Hillside succulent paradise in the SF East Bay

After our special tour of the Ruth Bancroft Garden last Saturday, the Sacramento Cactus and Succulent Society was invited to visit RBG garden host Stephen Lysaght’s private garden in the East Bay hills. I had seen photos on Facebook of the garden paradise Stephen and his husband Gary have created and I was excited like a kid on Christmas morning.

Here’s a quick teaser:

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But let’s start at the top of the hill.

An unassuming wooden fence hides the treasures waiting within.

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Step through the gate, however, and you immediately know that this is no run-of-the-mill yard.

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In the photo above, the succulent garden you glimpsed at the very top of this post would be to the right. But for now let’s walk down the steps to the level area where the house is.

In most of my posts I focus on the garden and don’t spend too much time talking about the house. But Stephen and Gary’s house is so special that it deserves to be highlighted. It was built in 1929, and on the outside it pretty much looks the same it did back then. Even the roof tiles are original. What I like most about it, other than the general Mission style, is its overall proportion. It sits very harmoniously under the trees without attracting much attention to itself. I think builders back then paid more attention to proper siting than they do now.

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I didn’t have the right lens with me (or a tripod) to take good photos of the inside, but here are a couple. As you can see, the interior is just as special as the exterior.

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All the architectural details are original to the house, including the mosaic floor you see below,

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From the porch outside the entrance you have a beautiful view of the small koi pond, stocked with real fish, and the lawn beyond.

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The two potted rhododendrons on the edge of pond were in full bloom, reflecting in the water.

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At the end far end of the lawn area are several potted Japanese maples that were on fire under the majestic oak trees.

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I can’t remember ever having seen Japanese maples with spring foliage quite so brilliant.

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Unfortunately, I forgot to ask what cultivar they were.

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A brick staircase in front of the house (on the left in the photos above) leads down to the lower level of the 2/3 acre property. The vegetation here is less controlled than at the house level—wilder, if you will, in a secret garden sort of way.

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At the very bottom of the property you’ll find another surprise, or three: the greenhouses. One is a sturdy wooden structure that Stephen and Gary built from a kit, two are yurts with sides and roofs made of some poly material. To my own surprise, I didn’t take any photos of the exterior of the yurts.

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The greenhouses contain Stephen’s large massive collection of succulents and caudiciforms. 

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I’ve been to some pretty well-known botanical gardens that have a smaller collection than this!

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And a peek inside the yurts:

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I’m not doing this collection justice by showing you just a few wide shots. So many plants were magnificent specimens that deserve standalone posts.

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And one more thing: Not only are the plants well grown, the greenhouses are impeccably clean. Staying on top of that requires a great deal of time and effort!

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There is a fourth structure in this part of the garden: the original garage. The area where the greenhouses now are used to be the driveway. Unfortunately, the previous owner of the property sold off a section of it decades again, cutting off street access from the driveway and rendering the garage unnecessary. Parking is now at the top of the property, and Stephen and Gary are using the former garage as a tool and potting shed. It must be quite a chore hauling bags of potting soil and other supplies all the way from the top of the hill down to the other end of the property!

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I’m sure by now you’ve guessed that I’ve saved the best for last. Not to put down the other areas of the garden in any way, but the succulent garden was what most folks in our group were primarily interested in. Located slightly above the house, it’s not large but it’s jam-packed with goodies.

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The photo above and the one below were actually taken from the car port at street level. Check out those impressive aloes in pots!

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The succulent garden consists of two beds and a brick walkway in between. The bed next to the house is the larger of the two.

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Stephen and Gary redid it completely less than a year ago.

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The number—and variety—of plants packed into these beds is astounding. You have everything from aloes, agaves, cacti and euphorbias to caudiciforms and cycads.

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There are intriguing plants close to the ground…and reaching into sky.

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The beds are as meticulously maintained as the greenhouses and the rest of the property.

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I felt a bit overwhelmed, not knowing where to look first or next and wanting to photograph it all.

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In the past, I haven’t been a fan of red lava rock as a top dressing. However, these smaller pieces look nice and clean.

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So much to see!

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The most striking plant at the far end of the brick path is a multi-armed Euphorbia ammak ‘Variegata’. It positively glows next to a purple smoke bush (Cotinus coggygria).

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It looks like the Euphorbia ammak is blooming, but the inflorescence is actually from a spurge (Euphorbia characias) behind it

Another Euphorbia ammak ‘Variegata’ is in the smaller bed in the succulent garden, next to a metal sculpture I’d love to have in my own yard.

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Two more photos to wrap up this post:

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Euphorbia lambii, a shrubby spurge from the Canary Islands

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A combination I’ve never seen before: Aloe excelsa and monkey-puzzle tree (Araucauria araucana)

Thank you again, Stephen and Gary, for inviting us into your hillside paradise. You have created something truly special!


  1. OMG!!!! what a treat. I would give up any day to come and see this garden. You are so lucky Gerhard.

    1. Believe me, I feel very lucky. I've known Stephen for a while now, and I'm very happy I finally got to see his garden--and meet Gary. The two of them are the nicest people you'll ever meet.

  2. What a magnificent paradise they have created!

    1. Initially I felt a bit embarrassed by my own garden, but now I feel motivated to reach even higher.

  3. Well damn ! I guess I should have Benn a hanger-on for a bit longer. This is beautiful, and love the old spanish style houses--my hometown (LA) is full of them.

    1. I was wondering why you weren't there, but then I realized that I never asked you to come along. I felt so bad.

  4. Beautiful! And like you said, so well maintained... This makes me want to go pull my weeds also!

  5. Impressive! Stephen is a true cactus and succulent addict.

    1. Indeed he is. His knowledge, and his enthusiasm, make him the perfect garden host for the Ruth Bancroft Garden.

  6. Yep...you're lucky....and so are we cuz you brought us along.

  7. Wow, Gerhard, this is lovely. As usual, your photos make it magical. I do think Spanish architecture helps any succulent garden, too!

    1. Thank you!

      Yes, the architecture is the perfect backdrop for succulents. I would LOVE to live in a house like that.

  8. I've not been a fan of red lava rock either. What changed your mind here?

    1. I really liked how the red lava rock played off the red brick walkway in Stephen and Gary's garden. When I got home, I tossed a handful of 3/8" red lava rock on one of succulent mounds in the front yard but the color clashes with the blue-gray of the pathways so it won't work in my garden.

  9. I bet you could spend a week in there, and still not see everything... I completely agree with your statement: "I think builders back then paid more attention to proper siting than they do now." In fact, I think proper siting is pretty much a lost art, so it's nice to see a house that is completely at ease in its environment. I love the large oak tree canopy shielding it from above. Thanks for the nice treat, Gerhard!

    1. This garden is so peaceful and quiet, I have a feeling I'd do a lot of napping.

  10. What can I say beyond "Wow!" What a gorgeous property and garden, lovingly maintained. I hope someday my little baby Oak will approach those in majesty. Now I must go out and groom all my potted succulents--those in the photos put mine to shame, and I have 1/100th as many.

    1. I tend not to pay much attention to oak trees until I see specimens like these. Then my jaw drops to the floor.

  11. That original mosaic floor is really something. I'm glad you bent your rules a little to include that. What a find, Gerhard. Some people really have that immaculately tidy vibe along with plant acquisitiveness -- I confess I have one, but not the other!

    1. The entire house was like that. One special detail after another.

      I'm exactly like you: I love acquiring plants, but I find it hard to keep everything immaculately tidy.

  12. Stunning. I want to pass this on to others. Really wonderful to include us all in Gerhard.... thanks so much!


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