Friday, November 13, 2015

I’ve glimpsed paradise… and it’s a front yard in Walnut Creek

A few months ago somebody at the Ruth Bancroft Garden told me about a fabulous front yard in Walnut Creek. It took me a while, but I finally checked it out yesterday when I had meeting in the East Bay anyway.

What did I think? Well, the title of this post, “I’ve glimpsed paradise,” may be a tad exaggerated, but if this were my front yard, I’d be one happy camper. It’s the perfect marriage of hardscape and softscape. And the plants are definitely not run of the mill (Agave americana aside). There is a wide variety of succulents, flowering perennials, grasses, trees, and shrubs from all over the world. Clearly this is the garden of a plant lover: well designed, well curated, and well tended.

I must admit that I don’t know anything about the folks who live here, the history of this project, who designed it, where the plants came from (although I assume quite a few are from the Ruth Bancroft Garden nursery). While these are details that would be interesting to know, sometimes I prefer to experience a garden completely unburdened. That allows me to respond exclusively to what I see rather than what I know. And in this case, I loved what I saw.


This property is a corner lot so the front yard is quite large. The house sits higher than the street, and I’m sure that originally there was lawn that sloped down to the sidewalk. The lawn is completely gone now.

On one side of the front yard, a raised bed (beautifully built!) adds a second planting level. Below that are several large Agave americana (variegated and non-variegated) that contrast in size with the lower-growing succulents. Several large pots create additional visual interest.


Agave americana ‘Marginata’


Agave americana. Also note the weeping cedar.



These folks are gardeners and plant lovers. I can tell by the plant labels!


This looks like a weeping blue Atlas cedar (Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca pendula’). Also note the Yucca rostrata in the blue pot and the smoke bush (Cotinus sp.) in the right corner.


The strappy plant in the foreground looks like Dasylirion longissimum

Now we’re at the corner of the property. This is looking back towards the area you saw above…


…and this is looking in the other direction, towards the area still to be explored.


Another Agave americana, with Cotyledon orbiculata var. oblonga and various dudleyas


Cotyledon orbiculata var. oblonga and Dudleya pulverulenta


What caught my eye here was the palo verde tree on the right—probably the Desert Museum hybrid (Parkinsonia ‘Desert Museum’)

Now we’re approaching the front door. The plantings here are getting even more interesting.


Another Agave americana ‘Marginata’ to mirror the one around the corner on the left


Agave americana ‘Marginata’ and yellow-flowering aloe (no ID)


Agave americana ‘Marginata’ and Parkinsonia ‘Desert Museum’


Variegated yucca, probably Yucca ‘Color Guard’


Aloe marlothii, getting to be large enough to flower

151112_WalnutCreek_house_018  151112_WalnutCreek_house_022

Aloe marlothii


×Mangave ‘Macho Mocha’ and Arctotis sp.


At the entrance we have a row of Agave ‘Blue Glow’ underplanted with Sedum ‘Blue Spruce’


In addition, there are three turquoise pots filled with echeverias and, to the left, what looks like several Acacia cognata ‘Cousin Itt’

Beyond the front door we have a slope similar to the other side of the front yard. Instead of building raised planters, the homeowners kept the slope and added a number of rocks to break up the space. In terms of plantings, the succulent theme continues, but it is complemented by ornamental grasses, a few shrubs, and more wispy trees.


I think this planting scheme is a resounding success


Agave potatorum appearing to spill out of a half buried pot


The Japanese maple next to the front door, the ornamental grasses, and the Acacia cognata ‘Cousin Itt’ were beautifully backlit in the morning sun


I was particularly fond of this young tree. Troy McGregor, the nursery manager at the Ruth Bancroft Garden, told me it’s a zigzag wattle (Acacia merinthophora).


Zigzag wattle (Acacia merinthophora)


Looking back towards the entrance to the house


The bright green clumps in the front on the left are Acacia cognata ‘Cousin Itt’, easily the best looking specimens I’ve seen in our climate


The aloe in bloom is Aloe striata. It’s unusual to see it in flower this early.


Opuntia gosseliniana (aka ‘Santa Rita’)


Cordyline australis in the foreground. On the extreme right, jutting into the frame just a little, is a variegated leucadendron (Leucadendron ‘Safari Sunrise’). So many interesting plants wherever you look!


I think the agave and grasses in this photo are technically on the neighboring property. Kudos for continuing the theme!


Google Street View, July 2015 (image © 2015 Google)

So, what do you think of this front yard? Hard to imagine this was once a boring expanse of lawn!


