Sloping succulents and upcycled metal: personal garden of Bay Area landscape designer Mathew McGrath

I love visiting private gardens. They give me an opportunity to learn from what others have created—to be inspired or, conversely, find out what I don't like. If I ever get to create my own dream garden, it will build on everything I've seen over the years.

While I'm eager to discover new things and willing to look closer even at stuff that initially leaves me cold, I virtually never come home thinking, wow, there's nothing I would change in this garden. I'm sure most of us are that way, gravitating naturally towards a pick-and-choose approach. After all, every one of us is unique, so what are the odds we fully embrace what somebody else has done?

Imagine my surprise last Saturday when just that happened. It's all because of this guy:

Mathew McGrath, Farallon Gardens

This is landscape designer Mathew McGrath, the creative mind behind Farallon Gardens, according to their website “one of the leading design and maintenance firms now serving the greater Bay Area.”

Mat and I had been emailing back and forth for a good while, and I finally had the chance to visit him at home in the Berkeley Hills.

Mat's place is near the dead end of a cul-de-sac, sloping down from the street level. I parked at the top, and my jaw dropped when I saw this:

The plants seemed to have been picked straight from my own favorites list: bamboos, leucadendrons, aloes, agaves, puyas, and even some California natives. You can find the same plants in my own garden.

Aloe rubroviolacea

Agave 'Mr Ripple' and Aeonium 'Jack Catlin'

Aloe 'Candy Corn' (Aloe vaotsanda × divaricata)

Kumara plicatilis

And then there were the metal objects interspersed with the plants. Some—like the rebar cylinder below on the left—were straightforward shapes. Others—like the item on the left—not so much.

Chimney flue pipe as a container for an aloe:

Metal drum of some sort behind Agave ovatifolia:

Mexican weeping bamboo (Otatea acuminata ssp. aztecorum) makes a great backdrop for Agave ovatifolia & co.

The curved orange pipes make a minimalistic sculpture that adds vertical interest and a bold pop of color. It turns out they came from a play structure in a public playground. Like so many metal pieces in his garden, Mat found them at Urban Ore Ecopark in Berkeley—a gold mine for people interested in upcycling. I'm planning a trip soon.

Mat couldn't remember what the agave on the right is, but the oval leaves are quite unique

Naked lady flowers (Amaryllis belladonna) are a common sight in Northern California at this time of year. Not only are naked ladies found in many gardens, they have naturalized to the point where some people think they're native to California (like all true amaryllis, they're from South Africa).

One of the darkest flowers I've ever seen on a naked lady (Amaryllis belladonna 'Wayne Roderick')

All the photos you've seen so far were of the top portion of the front garden, i.e. the part you see from the street. Let's walk down the driveway to see more:

Botanical treasures wherever you look—and more metal items I'd love to have, like that enormous spring attached to the oak tree:

Some amazing plants on the far side of the driveway, too:

Horsetail restio (Elegia capensis)

The real attraction, though, is the hillside that slopes down from the street level:

A trio of cordylines, including this Cordyline banksii 'Electric Pink', go vertical while the rest of the plants go horizontal.

Dudleya virens ssp. hassei

Dudleya pulverulenta

Lip fern (Cheilanthes sp.), a genus of rock-dwelling ferns able to tolerate a fair amount of drought

Another Cheilanthes sp.

The flowering plant is Cotyledon orbiculata var. oblonga

There's that mystery agave again (and the big-ass spring on the left)

Aloe 'Carpinteria Gem' in front of a large planter bursting with New Zealand flax (Phormium 'Guardsmen')

The bluish green clump is a Beschorneria hybrid made by Martin Grantham, then working at UC Berkeley Botanical Garden

The hillside is essentially a succulent tapestry on a grand scale. The smallest plants are closest to the sloped driveway as well as the wooden path along the bottom. This allows you to lean over or kneel down and get as close to them as you want.

Aloe 'Yemeni Gold'

The number of plants in the ground is mind-boggling. Fortunately, many of them are vigorous offsetters so their pups can be spread around.

Echeveria agavoides 'Lipstick'

Cotyledon orbiculata var. spuria

Larger plants are used in the middle and towards the back, including agaves and aloes—and the cordylines I've already mentioned.

The golden green conifer on the left is a Kashmir cypress (Cupressus cashmeriana). When I mentioned to Mat that I could easily see myself collecting dwarf conifers if I lived in the Pacific Northwest, he heartily agreed.

Cordyline banksii 'Electric Pink'

A wooden walkway leads from the driveway to the front door (on the right; not visible in the photo below) and beyond to an intimate seating area.

Aloe vaombe

All the way at the back there are several bananas—like me, Mat likes tropical elements.

Miniature pond in a large ceramic planter

On the ground next to the water feature is something that looks like a gigantic pebble. Is it decor, a table of some sort, or a type of chair? I'd say, it's whatever you want it to be. In reality, it's a SoMA Stone by Concreteworks, a design and fabrication studio in Alameda. Its founder, Mark Rogero, is one of Mat's neighbors. And the giant concrete stone is actually a large-scale version of a real stone.

