Mat McGrath's Berkeley Hills garden: spectacular even in late summer

Summer, especially late summer, is one of the most trying times of the year in our Sacramento Valley garden. Tired of the heat and lack of precipitation, plants and people alike are in stasis, waiting for cooler weather to arrive—and with it the promise of rain.

Things are quite different in the Berkeley Hills 60 miles west of here, as I witnessed myself last weekend when I visited the garden of my friend Mat McGrath, owner of Farallon Gardens, a Bay Area landscape and garden design company dedicated to “creating and maintaining living works of art.” (His website showcases a variety of projects he and his team have completed.)

Mat had told me that his garden was looking really good right now. This turned out to be the understatement of the year—“spectacular” would be a much better adjective to use. Enjoying additional moisture from the marine layer that makes a regular appearance in the summer, the plants in Mat's garden look vibrant and fresh in a way mine simply don't at this time of year. Of course the fact that temperatures are routinely 20°F cooler than here in Davis also helps.

I had a great time visiting with Mat and photographing the slice of paradise he's created high above Berkeley. I enjoyed the balmy weather, too!

Mat's lot slopes down from the street level. This is what I saw after I got out of the car: 

Agave ovatifolia, Kumara plicatilis, Puya coerulea var. coerulea, with Rhodocoma capensis top right

Mat likes to intersperse found metal objects with his plants. Most of them came from Urban Ore Ecopark in Berkeley, a favorite source of Bay Area artists and gardeners looking for things to upcycle.

Ultimately, though, the plants always take center stage—just the way it should be.

Aloe 'Moonglow' with a reddish tint mine have never had even though they get plenty of sun

Agave ovatifolia and Kumara plicatilis

The large aloe came labeled as Aloe thraskii, although Mat says the flowers aren't quite right (orange-red as opposed to yellow). He thinks it's an open-pollinated A. thraskii hybrid. 

LEFT: Naked lady (Amaryllis belladonna)  RIGHT: ×Amarygia, a cross between Amaryllis belladonna and a Brunsvigia (probably Brunsvigia orientalis

×Mangave in a chimney flue pipe, and upended glass bottle

Mexican weeping bamboo (Otatea acuminata var. aztecorum) forming a spectacular background

Agave attenuata

Mexican weeping bamboo (Otatea acuminata var. aztecorum) and Agave ovatifolia 

Mexican weeping bamboo (Otatea acuminata var. aztecorum) and Agave ovatifolia

Agave montana

Agave 'Blue Flame' showing some variegation

Agave 'Mr. Ripple'

Looking beyond Agave 'Mr. Ripple' towards...

...Elegia capensis 'Ginny's Giant', another impressive South African restio

Dudleya virens ssp. hassei getting cozy with an Agave parryi

One of the most spectacular forms of Agave montana I've ever seen

Agave guadalajarana 'Leon'

×Mangave 'Lavender Lady'

×Mangave 'Kaleidoscope'

Nary a square inch of bare dirt left

So many succulents!

Amazing that, asters aside, all this color is from leaves. The asters (Symphyotrichum sp.) have naturalized and knit the many different plants together.

Agave 'Blue Glow' on top, ×Mangave 'Kaleidoscope' below

Another Agave 'Blue Glow' 

×Mangave 'Bloodlines', a sport of 'Bloodspot' 

This aloe was sold as a “mystery aloe” at Annie's Annuals a few years ago. It clearly has a good portion of Aloe marlothii in it.

Agave geminiflora and Plectranthus neochilus

A particularly nice specimen of Agave titanota

Manfreda undulata 'Chocolate Chips' and Aloe inermis

These Echeveria agavoides 'Lipstick' look like they're lit up from inside

At this point, I'm half-way down the driveway, looking at the densely planted slope:

Cordyline 'Electric Pink' and Phormium 'Guardsmen', with Mexican weeping bamboo towering on top of the slope

So many plants, so little time to explore them all!

Nivenia corymbosa, 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 got his specimen from Martin Grantham, formerly at UC Berkeley Botanical Garden and 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.

Aloe vaombe

Does it get any better than this?

The green agave on the right is Agave ellemeetiana 'Sateen'

Agave montana and an unidentified Billbergia cultivar

Yucca rostrata and Dyckia hybrid

Agave nickelsiae, Aechmea sp, and many more

Looking up the slope towards the street

Looking east

Wider view of the slope, looking west

I have no idea what this orange object is, but it looks cool!

Coleus pot and succulent bowl, both overflowing

Blood lily (Haemanthus coccineus)

Eastern edge of the garden

One of my favorite spots in Mat's garden

This gigantic pebble is a SoMA Stone by Concreteworks, “bold and expressive seating for a variety of spaces.” The founder of Concreteworks, Mark Rogero, is one of Mat's neighbors.

The path to the back garden (not featured) is off to the right, through the lush foliage

Perfectly paired begonias

Variegated Clivia miniata

Mat brought this sign home from Thailand

Walking iris (Neomarica caerulea) from Brazil. It's also called “apostle plant,” based on the belief that the plant doesn't flower until it has 12 leaves, representing the 12 apostles of Jesus.

The flowers of Neomarica caerulea are pretty amazing up close. Unfortunately, they only last a day.

Seeing the late-summer splendor of Mat's garden gave me a jolt of energy which might just tide me over until my own garden starts to perk up again. 

…about previous visits to Mat's garden:

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  1. Thanks for the wonderful tour! That's the succulent slope of my dreams. He used his found sculptural pieces well to embellish rather than overwhelm too. The aster weaving through the one bed has me wondering if I should try moving piece of my Symphyotrichum chilense into one of my succulent beds when I dig it out of the backyard bed it took over - it's supposed to be controllable in a low water setting but apparently my back garden wasn't dry enough...

    1. I'd be very curious to see what might happen with Symphyotrichum chilense in a low-water setting. I've been tempted myself, actually, since I like that kind of unifying effect. I'm going to try something similar in the front yard using mesembs...

  2. Matt was right, the garden is looking quite spectacular. I wonder how many plants are on that slope alone. How big is the garden? It looks quite extensive with different theme areas. The whole garden looks quite lush and tropical. Thank-you for the great tour.

    1. The entire property is 3/4 acre, but the bulk of it is behind the house, largely "wild."

      The slope in front isn't that large. It just looks like it because there are so many plants! Thousands, easily.

  3. This garden is a little piece of heaven: a lot of creativity, good taste, and obviously a super collection of plants. I'm sure Mat spend lots of time tending to his garden to make it look so good, although I didn't notice any paths. I'm wondering how he gets around the tightly planted slope.
    I'm convinced the large pebble is a dinosaur egg! With the tree fern and philodendron, it all looks very "jurassic park"...

    1. As an artist and landscape designer, Mat loves to experiment. His garden is the result of many years of refining...

  4. You have shown us many gardens but I have to say this is my favorite ever. Words do not describe it so thank you for all the photos!

  5. I love the varying sizes of rock. And his varied planting is gorgeous -- amazing that he manages to avoid a specimen garden look even with so many incredible specimens!


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