Troy McGregor's backyard redesign: why rocks make all the difference

When I visited landscape designer Troy McGregor in mid-April, he was redoing a major part of his backyard—the area that would have been the lawn in the good old days. I was there when a shipment of rocks arrived, and throughout the summer I was wondering what Troy had done with them.

Last Saturday I went back to Troy's to pick up some plants, and I finally saw the finished product: a masterful multi-level rockscape that is now home to the kinds of plants I love.

If I woke up one morning and saw this view from our front windows, I would have a happy smile on my face. 

As I started to take a closer look, I realized how much rocks contribute to a landscape design—especially one that's on such an intimate scale. The smaller the landscape, the more important each element becomes. It takes a skilled eye, and iron discipline, to know when to stop. Troy clearly knew.

Troy could have chosen a minimalistic approach: just a few plant selections, repeated over and over for a massed effect. I'm glad went for diversity instead, celebrating the enormous variety of plants he can grow in the Goldilocks climate of Martinez, just a few miles from San Francisco Bay.

Troy was able to find several square blocks of rock that form a subtle but dramatic contrast the sharper-edge rocks elsewhere.

Aloe glauca 'Namaqualand'

Aloe capitata var. quartziticola and Gomphrena haageana 'Strawberry Fields'

Look at how the echeverias are nestled up against the rocks. It's hard to believe this landscape is only a few months old.

Gomphrena haageana 'Strawberry Fields' again. I first noticed this Texas native at Annie's Annuals and brought one home.

Encephalartos lehmannii and Echeveria sp.

Crassula sarcocaulis in front of one of the square rocks

Aloe capitata var. quartziticola and friends. I think the pieces of driftwood are nice additions.

Echeverias and Dudleya brittonii

Crassula sarcocaulis and one of Troy's first artistic creations, made in a welding workshop he recently took

Another of Troy's metal creations

The best use of old reciprocating saw blades I've ever seen! The plant to the right is a Banksia alliacea (formerly Dryandra nervosa) from Western Australia.

Meyer lemon tree in Troy's and Vicki's backyard. A covered seating area is on the left.

Troy and Patterson

No, this tree isn't dead. It's the juvenile form of New Zealand lancewood (Pseudopanax crassifolius). The adult tree looks very different. Troy is growing a batch of seedlings, and one has my name on it.

As I was leaving, I took a few snaps of the front garden:

Grevillea 'Peaches and Cream' blooming year round. The spikes poking out to the left of the grevillea are from a giant lobelia from Chile (Lobelia excelsa).

This is the best Leucadendron 'Ebony' I've ever seen. I'm very jealous!

Hellstrip beauty

The light was very contrasty on Saturday and it was difficult to get decent photos. I hope to go back later in the year when there's a high overcast. But even in this harsh lighting it was easy to appreciate the masterful work Troy has done in such a small space. 

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  1. Lol, I’m in the background with a beer in hand.. nice write up, chronicling how much work and thoughtful design went into their garden. Cheers!

  2. What a fun afternoon. Beer and plant talk. Let's do it again.

    1. Patterson has already made a play date with me. ��

  3. More evidence that I need more rocks! I'm envious of both the Grevillea 'Peaches & Cream' and Leucadendron 'Ebony' - neither of mine look anywhere near as good.

  4. Wonderful garden! I want to add rock to my front slope. It seems incomplete without.

    Scale is critical in the use of rocks. They must be the right size for the space. Troy's are the right size.

    Also an excellent example of how to make a great looking landscape out of a whole lot of different plants. A critical thing for we plant lovers who prize plant variety over all.

    What is the tree on the right in the first photo?

    1. It's a Feijoa sellowiana. AKA 'The Bone of Contention Plant'. Vicki loves it, I hate it... can you guess who has the most convincing argument?

  5. What a beautiful garden. I love interesting hardscpaes and all of this rock didn't disappoint.


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