Artist John Priola has a passion for succulents. His garden in San Francisco’s Glen Park neighborhood includes roughly 50 varieties, all of which he planted himself: Euphorbia Lambii, Agave Applanata “Cream Spike,” Aloe Vanbalenii, Agave Vilmoriniana “Stained Glass,” and Dymondia, to name a few. Most of Priola’s succulents have been rescued from families that no longer wanted them or salvaged from curbs and alleys. The result is a desert oasis packed into the backyard of standard San Francisco lot.
Priola’s garden is one of more than 250 private gardens that will be open to the public on certain days this summer, as part of Open Days, the signature program of the Garden Conservancy, a national nonprofit dedicated to preserving and celebrating gardens. Outstanding gardens are selected by the Conservancy and open to the public for one or two days. Tickets are $10 for most of the gardens, and they must be purchased in advance.
“Open Days has built a wonderful nationwide community of garden enthusiasts over the past 27 years,” says Joseph Marek, Garden Conservancy board member and chair of the 2022 Open Days committee. “It’s exciting the full program is back after a full shutdown in 2020 and just a few events in 2021. The fact that Garden Conservancy membership increased during the pandemic is a testament to the power of gardens and a visceral need to be in them.”
About Open Days
Open Days started in 1995 and since then the program has allowed more than a million visitors to enjoy some of the best private gardens in the country. In recent years, the program has expanded to include informal talks and demonstrations — events called “Digging Deeper” — and a “Garden Masters Series,” connoisseur-level events in exclusive gardens.
All the proceeds support the Garden Conservancy. The nonprofit was founded in 1989 by the renowned plantsman Frank Cabot, after he visited Ruth Bancroft’s dry garden in Walnut Creek, California.
The Dry Garden on Surrey
Priola’s garden is exclusively succulents and other water-wise plants. “In California, people are very vigilant about choosing native plants, because we are faced with such a drought here,” he says.
In 2007, he brought in two aloe trees from Southern California, which he transported from L.A. in the backseat of a car. “It can take a while for a re-homed plant to recover,” he says. “The first one or two years, it’s establishing itself, and the third year is when the plant really shows what it’s going to do.”
One of his favorite agave plants is the “octopus” agave. The leaves are not symmetrical; instead, they arch, like tentacles. “The plants grab your attention with their personalities. They’re almost like different characters,” Priola says. Some have very straight needles, he observes, while others have needles that look like “squiggles.”
Plants are often the subject of Priola’s work as a fine art photographer; his photographs are in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Art Institute of Chicago, among others. His “Foliage” series exactingly cut and positioned leafy branches and garlands of blooming stems. Another series is formal portraits of houseplants, which reflect the personalities of their caregivers. A monograph of Priola’s work will be released in November.
The Vineyard at River Hills
Debra and Steven Koenig, who live just north of Milwaukee, are also Open Days hosts. Their five-acre property includes a vineyard with 500 vines, meadows, a small Japanese garden, a fence covered in pear and apple espaliers, potted plants, borders and a wildlife pond. Last year, Koenig and their friends harvested 3 tons of grapes from the vineyard.
“I love Open Days because when I’ve visited other private gardens in past years, I always learn something that I can bring back to my own garden,” says Debra, who is a regional ambassador for the Conservancy and president of the Milwaukee Art Museum Garden Club.
One year at Open Days, she discovered verbena bonarientis and added it to her garden. “It’s self-seeding in our climate, and attracts a lot of butterflies and bees,” she says. “It’s a beautiful flower.”
Bay Area Open Days
See the full schedule.
- San Francisco Open Day, June 18
- Marin County Open Day, June 25
- San Francisco East Bay Open Day, July 6
More from Better:
- Designing a Home for Working, Studying and Playing at Home: How to Create Multifunctional Spaces
- Tour a Spanish Revival Home That’s a Jaw-Dropping Blend of Old and New
- Soak Up the Creative Aura of This Artist’s Home, Where the Furnishings Are as Inventive as the Artworks
Liz Logan is the former editor-in-chief of SPACES. Her writing about art, design and lifestyle, has appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, O, The Oprah Magazine and Martha Stewart Living. She’s a passionate supporter of several youth arts programs across the country.