Exotic paradise in the Oakland Hills: Casa de Sueños

Last Saturday, July 30, was another Garden Conservancy East Bay Open Day. I enjoy visiting private gardens I would otherwise not get to see, and I’m glad the Garden Conservancy returned for the second time this year to the Berkeley/Oakland area. Due to time constraints I was able to visit only two of the five gardens on tour, but that’s better than nothing.

The first garden I visited was a 1-acre property in the Oakland Hills. As I was approaching, I caught tantalizing glimpses of Oakland, the San Francisco Bay, and San Francisco beyond. That is one reason real estate here is off-the-charts pricey. But my first destination wasn’t about the views, it was all about the plants.


Mexican weeping bamboo (Otatea acuminata ssp. aztecorum) and orange clock vine (Thunbergia gregorii) behind the gate at the bottom of the driveway

In the Garden Conservancy Open Day Directory, this property is listed as Casa de Sueños (Spanish for “house of dreams”) and described as follows:

In the beginning…a full acre covered with giant eucalyptus, juniper, and ivy has been transformed into a garden paradise. As a landscape designer, my son and our crew have worked continually building stone walls, patios, and pathways, a large koi pond, arbors, a shade house, and a nursery. My travels have inspired me to create lush and interesting plantings…graced with many friends art including Keeyla Meadows, Marcia Donahue, and Vickie Jo Sowell.

I was one of the first visitors of the day, and since she wasn’t busy, I had a chance to speak with the homeowner, garden designer Sherry Merciari. She said they removed most of the vegetation that was there when they bought the property 18 years ago, primarily eucalyptus and ivy. Other than a few native oak trees, they started with a blank canvas. And what a masterpiece she painted on that canvas! With exotic plantings so lush and tall they seemed to swallow you up, I felt transported to a tropical locale thousands of miles away. You will see what I mean.

But let’s start at the start, in this case at the bottom of the long driveway. There are several leucadendrons outside the gate, with a stunning juvenile Mexican blue palm (Brahea armata) growing between them. The contrast was beautiful, especially since the leucadendrons were backlit.



Just inside the gate, this steely blue agave growing amidst a veritable tapestry of small shrubs and grasses caught my eye:



Now we get the first glimpse of the house. It is completely engulfed by plants on all sides.



Yucca linearifolia

Here is the Garden Conservancy sign-in table at the top of the driveway. It gives you an idea of how long the driveway is.


Looking towards the house from the top of the driveway:


The variety of plants in pots and in the ground is staggering. There is everything from succulents to proteas to bromeliads to bamboos.


Banksia blechnifolia, a groundcover protea from Australia


Acacia cognata ‘Cousin Itt’ and Beaucarnea recurvata


Acacia cognata ‘Cousin Itt’ from the other side


Small koi pond


Vickie Jo Sowell sculpture behind the koi pond

Now I’m flush with the house, looking towards the driveway. The koi pond is off to the left.


Plantings and ornaments next to the house:




I loved the deep overhang of the roof and the Aloidendron ‘Hercules’ on the right


Seen along the lower path to the pool house: Is this a pot cemetery?


Lovely bamboos near the pool house



Pool house


Bamboo and sempervivum


OK, I’ll admit it: I couldn’t get enough of the bamboo. It was meticulously maintained.


Agave victoria-reginae and Agave attenuata on the flagstone deck next to the pool


Not your run-of-the-mill flagstone deck


Sitting area on the other side of the pool


Hardy manihot (Manihot grahamii)


Beads in the manihot tree


Swimming pool and house



Rice paper plant (Tetrapanax papyrifer)


Rice paper plant (Tetrapanax papyrifer)

Vignettes from the short path that leads from the sitting area above through a small grove of exotic plantings:




Now we’re backtracking a little to the edge of the koi pond…


…and from there to a lath house filled with more plants than my brain could process:


Once upon a time, the driveway wrapped around the house and terminated at the garage. Today the driveway ends near the palm tree you saw in the photo of the Garden Conservancy sign-up table. The rest of it, while still paved, has been converted to garden space and is filled with planters, pots, tables, etc..


Massive yucca behind the house (left), plantings in the middle of what once was the driveway (right)


NOID cycad




In the upper left you get a glimpse of the garage:



Of all the seating areas, this was my favorite. I could see myself sitting at the table, writing my blog posts…


If you look at the photo above, you’ll see a tall iron fence to the right of the house.Behind it is a “hidden” courtyard that is filled to the brim with tropical plants. I thought I was in a resort in Hawaii!


The house may seem modest, especially since it’s so well hidden by all the plants, but it’s quite a jewel in its own right. Not every house has an outdoor fireplace and built in shelves!


