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

This is part 2 of my post about landscape designer Mat McGrath’s gardens at his new house in Rodeo, California. If you missed part 1 (front yard), click here.

As I mentioned in part 1, I sent Mat a series of questions about this massive project. His answers are interspersed with my photos.

The changes Mat and his wife Mali made to the front yard are astounding, but the transformation in the backyard is nothing short of extraordinary.

Here are some “before” photos provided by Mat. Keep them in mind as you work your way through this post:

The previous owner tamed the steep slope on the east side by building two retaining walls, each with a planting strip above, as well as a wooden deck at the top that affords stunning 180° views. When Mat and Mali moved in, the plantable areas were bare dirt or mulch. This gave them a clean state to start with.

Q: Where did you even begin in the backyard? What did you tackle first?

A: The first steps were hardscaping and infrastructure. We had to shore up the back slope first; we put in drainage behind the cinderblock steps to slow down water movement; we built the staircase in the back centered on the wall with the flagstone pathway up to the deck landing to guide people up the slope. We also put in an extensive French drain from the backyard out to the street to slow down all the water we get from uphill. So far, it’s worked great.

As you enter the backyard, this is what you see now:

Q: Did you do most of the work yourself or let your crew do it? How many people were involved?

A: My amazing crew of three guys did the hardscaping, demo and soil installation. My long-time foreman Tomas Rivera was the lead builder. Mali did most of the planting front and back. We discussed the placements of larger plants, but she tirelessly and painstakingly planted most of what we have now.

This concrete lounger used to be in Mat’s old garden in the Berkeley Hills

Three of many pots planted by Mali

Aloe karasbergensis, Sedum rubrotinctum, and Agave victoriae-reginae

Variegated Agave bovicornuta and ×Graptoveria ‘Fred Ives’

Many of the decorative metal pieces from the olden garden have made the move; Mat is still playing around with their final placement

There’s also a bromeliad wall on the east side of the garage, on the left as you enter the backyard. Here are just a few photos. Unfortunately, the light was too harsh for a wider view.

Moving deeper into the backyard:

Even the spaces between the flagstones are filled with plants

Stepping up a level:

Succulents cheek to jowl

Another “before” photo, looking south, back towards the house:

And now:

Breathtaking views...

...from the top deck

Usually, you need a drone to see your property from above!

I’ve never seen anything like it

It’s hard to see from the bottom, but there are two more planting strips above the top deck:

The sheer number of plants is hard to fathom.

Passionflower, too!

Q: Creating the succulent mosaics must have required thousands of plants. Did they all come from your old garden?

A: Most came from our old garden as we were removing things. Mali is very thrifty and doesn’t like to throw anything away. Everything was started from cuttings.

Q: Did you bring in new/additional soil? What kind? How much?

A: We used 42 yards of Planter Mix from Contra Costa Topsoil for the front garden backfill behind the new walls and berming. We wanted something rich with plenty of organic material but also good drainage. For the succulent beds in the backyard, we used 6 yards of Bancroft Bedding Blend, also from Contra Costa Topsoil.

“Before” photo of the back hill, looking west

Now, the back hill is filled with large tropical plants like bananas and cannas as well as fruit trees and other edible plants:

Q: You’re using some of your garden space for edibles. What fruits and vegetables do you grow?

A: Coming from Thailand, Mali is very interested in edible gardening. Everyone gardens and grows their own food back home. We have two Pink Lady apple trees Mali grew from seed from a very good apple we had years ago in Kensington. We have a Granny Smith apple and a Fuji apple I rescued from a garden project we were demoing.  We planted a satsuma and a Meyer lemon, and there was a half-dead Bearss lime tree here when we moved in which has bounced back nicely.

The backyard consisted of one old rosebush, a massive plumbago, and that lime tree. We have planted blueberries, watermelon, zucchini, and cucumber on the back hill, as well as strawberry guava, and a Mexican guava. We have two stock tanks on the west side of the house where we grow tomatoes, peppers, and herbs. We also have thyme and oregano near the front door for cooking.

The colors are so vibrant, you need sunglasses!

Q: How long did the project take from start to finish?

