David Feix's tropical jungle in Berkeley

Berkeley is only 60 miles from Davis, but it might as well be a different planet. In the summer, people in Davis wear as little as they can get away with because it's 100°F outside; in Berkeley, they don wool sweaters and wrap scarves around their necks because it's a chilly 65°F. OK, that's a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the idea. A mid-summer daytrip to San Francisco Bay is always a welcome escape, especially when plants are involved. Even better: an organized event that makes the trip legit.

In late July, I had the opportunity to visit several Berkeley-area gardens as part of the San Francisco Bromeliad Society's East Bay Garden Tour. The first stop was the garden of well-known landscape designer David Feix. David started his professional career as a landscape architect but soon switched to landscape design because his primary interest was creating plant-focused gardens instead of projects that prioritize the hardscape. A plant geek to the core, he has been a major influencer in the Bay Area landscape design and gardening community, introducing plants from all over the world in his gardens.

I've been following David for years on social media channels, but I'd never actually met him in person. That's why I was excited to finally see his own personal space. Knowing that David's garden designs center on bromeliads, succulents, subtropicals and Mediterranean-climate plants, I had a pretty good idea what to expect. However, I was still surprised by the sheet density of plants both in his front and back garden—and the almost shocking greenness. Yes, this is Berkeley with its Goldilocks climate (mild and frost-free winters, warm but not hot summers), but David's garden is extraordinarily lush even for Berkeley.

Front garden

The day of my visit was sunny, resulting in very contrasty conditions and making photography difficult. The fact that there were 40+ other people in the garden at the same time didn't make things easier. I'm hoping that I'll have a chance to visit again on an overcast day, and with fewer people around, but for now here are my photographic impressions of David's private sanctuary. 

David's hell strip (left) has the tallest and densest planting of any hell strip I've seen

Bamboo, bromeliads, succulents, neatly trimmed to avoid obstructing the sidewalk and street

I wonder if this street-side planting causes distracted driving?

Aechmea caudata (large form) and Billbergia vittata

Wittrockia gigantea 'Leopardinum'

Wittrockia gigantea 'Leopardinum'

Who needs outdoor garage access when you can use the space for ferns and other lush plants!

Alcantarea imperialis and friends; on the right is the side yard that lead to the back

Spotted in front of the yard waste bin

Side yard leading into the back garden

The back garden isn't large. If the plants were low enough, you could take in the entire space from the spot where I took this photo (essentially where you emerge from the side yard). But with such mature plants and a leisurely curving path, the back garden looks infinitely bigger.

There were 30-40 other people in the garden, but it didn't feel overly crammed (except around the table with the food)

The blue fern is Phlebodium pseudoaureum. It's an epiphyte from the tropical and subtropical regions of the Americas. It's the hardier sibling of the closely related Phlebodium aureum.

This is the kind of garden where you don't see much, if any, bare soil. This density helps prevent evaporation and suppresses the growth of weeds. 

While many plants are in the ground, a surprising number are in pots. Simply by rearranging them, David could create a different look anytime he felt like it!

Flowers are nice, but foliage is forever

Perfect foliage vignette. The very large leaves are from a flowering banana (Musa ornata).

Looking towards the house

Textbook juxtaposition of contrasting foliage sizes

My favorite vignette: Alcantarea imperialis (the large bromeliad) and a stunning palm (Trachycarpus martianus)

Aechmea nudicaulis

Proof that there's always an agave, you just have to look hard enough (Agave 'Royal Spine')

Not a great photo because of the exceedingly contrast light, but I loved this urn

Food—always a powerful attractant!

Another one of these urns—where can I get one?

Hanging cactus and neoregelias

Almost as tall the house, this plant led to a lively discussion as to what it might be...

...it turned out it's a tree daisy from the cloud forests of Mexico (Polymnia maculata)

Kitchen window on the right

Because of the harsh lighting and the many people I wasn't able to document David's garden as fully as I would have liked, but it's home to an amazing array of plants, many of which I wasn't able to identify (other than "palm," "bromeliad," "fern"). But you get the idea of what kinds of plants David likes. One thing is certain: When he says, “it's a jungle out there," he means it—literally.

My main takeaway from this visit: I now know where to go when I need a quick getaway from the summer heat. I don't even need to bother David; I can simply bring a beach chair and set it up right in front of his house. Ah, relaxing in the cool jungle of Berkeley!

Thank you to David Feix for correcting my plant IDs.

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  1. An excellent write-up Gerhard, and you have a real talent for getting great photos under difficult conditions! You were mostly correct with plant names; just a few corrections. The Heliconia is actually Musa ornata,(I do have some Heliconia scheideana in the garden too). The blue fern is Phlebodium pseudoaureum, the more hardy form.from Suncrest Nursery. That is a Trachycarpus martianus. The red and yellow blooming Aechmea in the street strip is Ae. nudicaulis.

    You are most welcome to visit again, I am generally home weekend mornings and before 10am the sun is generally less of an issue even without fog. Also, th Bromeliad Society is going to visit one of my favorite client's garden in Redwood City at 2pm on Sunday Sept 29th if you'd like to attend. We aren't expecting as many folks so you could bring friends if you'd like. It is Marilyn Moyer's and Peder Samuelson's garden, and the 3/4 acre garden is an oasis of Aloes, Agaves, succulents, bromeliads and subtropicals. PM me if interested, and they've got a pool so you could bring a swimsuit too!

    1. David, thank you for the correct plant IDs and for your invitation. I'd love to come by again and will give you ample notice.

      I'll do my best to make it to Marilyn and Peder's garden. I've seen many of the photos you've posted on Facebook over the years, and their garden is right up my alley :-).

  2. Oh my. His gorgeous garden shows despite harsh lighting. What a treat.

    1. As I was approaching the address I'd entered in Google Maps, I knew instantly which house was David's!

  3. What a great collection of cool plants. The blue fern and the tree daisy especially. Overall the garden looks like it should be in tropical Florida instead of dry California. Thanks for a great tour.

    1. I agree completely! You don't see gardens like David's very often in California.

  4. I've been following David's posts since I broke down and created an IG account last year. I knew he loved bromeliads and had a lot of them but I never imagined his garden was this dense. That hellstrip is wonderful and I'd love to create a tapestry of plants like that (on a smaller scale) to replace the bromeliad bed the raccoons tore up but my area isn't as mild as Berkeley's either.

    1. Maybe creating a bromeliad area with densely packed potted plants would make it harder for the racoons? But probably not. If they want to, they'll find a way to be destructive.

  5. So glad you paid a visit to The Incredible Mr. Feix! What a great plantsman, generous with his knowledge, and overall great guy. And I'm checking my calendar for the 29th...

    1. Denise, it would be fabulous to have both you and Gerhard visit Peder and Marilyn's garden on the 29th. If you wanted to see mine earlier that day it could work too.

    2. David, I hope Denise will be able to make it! If not, I may still take you up on your offer to revisit your garden on the 29th.

  6. Bromeliads planted within bamboo, that's something I've never seen before! David does cramscaping like a master.

  7. Awesome. Love the jungle, so alive! Love also the colors of the house, which meld perfectly with the plants.

    1. Yessssss! David couldn't have chosen better colors for his house!

  8. The Aechmea nudicaulis is the individual flower, the grouped bromeliads are a large form of Aechmea caudata(orange and yellow blooms and quite cold hardy) with purplish foliaged Billbergia vittata.

  9. containing my jealousy - such an unattractive emotion.But damn, how great to get a chance to visit Davids' garden.


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