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.
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
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)
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!