Mat McGrath's new one-of-a-kind Bay Area garden: front yard

With its hillside full of succulents and tropical plants, landscape designer Mat McGrath’s garden in the Berkeley hills (see herehere and here) was one of the most beautiful private gardens I’d ever visited. A year and a half ago, Mat and his wife Mali moved to a new place in the small town of Rodeo, about 25 miles northeast of San Francisco. A few weeks ago, Mat invited me to see what they’d done. I had high expectations, but I was still floored by what I found: a garden so unique that it defies comparison.

I took so many photos that I’ll have two posts: one about the front yard (this post) and another about the backyard. I sent Mat a series of questions, and his answers are interspersed with my photos below.

Here is an aerial photo of the property from the original for-sale listing:

Drone view of the property from the original for-sale listing

The property is a third of an acre, huge for coastal California. At the time Mat and his wife bought it, it was a blank slate: two lawn areas, large expanses of mulch all around, and dry grass on the back slope. Some people might have been deterred by the amount of landscaping required; for Mat and Mali, it was the opportunity of a lifetime to create the garden of their dreams without having to remove any existing landscape. 

Mat is the owner of Farallon Gardens, a Bay Area landscape design company. Having a crew of experienced workers handle the hardscaping and infrastructure allowed Mat and Mali to focus on the design and planting.

Mat and Mali

Here are some “before” photos of the hillside on the east side of the house (photos courtesy of Mat):

I wonder how many cubic yards of mulch were dumped here by the previous owner to create the semblance of curb appeal?

Below is what the hillside looks like now: a kaleidoscope of succulents interspersed with wildflowers native to California.

My first question to Mat: 

Q: Looking at the size of your lot and the blank slate you had, the task of turning a mulch-and-dirt wasteland into a vibrant garden must have been daunting. What was your inspiration for the design?

A: My approach to garden design is intuitive. I draw inspiration from my environment as well as music and art. I don’t plan much; I try to work with what is right in front of me. I love abstract art and jazz music, so I think improvisation plays a role in what I do.

Aloe striatula

Q: How did you tackle a project of this magnitude? What did you do first? 

A: In the front, we removed the lawns and built the retaining walls and new horizontal redwood fences. I knew gophers were very active in the area, so we put in galvanized hardware cloth in the entire front garden. It wasn’t cheap, but it has helped. We’ve had a few gophers come in over the top from the neighbors yard, but I think it’s saving us from a lot of damage.

Q: What prompted you to create a wildflower meadow in the front? When did you sow the seeds?

A: I have always been a fan of wildflowers, especially poppies. I thought it would be a fun way to cover the ground quickly, so we scattered them by hand with the first rains in the fall of 2021. We used the Non GMO Bulk California Wildflower Seed Mix from Dirt Goddess Super Seeds, one pound. I bought it from Amazon. (According to the label, the mix contains 23 species, 74% annual, 8% biennial, 16% perennial.)

Mat planted a cardón (Pachycereus pringlei)... the highest point of the hill. Over time, it will grow into a tall, stately cactus – the perfect sentinel

The bed above the retaining wall on the east side of the driveway contains the only plants Mat kept from the previous landscaping: a row of sago palms (Cycas revoluta). They fit in perfectly with the succulents and wildflowers now growing there.

In addition to succulents (and wildflowers), Mat also planted shrubs from South Africa, like this Leucadendron ’Jester’:

The area in front of the house used to be lawn and mulch (“before” photos courtesy of Mat):

Now, just 1½ years later, it’s a wildflower meadow with succulents and other drought-adapted plants:

The cactus is an Argentine saguaro aka cardón grande (Trichocereus terscheckii). It has the potential to grow to 30+ feet.

Cannomois grandis, arguably the most beautiful of all restios

Agave guadalajarana

Clarkia amoena, an annual wildflower found in coastal hills from British Columbia to the San Francisco Bay Area

A concrete bollard makes a perfect substitute for a hose reel

Succulent tapestry in a pot, created by Mali

Slope below the lawn-turned-into meadow area:

Xanthorrhoea glauca, a grass tree from eastern Australia

Q: Other than keeping some of the sago palms that were there in the front, you brought in all new plants. Where did the plants come from? 

A: Mostly from our greenhouse. We didn’t buy much. I did purchase the three 15-gallon Xanthorrhoea glauca from San Marcos Growers specifically for our garden.

Q: What percentage of plants did you move from your old garden? 

A: We moved about 60% of our old garden over here gradually, truck load by truck load. We knew the hotter conditions would be optimal for plants we couldn’t grow well in the Berkeley Hills. Mali and I moved some massive agaves by ourselves and the new tenant at the old garden helped us tons. He has completely remade that garden, and as he removed things, he always offered us them before disposing of them.

Agave vilmoriniana ‘Stained Glass’

Agave rosalesii from habitat seed Mat collected about 10 years ago near Santiago Nuyoó in Oaxaca, Mexico

The garden in the front is amazing, and I would have been completely satisfied if that had been the end of my visit. But it was just the beginning. There was more – a lot more –waiting in the backyard. Here’s a teaser:

The backyard is a multi-level garden with an insane deck at the top. When I got my first glimpse, I was speechless; I’d never seen anything like it before.

To see more of Mat’s and Mali’s backyard, check back in a few days.

© Gerhard Bock, 2023. All rights reserved. To receive all new posts by email, please subscribe here.


  1. That's a huge accomplishment in an 18-month period! It's great that Mat and Mali were able to move so many plants from their former garden as that certainly must have given them a jump-start - mature plants may be harder to install but they have an immediate impact that just can't be accomplished with 4-inch and one-gallon plants. I'm impressed with how much they were able to do with all those sloped surfaces too. I look forward to seeing what they've done with the back garden.

    1. What really helped is the fact that they brought in new soil. And our wet winter!

  2. It seems unusual for a landscape designer not to follow a strict plan. Possibly because it's his personal home, Mat, inspired by jazz, managed to improvise perfection! For maximum effect in a short amount of time, the meadow seeds really do the trick.

    1. I think many landscape designers consider their own garden an experimental space. I bet Mat learned a few things that he'll be able to transfer to other projects.

  3. It's hard to believe it's the same space, and in such a short amount of time. Completely unique. Can't wait to see the back. Slopes that steep are daunting, but he has managed to make it a huge plus (from the picture you shared).

  4. WOW! It's all I can say! Well, almost all! The Clarkia amoena is heavenly as is everything else and so beautifully natural looking. It all seems to have just popped up there. Such talent!

    1. That clarkia really is special. I've had it a few times, from Annie's Annuals, but it never reseeded for me.

  5. Totally fantastic! I think this is the best make-over I have ever seen. Hopefully people are taking notice.

  6. What an improvement! Wildflowers are a good way to start with a new property, instant pretty giving time to get a feel for what will grow best long term.

    The neighbors must be impressed!


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