the Taft Garden

Ancient geologic forces shaped the Ojai Valley that modern-day visitors find so attractive. This part of Ventura County lies in a region geologists call the Transverse Range Province. Transverse means “lying across,” and the mountains and valleys in these parts have been moved by seismic and other forces out of California’s usual north-south orientation into an east-west configuration.” — The Los Angeles Times 2/17/90

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Late afternoon, crossing the seismic detritus of a rock-strewn stream on the entrance road to the Taft.

The Taft Garden is a 265-acre botanical garden near Ojai, California, that was open to the public from 1994 to 2001, when the Ventura County Board of Supervisors closed it, citing neighbor complaints and permit use violations. A particularly toxic case of NIMBY, it seems. It can still be visited via plant and garden societies, such as the Mediterranean Garden Society, which is visiting this month, March 14 and 15, including in the tour other local gardens such as Lotusland. When I shopped at Jo O’Connell’s Australian Native Plants Nursery last week, she invited me to have a look around this garden where so many of her nursery plants have found a home. I knew none of its turbulent history at the time, but even before arriving I was experiencing more than the usual pre-garden visit jitters. It’s a bit difficult to find, and Jo’s cheery caution to talk to no one along the long, hilly entrance road added an unexpected layer of intrigue to the visit.

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Marty dropped me off at this pavilion/visitor center then drove back through the garden to find a place to unobtrusively stow the car. His next task was to sign the visitor book kept in one of the three “huts” at the entrance. Jo was very emphatic that we sign the book.

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Osteospermums, with Aloe striata blooming in urns. Against the pergola grows bougainvillea, with what looked to be parthenocissus overhead catching the late afternoon sun.

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The spiky outlines to the right of the fountain mark a desert garden. Plants from all over the world fill the Taft, with special emphasis on Australian, South African, California natives.

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There was a Jurassic Park feel to the place, of an impossibly ambitious dream made real, built and then abandoned after the dinosaurs had dispatched the last of the eco-tourists. It was a truly eerie sensation to be seemingly the only person experiencing such a dense concentration of botanical riches. The last eco-tourist standing, so to speak.

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A broad path off the pergola. All the paths were broad, deeply mulched or graveled, weed-free. Acacias were in bloom, but the proteas peak fall/winter. The Taft reputedly has the largest collection of proteas outside of South Africa.

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The Taft is a garden where the rare becomes commonplace, like the fabulous xanthorrhoeas, the Australian grass trees, dotted throughout, with their distinctive deep brown, catkin-like blooms.

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And xanthorrhoeas again, here with bottle trees, Brachychiton rupestris.

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I had less than an hour to visit before the garden closed at 5 p.m, but still lingered quite a while with the bottle trees.

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Paths were deep with the leaf fall of grevilleas, banksias.

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I’m guessing cabbage palms/cussonias.

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Leucospermum. I just planted an orange leucospermum at home, ‘Sunrise’

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Had there been an aerial record of my visit to this garden, you would have seen me scuttling across the landscape like a demented beetle, following any turn in a path that presented itself, erratically reversing course to chase a glimpse of something remarkable in the distance. I covered about as much ground as a beetle could, too, of this vast place. After 45 minutes, I began to hear the distinctive whistle Marty and I use, which I knew signaled the end to our visit. At this point I began to jog along the paths, took a couple of wrong turns, then finally had to stop and listen for the whistle call to lead me out. I wasn’t trying to get lost. Really.

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The many rocks tumbling through this valley 15 miles from the Pacific Ocean have been collected to line paths and create low retaining walls.

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Following Marty’s whistle, a glimpse of the windshield emerged just beyond some aloes.

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The car was parked near this little garden at the entrance.

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So instead of heading for the car, I lingered here while the minutes ticked closer to 5 o’clock and the whistle grew more insistent. The sun was setting and the gates were closing on the first of what I hope to be many visits to the Taft Garden.

(Can’t thank you enough, Jo!)

For more background on the Taft, see this reprint of a 1996 article from Pacific Horticulture

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20 Responses to the Taft Garden

  1. Wow, what a fantastic place. Thank you for taking us along on your visit. It’s too bad it isn’t open to the public anymore.

  2. Denise says:

    Gerhard, it’s so ironic that just when this garden was maturing that it should be closed. Quite a lot of it was started from seed! But where there’s a will, there’s a way. Keep an eye out for tours that include this garden, such as the upcoming Medit Society tour.

  3. Hoov says:

    Amazing, amazing, amazing. It looks well-maintained?!? Who does the maintaining? What a mystery–except the NIMBY part–that’s no surprise.

  4. Denise says:

    Hoov, it is immaculately maintained. I should have mentioned the nonprofit Taft Foundation that still funds it.

  5. ks says:

    Oh my, I had no idea of this places existence.Next Santa Barbra road trip , I ned to get myself in.

  6. Okay my heart is beating very very fast, so much beauty! So glad you found, and photographed it! So what do you think would have happened had you not left at 5:00? Were there other people about to shoo you away?