A: The retaining walls, drainage, and soil work took a few months. We moved in October 2021 and started planting the first of the year 2022. 

The contrast couldn’t be greater: Mat’s and Mali’s garden on the right, their neighbor’s property on the left

As I was following Mat and Mali around, I was trying to wrap my mind around the fact that this astonishing garden is only 1½ years old! As good as the climate, soil and water in Rodeo might be, this garden would not be what it is now without Mat’s and Mali’s vision, determination and, yes, love and care.

Q: Are you done with the project? Is there any work still left to do? Any future plans?

A: We are still planting things every day. The garden will never be finished. Now we sit back and water and watch the garden grow. This project has completely defied our expectations of what it would be. It materialized organically, but much quicker than most gardens I have been involved with. I really believe plants respond to love and care given to them by those who tend them. Plus, we’re blessed with excellent weather, soil and water.

Our future plans are building a house in Thailand in the northeast on Mali’s family rice farm as well as building a botanical garden and nursery for retirement. We have already begun the house. Very exciting stuff!

Dare I even think it? Might there be a trip to Thailand in my future?


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


  1. Seeing the "before" photos, my first though was: how are they getting up to the viewing deck... up the newly installed steps, of course :-)
    Stunning garden, amazing views. Mali and Mat have so much to be proud of: their love of gardening and plants is evident everywhere you look.
    I also like this "interview" style of a post. It's very informative and well organized.
    You must visit again to follow the garden's progress. And then, start planing a trip to Thailand...

    1. I'll try to do more interviews like that. I like the format, too.

  2. It's hard to fathom this has happened in such a short period of time. 42 YARDS of soil! Wow, that is a lot to move. Very impressive!

    1. It's a pile roughly 10 ft x 10 ft x 10 ft. That's a VERY LARGE pile!

  3. The sheer number of plants, the steepness of the slopes and the short period of time in which this has all come together is mind boggling. Kudos to Mali for her plant combos. Absolutely stunning. Curious if the pink lady seedlings have good fruit as usually apples from seed are completely different than their parents.

    1. Mat said the Pink Lady tasted really good. I don't know if he meant fruit from the current tree or from the old tree.

  4. Mali must be an astonishing gardener to have planted all that huge area. Utterly amazing garden! And Mat and his chew completed a landscaping project I would have thought impossible. It is like Heaven on Earth!

    1. Mali had created stunning succulent mosaics at their previous place, but this is a much larger project.

  5. What a delight to read! The color achieved in this garden is extraordinary, as is the density of plantings. Please, I want to see again in a year or two as things fill in. It will be a landmark. Couple terms I’d not seen before: grass tree (part 1, I believe) and concrete lounger. So much to learn here. Thanks to M&M for sharing.

    1. I will definitely post updates!

      Australian grass trees are slow-growing, which is one reason why you never see them in regular nurseries. You can find smaller seedlings occasionally. I have three, and the largest is maybe 1 ft. tall :-).

  6. It's an incredible transformation. What they've done with the slope is something I can only dream of. That 2-tiered planting area bordered by the wood deck is genius. I was impressed by the planting between the flagstones and I may make an attempt to replicate that approach in my own garden. And yes, when they build another home and open a nursery in Thailand, you should should plan a trip!

    1. Something like this, on a smaller scale, would be a great solution for your back slope. But the work involved would be daunting...

  7. I can't understand why the previous owner even desired to own this property! Yay, for Mat and Mali using it and planting it to its full advantage. Like you say, the number of plants is unfathomable...

    1. The previous owner might have become overwhelmed by the size of the project and decided to move on. Maybe they were burned out after building the 2-story addition...

  8. Hard working people to say the least. The property had huge gardening potential and they are making the most of it.

    1. Mat said that when they saw the property for the first time, he knew right away that it was perfect for them.

  9. I’m currently working on putting in a “desert” rock garden in my backyard. I started with a half yard of DG. The mass of that amount surprised me. Forty yards is beyond my comprehension. They have spectacular green thumbs to make such enormous change is so little time.

    1. I can't even picture how big a pile 40 yards of soil would be. The scope of this project is mind-boggling.


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