11/18/2015 update:

I just found out that this front yard was designed and installed by Linda McSwain based in Lafayette, CA, with plant advice from Walker Young, assistant curator of the Ruth Bancroft Garden.

This front yard looked quite different as recently as May 2014. Using the Google Street View history feature, I’ve created this animated GIF that shows it in May 2011, May 2014, and July 2015:

What a transformation!


  1. This is a real WOW! garden. Love all the choices. Whoever designed and installed the garden did an awesome job. Thanks for sharing Gerhard.

  2. Ye gods, what a gorgeous front yard. Great photos. The marlothii is absolutely perfect -- all the plants look terrific. Were you able to see any of the back? Confession: I think this front yard is actually a bit TOO perfect -- but sensational nevertheless!

    1. LOL, if it were my MY garden it wouldn't be perfect long.

  3. Oh my goodness -- it's gorgeous. I love that the photos can be enlarged we we can examine the details. I see spotlights! Bet it's beautiful at night too.

    1. I'm so glad you enlarged the photos. Yes, you can see a lot more details that way.

  4. Sweet! For some reason I had a bit of the same reaction as Luisa, "too perfect"...I think it's the retaining wall. I don't care for the materials they used. But the plants...wowsa! Excellent. I do have a question for you. What's the difference between A. americana 'variegata' and A. americana marginata? My apologies if I've asked that before.

    1. Various names in the trade, apparently, but see:

    2. Loree, I do like the retaining wall. However, if it had been my project, I would have picked a stacked-stone look. But it's all personal preference.

      Gail, thank you for posting that link. I tend to think of the large, hulking variety with undulating leaves as 'Marginata'.

  5. The Blue Spruce sedum is working it under the agaves -- didn't know it was such a successful GC. I love this front garden and think it's a great showcase for succulents, probably a rarity on this street, I'm guessing, from the glimpse of lawn in the distance. I think whoever designed it did a phenom job and really knows their plants.

    1. Agave 'Blue Glow' and Sedum 'Blue Spruce', who would have thought?! I'm tempted to replicate it.

      Yes, this was the only front yard with interesting landscaping that I spotted. Still a fair bit of lawn elsewhere but I also saw a front yard with large expanses of white (!!) rock. You know, the 1960s desert look?

  6. Really well done. A beautiful property. Echeveria 'Afterglow' in the turquoise pots.

    1. Thank you for the ID. I had an E. 'Afterglow' once but it never looked this good. Tempted to try it again after seeing how nice it was in those turquoise pots.

  7. I love everything except that weeping cedar (because those trees always give me the creeps). I also had the impression that it was almost unreal in its perfection but maybe it's a relatively new installation? You'll have to stalk it at periodic intervals to see how it does over time.

    1. I had the same response initially to the cedar. I find the look vaguely unsettling, like you said. Maybe it was there before the front yard was re-landscaped?

      After a while, the cedar didn't bother me anymore; I think I simply blocked it out.

  8. So many luscious plants! I always admire this level of restraint and excellent partnership of design and plant lust but could never pull it off myself. Someone keeps dragging ones and twos of plants home.

    1. Peter, I think I loved this front yard so much because I know deep down inside that it would never look this perfect if it were my property. Like you, I just love plants too much and always bring home too many that need to be stuck somewhere.

  9. Gerhard and All,

    Google maps has a past timeline of street views for this address and in only May of 2014 the traditional roses and turf were in the yard. It is a lot of fun to compare the different landscape styles and I believe it is an eye opener for those who are, let's say, stuck in a time capsule landscape-wise.

    When I first saw the yard it literally stopped me in my tracks - that is, I had to pull over, park my vehicle and get out and walk around. It is rare to see this interesting and aesthetically pleasing plant variety in one yard. The corner wrap around does lend an assist.

  10. Linnea, thank you for the tip on the Google Street View history feature. I've created an animated GIF that shows this front yard in May 2011, May 2014 and July 2015:

    As you said, in May 2014 it was still roses and turf. The planters were there in 2011 but they were refaced between then and May 2014.

  11. So gorgeous! They really knew what they were doing. Great photos too!

  12. Just spent much money trying to convey something like this to landscape contractor, unfortunately before I saw this lovely yard. Mine is a miss, but will begin reworking on my own now that I've seen these photos. Thank you!

    1. I'm so sorry to hear your landscaper didn't give you what you were asking for. I'm hoping you will be able to make it your own using these photos as inspiration.

  13. What is the name of the really big tree shading the Japanese Maple?

    1. I'm sorry, I really don't know. I have a feeling that tree was planted a long time ago, probably when the house was built.