Revisiting Mat McGrath's garden in the Berkeley Hills

Last weekend, I met up with landscape designer Mat McGrath of Farallon Gardens at his private garden in the Berkeley Hills. Since my first visit in August 2019, Mat and I have become fast friends—not an unusual phenomenon among hyperfocused plant nerds.

This was my first garden visit during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it was odd to be out and about. During the 60-minute drive to Kensington, I felt a strange mix of uneasiness and guilt, almost as if I were doing something illegal. However, that uncomfortable sensation went away instantly after I arrived. It's easy to see why.

An inspired combo: Puya coerulea var. coerulea and Leucospermum 'Blanche Ito' in front of a large restio (Rhodocoma capensis)

Top of the front garden from street level; you can see the roof of Mat's house behind the Mexican weeping bamboo (Otatea acuminata var. aztecorum)

Yucca recurvifolia 'Margaritaville'

Found metal objects and upcycled planters abound; on the right is a Bromelia pinguin offset I gave Mat

The curved orange pipes came from a play structure in a public park... they make a great backdrop for Agave 'Mr. Ripple' & co.

View from the top of the driveway

One of several Beschorneria albiflora in bloom—the flower stalk is massive!

Unlike agaves, beschornerias don't die after flowering so this is a regular sight in Mat's garden

Beschorneria and Mexican weeping bamboo

View of the hill from the bottom

Mat mixes and matches with wild abandon—and he's a master at it

Aloe mitriformis ssp. distans and Agave bovicornuta 'Holstein'

Agave 'Blue Glow' and Cordyline 'Electric Pink'

Dyckia 'Burgundy Ice' and echeverias

Aloe vaombe

Puya coerulea var. violacea

Wider view towards the west

There's even a gunnera (bottom left)!

Towers of jewels (Echium wildpretii) in full bloom

Agave ellemeetiana, beautiful but not hardy

Unidentified but beautiful bromeliad

The fern is a volunteer that grows in several places in the garden

What a spot to lounge!

×Mangave 'Lavender Lady'

I have no idea what purpose this orange object originally served, but it's a great accent in Mat's garden now

Who wouldn't want to have a lie-down here?

Giant geranium (Geranium maderense), a plant that thrives in the Bay Area and struggles for me in Davis

This is something I must copy: a random bunch of seaweed found on the beach and dried

Teague's Blue bamboo (Himalayacalamus hookerianus 'Teague's Blue')

Beschorneria albiflora and tree fern

Mahonia × media 'Charity' in front of a redwood tree

Astelia nivicola 'Red Devil'

The last set of photos was a taken near the front door. The plantings here are lush and tropical.

Variegated Clivia miniata

Rare yellow-flowering Clivia miniata

Clivia caulescens, a rarely grown species that has much taller flower stalks than the common Clivia miniata

Plant people love to share plants, so Mat sent me home with some special goodies: a variegated Clivia miniata he'd grown from seed off his mother plant (see photo above); Brunsvigia josephinae and Haemanthus coccineus seedlings; several Crassula multicava cuttings; some Iris foetidissima seeds; and a cutting from an unidentified red-leaved tillandsia that forms long stolons.

Mat's landscape design and maintenance business was severely impacted by local coronavirus containment measures; he and his employees were sidelined for a number of weeks. The restrictions were loosened recently, and they have been back at work since early last week. My heart goes out to all the landscapers who have seen their income drop or vanish literally overnight. I hope life will return to a semblance of normalcy for them (and us all) sooner than we're being told by the powers that be.

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  1. Congratulations on getting out and about! I understand that sense of guilt in light of the pandemic but this seems to me to be the safest kind of trip and a good way to curb the stir craziness associated with our lockdown. Mat's garden is full of surprising mixes but I saw lots of plants I'd give my eye teeth for. The sight of the flowering Beschorneria has me thinking I need to dig mine up and get it some sun!

  2. I bet it felt great to actually talk and visit with a fellow plant nut in person. Matt's garden is a treasure trove of gorgeous plants. The variegated clivia is a beauty. You are a very lucky recipient.

  3. I know exactly what you were feeling as you headed out, I've felt it a few times. Lots of plants here to love and now I have a new goal. Instead of just being happy when I get an Echium wildpretii to live to flower now I want at least three of them blooming together and twisting every which way...

  4. Lots and lots of fabulous plants, must have been fun. Climate must be pretty good there, not too hot if there are Redwoods. Oh, for a variegated Clivia!!!!!!!! I have several yellow ones; once yellows were rare but not so much anymore. Brunsvigia josephinae, very cool.

    Landscapers here were not restricted, wonder why. I'm tempted to go for a drive now and then, or go to a large nursery where I can safely avoid people, but somehow the garden always calls--still so much to do before summer attacks.

  5. Stunning front garden beds and a nice mix of plants and garden art (that orange thing!). And then to go home bearing gifts: a day trip to remember.

  6. I've been to Mat's garden thanks to my friends Megan and Matti from S.F. Pretty breath taking, isn't it? So many special plants!


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