Rancho Diablo: a hilltop desert paradise just 15 miles from San Francisco

The California Horticultural Society (Cal Hort) recently organized a visit to one of the most spectacular private gardens in the East Bay I've ever seen: a 5-acre hilltop property with a cactus and succulent garden that would look right at home in Phoenix or Tucson.

As always, a picture is worth a thousand words:

I'd visited once before, in 2014, on a Garden Conservancy Open Day, and I was happy to see that the gardens are as stunning as before—even more so possibly, seeing how the plants are five years older now.

For geographical context, look at the next photo. This is what the approach to the property looks like:

And this is the topography on the other side of the hill:

Nothing prepares you for the wonderland ahead.

The home is a fusion of the historic and the contemporary. The original brick-and-redwood house dates back to the late 1920s. The current owners restored it when they bought the property in 1990 and built both an addition on the east side of the house as well as a separate structure adjacent to it.

My focus, of course, was on the plants. I'm sure you're surprised to hear that (ɴᴏᴛ!).

One of many Yucca rostrata in bloom

Yucca 'Bright Star' in front of Opuntia violaceae

Stray flowers from a Matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri) amidst Agave 'Blue Flame', Agave 'Blue Glow' and Agave parryi var. truncata

Potted Aloe 'Goliath'

Wisteria covering the arbor over the driveway to the lower section of the garden

The crown jewel is the Cactus Garden on the south side of the house. Inspired by the Ruth Bancroft Garden in nearby Walnut Creek, it also brings to mind the Huntington Desert Garden in Pasadena.

Before I show you the Desert Garden in detail, a few more photos of the outside of the house: 

Pool as seen from the outside deck at the entrance level

The pool is one level down from the entrance to the house
One of several Mexican grass trees (Dasylirion longissimum), this one outside the dining room (the pool is off to the right) 

Painted metal prickly pear made me smile

Entryway of the original 1920s home. The front door is behind us, rooms are off to the left and right, and the patio overlooking the Cactus Garden is straight ahead.

View from one of the sitting room windows

Same view from outside


Wisteria seed pods

The entire patio in one panorama

A good place to cache a stack of flagstone for future use or repairs

California poppy growing where they grow best: in cracks

Look closer...

An unexpected surprise of the best kind: a Puya alpestris in bloom

The flower color—a mix between turquoise and sapphire—is so unusual, it verges on looking fake

Backlit by the sun the flowers appear more turquoise, in the shade more sapphire

As you can see, I had a hard time tearing myself away

Time to take a closer look at the Cactus Garden:

Cacti of all shapes and sizes live on the south-facing slope right next to the house. This photo is the eastern edge of the Cactus Garden, with the pool in the back.

Purple slag glass forms a dry riverbed

Grove of ponytail palms (Beaucarnea recurvata)

Massive flower stalk of Agave franzosinii

Looking west, with the house of the right

This hillside is truly spectacular

I can't think of another private property in Northern California that has a cactus and succulent garden of this size and caliber

True, the golden barrels and echinopsis are an awesome sight, but look at the masterful juxtaposition of native boulders, flagstone pieces and slag glass. These elements add so much texture!

Flagstone pieces used as mulch to slow down evaporation merging into a dry-stacked flagstone retaining wall

Cactus wonderland almost within spitting distance of San Francisco Bay

Charlotte Masson, Cal Hort Membership Chair, hiding behind the cacti

Notice the beautiful stone work

I gave up all self-control when I saw these flowering Yucca rostrata...

...and went overboard...

...taking photos

One more!

Planned or not, this is a marvelous combination of colors: Agave salmiana on the left and Agave franzosinii on the right

Green = Agave salmiana, icy blue = Agave franzosinii 

Massive flower spike from an equally massive Agave franzosinii, looking back toward the house

The same Agave franzosinii with prickly pears in the foreground

Another great combination of complementary textures and colors

Opuntia robusta

Glorious as the Cactus Garden is, it isn't the only attraction. There's another surprise waiting at the end of the steep path that leads downhill beyond the Cactus Garden:

Palm trees and agaves form the backbone of the lower garden

The next photo gives a clue that this isn't an ordinary space either:

Nope, nothing ordinary about this:

The statues were salvaged from the original San Francisco Public Library when it was remodeled into the Asian Art Museum in the early 2000s.

The statues—Roman or Greek warriors?—look completely out of place here, but that's what makes this hidden garden so distinctive.

There are many words to describe this assemblage, “surprising“ and “unexpected” being the most obvious. Curious, bizarre, eccentric, offbeat, extraordinary, fantastical, weird, quirky, random, outlandish, startling. They all apply to some degree. And that's why I love it.

The real question is: where I can find my own beaten and distressed warrior statues?

A great garden has great design, great plants, great hardscaping. But a truly memorable garden has something that sets it apart from all the others: something that makes it unique. That something may well have a polarizing effect, evoking strong emotions at either end of the spectrum. But it will cause a reaction, and that's an achievement in and of itself.

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  1. Super cool! With that amount of space plenty of room for franzosinii.

    I love the statues too. They look Beaux-Arts style, very Bay Area. Lovely they got saved, even in their damaged state they are beautiful.

    1. I'd have a completely different reaction to the statues without knowing the background. As it is, they just are muy, muy Bay Area. Wonderful.

      I don't love everything in the garden; in particular the patio chairs are unlovely and actively uninviting. I'm going to assume there's some historic/history of design aspect to that choice.

      The Generalife-style fountain sprays in the pool are an elegant, refreshing touch. The plants look tip-top in condition and quality. I could stand in that entry hall a long, long time; thank you for showing enough of the house to get a feel for it. Thanks overall for the transport to another world!

    2. The patio chairs are made of old horseshoes. Like you, I assume there's a story there. This is the kind of place with lots of stories.

      I didn't want to be too obtrusive by taking photos inside the house but it's beautiful.

  2. wow. I had no idea this existed. It's awesome when enough time, resources and vision come together to create a project like this one. Did you hear more about how the owner managed to get the statues from the Library? I imagine that's a story all by itself.

    1. I have no idea how they got the statues. I assume they knew somebody involved in the project.

  3. The blooming Puya was a nice surprise, as were the statues. I'm not sure I've ever seen a Yucca rostrata in bloom either. The owners know how to frame a view, and you sure know how to frame a photograph. Thanks for the tour!

  4. Hot damn, what a place ! I'll have to keep my eyes open for future openings here. I have my 2014 GC Open Days directory and I looked it up-why didn't I go ?

  5. A truly eclectic garden. Nothing like a bit of the unexpected to create a lasting memory. Maybe you could find your own Roman warriors just in miniature form.

    1. Or life-sized ones in the bed along the sidewalk, to intimidate the city's officious encroachment inspectors...

    2. There has to be a graveyard for stuff like that...

  6. Is slack glass another name for slag, or is it something different?

    1. Slag! Was that autocorrect at play again? Thanks for letting me know. Corrected now.

  7. I agree with Hans...I would love to have contacts who could get me "salvaged" statues! Wow.

  8. Wow, that’s pretty, well, quirky! 😉 But of course fantastic. I had the same reaction to the patio furniture as Nell did, maybe even stronger. They almost made me stop scrolling but I’m glad I didn’t.

    1. Never stop scrolling! Hey, that could be a tagline for something!

  9. I thought I had seen your post on this visit but I guess not! But if I had perhaps my memory is getting to the point where every time is like the first time? Any way these photos and your account really are spectacular! Once again, I get to relive a garden visit through your lens. Thanks!

    1. Mark, you deserve a big thank you for laying the groundwork for so many memorable garden visits!


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