Mariel's collector garden: succulents, pots, fairies and goblins

Visits to private gardens have been few and far between this year, but on Saturday I had the opportunity to visit the garden of Mariel Dennis, the President of the Sacramento Cactus and Succulent Society (SCSS). I'd last seen Mariel's garden in June 2017, and I was eager to find out what had changed.

In a nutshell: Mariel has greatly increased her collection of potted succulents. I don't think I've ever seen a private garden with as many potted specimens. I was joking that one might think they've walked into an upscale garden shop where rare plants were sold in matching pots. 

Mariel is a serious collector, but she has a sense of humor and a taste for the whimsical:

I had so much fun exploring Mariel's garden and collection that I took 200+ photos. Even with rigorous editing, that leaves too many images for one post, so I'll have two: one about the area marked #1 in the satellite image below, and the other about the area marked #2:

Mariel's property is wedge-shaped, and there are two large side yards (1 and 2), with a narrower strip connecting the two. Each side yard has a separate gate. I entered through the north gate (1) and left through the south gate (2).

Here's a stitched panorama of the racks you see immediately after entering through the north gate:

Mariel and her husband Ian had an open garden on Saturday for the Sacramento Cactus and Succulent Society so there were other SCSS members as well, all of us properly masked and more or less socially distanced. The distancing was a bit of a challenge, I won't lie, because all of us are very enthusiastic about succulents and easily get carried away engaged in a lively conversation.

Here are some potted aloes. Most of them are miniature varieties that will be able to live in their container home for many years, possibly all their lives.

This one, Aloe suprafoliata, isn't a miniature and will eventually need to be repotted or moved into the ground. I love how Mariel has it staged.

An early reminder that Halloween is closer than you think

Speaking of Halloween: Take a look at this ambitious Halloween scene in a wheelbarrow:

Mariel loves creating containerized theme gardens. You will see a few more examples towards the end of this post. I have tremendous appreciation for the creativity and sheer work that goes into such a project. I would never be able to do it myself; I simply don't have enough imagination or patience.

Even though the garden is densely packed, there are quite a few places to sit to enjoy the plants and containers.

Mariel is also a dedicated collector of Talavera pottery

Aeoniums in matching square pots. The aeoniums were half asleep (they're not crazy about our summer heat and go semi-dormant); I imagine they look glorious in the fall and spring.

Variegated Yucca gloriosa (left) and Agave 'Blue Glow' on the right

Beautiful piece of glass art

I was crouching down to take photos at ground level when I looked up and saw this dude: Aloidendron 'Hercules'. Whoa, how could I have missed it? It was only a few feet tall in 2017!

Potted Aloe vanbalenii

Even the in-ground plantings are surprisingly intricate

Aeoniums, no surprise. Plumeria (on the right), definitely. 

The area you see in the photo below is the narrower strip that connects the two side yards:

Virtually no space is wasted. Where there's room, there are plants or pots:

Variegated Euphorbia ammak, very cold-sensitive but Mariel's been able to keep it going

Medusa head euphorbia (Euphorbia flanaganii or hybrid) in, what else, a head pot

Looking towards the north side yard (#1 in the satellite image at the top of this post)

Looking towards the north side yard (#2 in the satellite image at the top of this post). The structure at the far end is Mariel's newly built greenhouse.

Here are some more examples of themed gardens in containers (or “fairy gardens,” as they're often called):

This is a close-up of the lower portion of the multi-tiered miniature garden above. The attention to detail is amazing!

Euphorbia grandicornis hybrid against a variegated Pittosporum tobira hedge

Mariel's new greenhouse is ready for the winter. Like virtually all the hardscaping in her garden, it was built by her friend and handyman Steve. Steve also helped us created the SCSS demonstration garden at the Shepard Garden and Arts Center in Sacramento where our club meetings are held. Tragically, Steve passed away unexpectedly a few months ago.

Mariel's collection of potted agaves and cactus is against the south side of the house. You'll see more photos in part 2 of this post, but here's a teaser:

Click here to go to part 2.

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  1. What a great opportunity to forget our troubled world for a few hours. Mariel has a stunning collection one can easily get lost in. I am partial to the planted 'heads', and also taken by the whimsy of all the miniature vignettes. Love the Hercules aloe, the Plumeria (it's blooms are beautifully scented) and the photo you took of the Euphorbia against the Pittosporum hedge: excellent contrast of color and species.

  2. Your gorgeous photos of this garden have given me more inspiration and food for thought than anything I've seen in any a moon. I'm going to start right now implementing some of them: matching pots but differing plants, matching plants but different pots, holiday themes in small gardens, using smaller varieties but many of them. I like all the variety and interest in this garden, not at all boring. But most of all I like how exciting it is without relying on additional watering which seems to be a required occupation in summer these days. Thank you so much for making the effort here to show its fazcination. Looking forward to Part 2.

  3. Really interesting garden, so much in pots. I like the grouping of cats and turtles, all staring as if they were waiting for their dinners.

    How is that club demonstration garden doing, by the way? I remember that post.

  4. That's a LOT of pots! I don't water my potted succulents as often as I should so I can't imagine caring for a collection as large as this one. The miniature Halloween display in a pot was a hoot.

  5. Wow, Mariel does not mess around. Every year at the SF Garden show(you know, back when there was one) I always lingered longingly at the Talavera booth. I could never figure out how to integrate it into my garden. But the plants ! What a fantastic collection.

  6. I bet children love to wander around and look at all the theme gardens and cool heads. An amazing collection of plants. Is the giant sail over the greenhouse meant as shade cloth? Sad about Steve.

  7. Wonderful post on an exceptional garden and potted wonderland. I personally have many potted succulents also since running
    Out of appropriate landscape areas to plant succulents. Mariel has created some of the most interesting potscapes I have ever seen. From her choice of pots to the specific succulents I enjoyed every aspect. Can’t wait to see Part 2!!
    Thanks for sharing as always.
    Would love to know the names of her “smaller” aloes she pots up.

  8. I am totally jealous because I live in Phoenix and so many of those plants do not survive here--even before 2020, the hottest summer here on record. Over 50 days of temps 110º or MORE and nights not below about 86-90º. You all are so lucky! Oh, and it is just a wonderful garden! Can't wait for the 2nd half!


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