It seems that I discover a new “it” plant at every garden visit. In this case it was Nivenia corymbosa, the shrubby plant you see in the three photos below. Never heard of it? Neither had I. It turns out it's a woody iris from South Africa. The leaves are similar to the iris we all know, just much smaller; they emerge from woody branches which, in turn, are attached to a caudex. Nivenia corymbosa can grow to 10 ft. although it's typically smaller in cultivation. Mat obtained his specimen from Martin Grantham, formerly at UC Berkeley Botanical Garden and now greenhouse manager at San Francisco State University. Martin is one of the leading experts on nivenias in the US and has written an excellent article about his experience with them. And yes, I now have to have my own nivenia—and I don't even particularly like iris.

Woody iris (Nivenia corymbosa)

The area near the front door has a decidedly tropical look, featuring philodendrons, begonias, asparagus and ficus as well as clivias and bromeliads. All of these are plants I like and have.

But back to the hillside. I couldn't get enough of the tremendous variety of plants on display here.

Mat is a “more is more” guy. I can sympathize—while I admire the aesthetics of a minimalist garden, I would never be satisfied with one myself. There are simply too many wonderful plants out there. Why would I pick just a few?

Seriously, who wouldn't want to have this right at their doorstep?

LEFT: Agave triangularis    RIGHT: Agave montana

Agave montana

LEFT: Aloe lineata var. muirii   RIGHT: Agave mitis

LEFT, TOP: Agave 'Blue Glow'   RIGHT: Agave ellemeetiana 'Sateen'

Agave ellemeetiana 'Sateen'

This kind of planting is a natural remedy against the blues. I'm sure I had a big smile on my face the entire time I was there.

When you run out room in the ground, containers start to appear. Not that I know anything about that!

And I don't have anything as cool as that orange thing, whatever it is or may once have been.

Boophane disticha 

Blood lily (Haemanthus coccineus) 

×Mangave 'Lavender Lady' in a sea of jelly beans (Sedum rubrotinctum)

Lush plantings along the fence to the neighboring property. Mat is trying his best to incorporate the view of Tilden Regional Park in the distance but the trees next door don't make it easy.

I love everything about this seating area—from the blue chairs to the SoMO Stone to the Jenner Lounge, also from Concreteworks. It pays to have neighbors like Concreteworks founder Mark Rogero.

SoMA Stone from Concreteworks in Alameda

This round-bellied bottle would look great on my bottle tree—just saying!

Just a few more photos from the lush side yard:

Tree ferns (Dicksonia antarctica and Cyathea cooperi) and...

...another specimen of Martin Grantham's Beschorneria hybrid

A deck sheltered by a small stand of redwood trees made me think I'd magically been transported to the Northern California coast. Amazing how different this part of the garden is from the succulent hill in the front!

Another SoMA Stone in the center of the redwood deck

The backyard is huge—close to a half acre if I remember correctly. It's a work in progress so I didn't take any photos. There's also a small greenhouse, which Mat uses for propagation and to overwinter tender plants.

It's rare for me to immediately feel at home in a garden I've never seen before. That speaks to a connection at a very personal level. In a similar vein, there was such an ease to the conversation I had with Mat that it felt like I'd known him for years when in reality this was the first time we'd met in person. That's what happens when two fellow plant nerds cross paths!

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  1. It's not every day you meet a kindred spirit - that's a connection to be valued. I honestly can't say I can recall any garden with a range of plants that broad. I'm not sure I've even seen that kind of variety in any of the nurseries and garden centers I shop!

    1. As a landscape designer, Mat has access to plant material from many different sources. And he buys the stuff mainstream nurseries are too timid to carry :).

  2. A massive collection of plants. A mini botanical garden. Does Matthew keep any kind of record of what he has planted? I can definitely see you wanting a garden like this. The more space the better.

    1. I don't know if Mat keeps detailed records. Knowing from personal experience, it's a daunting task.

  3. Fabulous garden! And now I need to get my Agave elllemeetiana in the ground if it can look like that! Also coveting the "orange thing" and those little expanded metal tables! Thanks so much for this visit, Gerhard.

    1. Mat thinks Agave ellemeetiana might be hardier than attenuata (even he has problems with it in the Berkeley Hills). And since its leaves are a bit thicker, it's not as easily damaged by slugs and other bugs. I'm going to try growing one in the ground.

  4. Wow, that’s a lot of plants to love. Thanks for taking us along on this garden visit.

  5. The mixture of agave / aloe with the softer forms of Beschorneria, Tree Ferns and Bamboo is a nice combination. It's hard sometimes for people to appreciate a landscape with only succulents.

    1. I agree! An all-succulent garden is very, very difficult. I wouldn't even try.

      I'm a big fan of contrast, that's why hard/soft juxtapositions are so appealing to me.

  6. More is definitely more in this case. Great garden.

    The beautiful mystery agave looks like it has some titanota in it.

    1. I think the mystery agave might be 'Mr. Ripple' plus a little bit of something else.

  7. What a gem this garden is.You must have been agog the whole way. It's always great to visit the garden of a collector, especially one who has managed to create a cohesive look out of a zillion different plants. I've been following him on Instagram for some time. Thanks for the tour !

    1. Mat's Instagram photos are fantastic. If you're an Insta fan, I highly recommend you follow him:


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