Idea File: Matt Gil’s garden works with the constraints

The home, garden and studio of San Francisco sculptor Matt Gil and his wife Lesa Porche are tucked against a rocky slope beneath a highway overpass

Unhappy with your garden? I’ll give you something to gripe about: A tiny footprint, most of it vertical. And rocky. Really rocky. The view? Highway pilons, albeit with a lot of blue, California sky. What do you do with a space like that? If you’re sculptor Matt Gil, you use it to create a cool home and studio – and hire Dan Carlson of Wigglestem Gardens to make it green and, yes, beautiful.

So what ideas can a Toronto girl bring home from a California garden like this, with its otherworldly plant palette? As D.M. Thomas once told me in a writing class: You have to plough the field you’re given. Work with what you have. When faced with constraints, don’t rail and complain. Embrace them. You’ll surprise yourself with your own creativity – a worthy topic for today’s Idea File.

What obstacles have spurred you on to new heights?

If you can tear your eyes from Gil’s artwork and the crazy succulents and desert greenery,
look closely at that gravelly “soil” and rocky backdrop. What would you have done here?
A creative exercise I set for myself on this California Garden Blogger’s Fling was to ask which plants could be used to mimic this kind of architectural planting effects for a Toronto climate? Try it; it’s fun.
Look up; look waaaaaay up. Rather than fight it, many of the plants used
reinforce that sense of verticality. Read more about the garden here.
The garden is a showroom for Gil’s work. None of which, unfortunately, would fit in my suitcase.
Through the open door, under a bower of passionflower, is Matt Gil’s studio, which we were privileged to see.
An inspiring beginning to an Idea File-filled trip.

Next time you’re faced with a challenge, think of the power you’ll feel when you conquer it. And give yourself credit for those you’ve already overcome. For some, that can be the biggest challenge of all.


  1. I do the same thing when I see a California garden that I love on Pinterest or on someone's blog — try to think how I can recreate its effect with plants that will thrive here. Good post!

    1. It's a good exercise, isn't it? Not that you'd necessarily want to try to recreate a desert look in a temperate climate. Nevertheless, the attempt gets the brain percolating, and who knows what might brew?

    1. Jason, as someone who toils on maple-rooty, sandy, dry shade, I'll try hard not to hold that against you. Are there times when your deep richness is a hardship?

  2. Hi Helen, this is Lesa, Matt Gil's wife. Thank you for the nice things you wrote about our garden and Matt's art. Your photos are great, you got some angles I've never seen before. I like what you wrote about facing challenges and giving oneself credit for challenges met. Very inspiring!

  3. I do plenty of griping about Austin's challenging climate, but thanks to your post I'll try to think of it as an opportunity now. Great take on this beautiful garden, Helen.

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