In the inner courtyard


Canna ‘Stuttgart’ and Ensete lasiocarpum (right). The path leads out to the driveway and my favorite seating area mentioned above.




Golden lotus banana (Ensete lasiocarpum, previously Musella lasiocarpa)

Back on what used to be the driveway, I spotted this shrine. I don’t know what kind of shrine it was, but there was something so peaceful (and powerful) about it, I stood there for 5 minutes—entranced.


The offerings were Asian pear and castor bean flowers


Upright elephant ear (Alocasia macrorrhiza) in flower


Back at the top of the driveway

Casa de Sueños was a truly spectacular place to visit. The gentle climate of the Oakland Hills—virtually no frost, and none of the extreme summer temperatures the inland areas get—makes it possible to grow a lush paradise like this. Watering hundreds upon hundreds of pots must be a time-consuming undertaking, but Sherry enjoys it as a way of staying connected with her plants.

But that’s not quite the end of the story. As it turns out, Sherry leases the 1-acre undeveloped lot next door and uses it as a small backyard nursery (she has public plant sales several times a year). What you see on the right in the next photo are some of the nursery plants:


And here are more:


And even more:



Beyond the nursery tables I came across this massive Agave salmiana. I think it scared the other two visitors but I thought it looked majestic.


The top half of the leased parcel (on the left in the photo above) is home to more than a dozen fruit trees, with the bounty shared between Sherry and her neighbor. What a perfect arrangement!


  1. Your post title has instantly drawn me to read it, no surprises there :) and what a gorgeous, exotic garden! Ahh to only have that climate and space...

    1. I know! Everytime I'm in the Bay Area I try not to become too jealous of their climate. And having a full acre at my disposal would be just dreamy.

  2. I love the tropical elements, especially the Manihot, which has suddenly risen to the top of my must-have plant list. Might the pottery shards have been intended to serve as toad abodes?

    1. A friend of mine gave me a seedling from her Manihot grahamii, and it's now a 12 ft. tree. This year it's setting seed for the first time. If I have any volunteer seedlings, I'll be happy to send you one next year.

      Toad abodes! That would never have occurred to me. Sounds like a reasonable explanation!

  3. Sherry's garden is always wonderful to visit, I can only imagine how nice it might be to actually live there. Sherry and I share so many similar tastes in designing with plants, where her garden really shines is the beautiful stone work. That interior patio is also one of my favorite spaces in her garden, although her son Fred's newer Casita and private garden is awfully sweet too. Surprised you didn't feature more photos of the pond, another grand gesture. Thanks for sharing your photos, I had to work that weekend, this is my busy season.

    1. You're so lucky, being plugged into the landscape design community in the East Bay and seeing so many wonderful places.

      Yes, the stone work was beautiful. There were many more things I wanted to photograph, but the lighting was so bad at times that it wasn't possible. I took more photos of the pond, but they were too bad to feature in this post (splotchy, high contrast) so I deleted them. I hope to go back in the fall when Sherry has her plant sale.

  4. What an amazing garden yiou were able to visit, I am jealous of your proximity to all these riches. The words "manihot tree" alone ignite serious plant/climate envy.

    1. Manihot grahamii might be hardy enough in Portland. Have you given it a try? This blog post says it's hardy in Boston!

  5. Amazing garden! The only thing in common between it and mine is that part of my driveway has become covered in potted plants and other things too -- but probably not in a nice way like this one. :)

  6. Oh, Gerhard, this post was a treat. I need to dial in on when she has her public plants sales. That's a must-go destination!

    1. I'll let you know if I hear anything about Sherry's plant sales. The next time you're in the Bay Area, please let me know. Would love to get together.

  7. I recognized this garden and after some research I found that I visited when it was open in 2010(still have the directory !) and blogged about it. I was unhappy to find the the few photos on my blog post were all I could find -all the others (and I know there were many more were ) could not be located on my computer --damn! You've sent me on a quest. But wasn't this a seriously great garden ?

    1. I didn't think I was going to able to go because of friends visiting but I arranged to pick them up at BART in Oakland so I killed two birds with one stone. AND we stopped at the Ruth Bancroft Garden on the way home (they'd never been, and they've lived in SF for 20+ years).

      Yes, Sherry's garden is one of the best I've seen in the East Bay. Maybe we can meet up there for her fall plant sale? I'll let you know when I find out about the date.

  8. What a property. What a garden. Its all dreamy.

  9. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  10. Sherry has beautiful garden. I basically grew up in that garden. My dad work with sherry maintaining her garden and helping her move plants to make it look like she wanted it to look.

    1. How cool is that?!? It must have been magical for you to be able spend so much time there!


Post a Comment