  7. Denise says:

    Loree, workers in a jeep passed me towards 5, and we all waved. Very friendly. Marty assumed the gates would be locked at 5, which was the posted hour. I hate to misstate what’s going on with the Taft, but I will say in a very small voice here in the comment section that I think it’s okay for one or two people to wander in, sign the book, have a look around throughout the day. I mean, it’s open til 5 and there’s a book to sign for guests. Just don’t piss off those neighbors! And go see Jo at her nursery first!

  8. Jo O'Connell says:

    Hi Denise, my friend in Australia stumbled across your blog and sent it to me! What beautiful photos you have taken, both at the Taft Garden and my nursery. The Taft Garden does welcome visitors – for now. Just do as Denise says and call in and visit me first! or after a visit there even better. You can call Paula at the Taft Garden (805) 649 2333 and she will let you know what the latest is with regards to visiting the garden. They are not open on Sundays. I am around most days but Tuesdays, Thursday, Saturdays and Sunday (don’t arrive too early on a Sunday and don’t stay too late!)are the best days to visit. Always good to call first.
    Thanks for your Blog Denis is is wonderful!
    warmest regards

  9. Denise says:

    Hi Jo — I’m so glad I didn’t mischaracterize anything, so thanks so much for commenting and for leaving Paula’s phone number.

  10. David Feix says:

    I fondly remember visiting this garden one spring with the Bay Area Hortisexuals garden group, and it was so amazing then, with so many South African and Australian plants that are rarely seen even in botanic gardens such as the 3 bigest up here; San Francisco, UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz, with their diverse collections of S. African and Australian flora. Nice to know it is again somewhat open to the public, I need to make it back down there for a visit after 15+ years. Thanks for the virtual tour.

  11. les says:

    I fail to comprehend why anyone would not want this in the backyard, especially considering all the other land-use possibilities.

  12. Pam/Digging says:

    WOW. It’s simply stunning. The massing of Australian grass trees with the bottle trees is pure eye candy. Your descriptions are wonderful too, Denise: “There was a Jurassic Park feel to the place, of an impossibly ambitious dream made real, built and then abandoned after the dinosaurs had dispatched the last of the eco-tourists.” Love it! Also, the way you described running erratically from one vista or turn in the path to another is exactly how I saw Lotusland last spring. With only an hour (darn that L.A. traffic) to see the garden, I darted this way and that, trying to see as much as I could before closing.

  13. Alison says:

    What a fabulous garden! Thanks so much for taking the time to take photos and share them with us. And yeah, what Les said. People’s attitudes boggle the mind.

  14. Hi Denise,

    What a fun afternoon. Your beetle simile is very apropos and I would have been doing the same thing. That aloe with the salmony-red blooms is ooh, la, la and I sure wish I could grow Leucospermum. Nice!

  15. Lauraine Effress says:

    I understand you need names of visitors to the garden to fend off an IRS action to close the gardens to visitors. I got this on a site from the Ventura Botanical Gardens but I do not respond to these as it is impossible to know if these sites are legit.

    However, I have visited the gardens at least three times and found them marvelous. One of those visits was to view the comet Kahoutek many years ago when the SBMNH and their affiliate set up telescopes for comet viewing.

    I have wonderful photos of the aloe gardens in magnificent bloom. I am happy to provide my testimony to keep these gardens open to visitors.

    Lauraine Effress
    2831 Harbor Blvd.
    Oxnard, CA 93035

  16. Denise says:

    thanks for the helpful info, Lauraine. The strong bond with the Ventura Botanical Garden makes the Taft even more invaluable.

  17. Nancy States says:

    Would it be possible for me to bring 8 to 10 visitors from the Santa Barbara Audubon Society sometime in late May of 2016 to see the plants and any birds that would be there at that time?

    Many years ago I brought two cars of friends in the spring to visit. We saw many birds and were so thrilled by the plants and gardens. We were there on two separate years.

    Just loved the place. I am pleased you are allowing guests again.

    Could we please come?

    Nancy States

  18. Denise says:

    Nancy, here is the contact info I obtained from their Facebook site: (805) 804-7607

    The Conservation Endowment Fund oversees the Taft Garden, and this is their contact page from their website:

    Best of luck. Sounds like a great trip.

  19. Alan says:

    I had never heard of this place but just met a few from the area as I was visiting my in-laws at a place nearby called Deer Lodge. They mentioned that John had badgered the local residents and is pursuing the option to use the private drive for his use. I just happened to offer the opinion that the gardens are beautiful, to have buses and wedding parties going down the private drive would be an infringement on the other owners who have opposed this for years now.

    My two cents….sounds like Mr Taft should limit access and realize he should learns what it means to be a good neighbor.

  20. Jenny Cothran says:

    I was there today, the place is incredible! So much beauty. I have lived in Ojai for 15 years and had never heard of it before. Sad it is no longer open to the public but I can understand the issues that they faced. Such a hidden gem.

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