A Berkeley Hills garden paradise (part 1)

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit a very special garden in the Berkeley Hills. Owner Ben, who follows my blog, had extended an invitation to drop by, and I gladly took him up on it. Based on the location and some photos Ben had emailed me, my expectations were high, but the reality far exceeded them. You’ll see why in this post and in part 2 to follow later this week (I took so many pictures, I had to spread them out over two posts.)

Ben and his wife bought the property in the late 1990s. The original house had been destroyed in the 1991 Oakland Hills firestorm, like 2,800 other single-family dwellings. The house on Ben’s property was rebuilt, but the two properties next door weren’t.

When Ben and his wife bought the property, there wasn’t much landscaping, just a patio area behind the house. The steep hillside beyond was an expanse of weeds. Ben knew that making a garden here wasn’t going to be a walk in the park, but he persisted. By a stroke of luck, Ben befriended Hap Hollibaugh at Cactus Jungle in Berkeley and found a landscape contractor who was as dedicated to the project as Ben, Ignacio Medina. Over the years, they became good friends, and Ignacio still does the maintenance today.

Ben’s house on the left, vacant lots on the right. You can see how steep the hillside is.

Let’s start at the front of the house. I immediately spotted two square pots with Yucca ’Blue Boy’ near the front door:

Yucca ’Blue Boy’

Yucca ’Blue Boy’

A large bowl planted with a golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii) and Echeveria ’Imbricata’  is nearby:

At the bottom of the steps, a square planter with four Mexican fence post cacti (Lophocereus marginatus) and yellow, orange, and green crassulas:

On top of the lower retaining wall (photo above and below) sits a row of flagstone squares bolted together to form a striking architectural accent. As you’ll see, this feature is repeated in several places: on the other side of the house to hide the garbage cans, and in the back garden as part of the seating areas.

Before we explore the actual garden, let’s take a look at the balcony/terrace in the front of the house:

This is a fantastic place to enjoy the views towards the South Bay. If I lived here, this would be my favorite hangout.

This is what I call a two million dollar view!

Ceramic owls shipped from Portugal by @studiobongardceramics

Haitian metal-art octopus (like this) inlaid in a concrete-top table

A pair of golden barrels with Hesperaloe parviflora

Planting area next to the garage, with a curved flagstone wall hiding the garbage cans:

Landscaped hillside beyond:

Aloes, agaves, cacti, and even a leucadendron and a dioon

Looking up, towards the top of the hillside, as we walk around the side of the house into the back garden:

One of several Abyssinian bananas (Ensete ventricosum ‘Maurelii’) 

Beautifully shaped manzanita (Arctostaphylos sp.) above a stone wall:

Ben has tucked a variety of aeoniums straight into the rock wall to mimic how they grow naturally in the Canary Islands.

I’ve always lived on flat land. Maybe that’s why I’m so crazy about gardening on a hillside property, and the myriad opportunities to plant up.

That dragon tree (Dracaena draco) is the icing on the cake

The patio behind the house is one of the few flat areas on the property:

The planting scheme here is largely tropical. The mild Berkeley climate (virtually frost-free) allows Ben to grow plants that would struggle elsewhere (like in in my garden).

This ponytail palm (Beaucarnea recurvata) is over 50 years old. Ben’s wife bought it as a houseplant when she was in junior high school. It spent many years traversing the Midwest confined in a pot until it was finally set free in the ground here in California.

Ben and his wife commissioned this mural by their friend, Laguna Pueblo artist Marla Allison, because they were tired of staring at the siding of the house when sitting on the patio furniture (see below).

This side of the house is protected from the hot sun, creating a perfect microclimate for tender tropicals and bromeliads:

Neoregelias so perfect you might think they’re fake (they’re not):

Doesn’t this look like it could be in an upscale architectural magazine?

Detail of the retaining wall behind the patio furniture:

Mangave ‘Mission to Mars’ and Beaucarnea stricta are cool, but take a look at that rock work! You’ll see much more of it in part 2 of this post.

Ben (and one of his dogs) at the base of the steps leading up the terraced hillside:

Ben is an active gardener who constantly adds and subtracts, and yet the garden as a whole looks wonderfully mature. What’s key is to let the trees and shrubs grow into adulthood because they form the backbone of the garden. As such, they remain constant fixtures while other plants come and go.

If you like what you’ve seen so far, there’s plenty more to look forward to in part 2 of this post. Here’s a teaser:


  1. Whoa! I’m hooked already. ‘Blue boy’ Yucca had me at hello. And the Ponytail Palm! Let’s see, I’m age 49…
    Thank you, Ben! Your portrait with the bamboo is lovely.

  2. This slope looks far more treacherous than mine and I'm envious of the use Ben and his wife have made of it. Is that a sea creature made of wood I see in the background in photos 31 and 34? I look forward to part 2!

    1. It's a wooden octopus sculpture.

      The rock work on the hillside is impressive!

    2. Yes, it's an octopus carved primarily by chainsaw from a redwood stump by Jordan Anderson. I call the bed "An octopus's garden in the shade".

  3. Beautiful and unique. Berkeley is a fabulous place to garden, I'm envious of the climate. That rock work, wow! I can't wait to see more. *I love that she carted around that ponytail palm for years.

  4. Whether Sansevieria or a Pony Tail palm, I'm always when someone can grow my house plants out doors.
    The series of photos of the 'rocky' hillside is fantastic: I love the aeonium tucked in, the added silvery plants with orange blooms... pops of colors weaving through the green.
    The view off the balcony is amazing. (After putting up a shade umbrella) I'd be spending a lot of time sitting there, gazing, sipping, getting lost in the panoramic goodness. The wroth iron rail design isn't too shabby either!

  5. An amazing garden. The steepness of the hillside makes it even more amazing (and a little bit daunting too). Great exercise climbing up and down. In the photos with the Neoregelias there is a red rosette off to the left of them. What is this? It's gorgeous. Looking forward to part II

  6. Very impressive work on extremely steep slopes--that ain't easy! Does Ben free climb Half Dome in Yosemite for practice before working in his garden? Looking forward to more beauties in part 2.


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