and become ‘Mrs.’ Johnson.

Thank you for allowing me to share memories and the beauty of the gardens of this special place.