Gargoyles, fairies, and succulents: a collector's garden in Sacramento

Last weekend I had the opportunity to revisit the garden of Mariel Dennis, the president of the Sacramento Cactus and Succulent Society (SCSS). Mariel is a collector of many things, ranging from Halloween decorations and nut crackers to talavera pots and head planters to cacti and other succulents. Her garden is bursting with plants, pots, figurines, and garden art of every description: maximalism at its most exuberant. 

Admittedly, not everybody wants fairies and gargoyles in their garden, but Mariel does. Her garden expresses who she is and what she likes, and she is rightfully unapologetic about it. It’s quirky, bold, and joyful and could teach timid gardeners a thing or two about letting go and embracing what makes you unique. Stop worrying about what others might think; the only person you need to please is yourself. This may sound like an obvious thing to say, but it bears repeating.

Mariel in front of her house

One of several gargoyles keeping watch

As you can see in the aerial photo below, Mariel’s property is wedge-shaped, with the narrowest point in the front and the widest in the back. There are two large side yards (1 and 2), with a narrower strip connecting the two. Side yard #1 faces north and is densely planted with shrubs, trees, perennials, and landscape-sized succulents. Side yard #2 faces south and is home to a large variety of succulents planted in mounded beds. Both areas contain hundreds of potted succulents displayed on racks lined up against the house.

Let’s start in side yard #1, home to a large variety of containerized succulents grouped by type. One rack contains Mariel’s collection of miniature aloes, others gasterias and haworthias. You get the idea.

Elsewhere—and this includes my garden—you’d see mostly terra cotta and/or plastic pots. Here, every plant is in a special container, be it glazed ceramic, talavera, or a hand-made face pot. In spite of the large number of plants, everything is extraordinarily neat and clean. That’s no mean feat, as you may know from personal experience.

Mariel loves creating theme gardens in containers. Here’s just one example:

Mostly gasterias and adromischus

Epiphyllums in hanging containers

Flowering epiphyllum

I love these wooden dividers with panes of colored glass

Aeoniums closing up for the summer

×Mangave ’Desert Dragon’ in an octopus pot

Just some of many talavera pots

View from side yard #1 towards the house

Half-dormant aeoniums in matching square pots

Aloidendron ’Hercules’ towering over this bed in side yard #1. When I visited Mariel’s garden for the first time, in June 2017, ‘Hercules’ was only a few feet tall.

Aloidendron ’Hercules’ and several variegated Agave vivipara (aka Agave angustifolia ’Marginata’)

Variegated Agave vivipara 

Aloidendron ’Hercules’, with an equally tall Yucca gigantea on the left

My favorite glass ornament in Mariel’s garden

Now let’s check out the long and narrow section that connects the two side yards:

Potted dyckias

Below are two fairy gardens Mariel created. I admire the dedication and attention to detail this requires.

Racks and plant stands up against the house

A perfect hemisphere of Deuterocohnia brevifolia. It takes many years to get to this size.


Red African milk bush (Euphorbia bicompacta ‘Rubra’, formerly Synadenium compactum ‘Rubrum’)

Now we’re in side yard #2. It faces west and south and receives full sun for a good part of the day.

Mariel’s greenhouse. It shelters plants in the colder months. Right now, it’s unused.

The centerpiece of side yard #2 are two mounds planted with a large variety of succulents:

Looking toward the greenhouse (top center and right)

Agave ’Cornelius’ glowing like a beacon

Agave parryi var. truncata and Agave multifilifera

Joseph’s coat cactus (variegated form of Opuntia monacantha)

Potted Opuntia santa-rita

Opuntia santa-rita flower

Yep, a bottle tree, too

Mariel has several Dudleya pulverulenta...

...that were absolutely gorgeous

What a vigorous display of flowers!

Even more impressive: Dudleya pulverulenta is challenging to grow in cultivation. Even gardeners in San Diego, its native range, have difficulty keeping it alive. It wants to be planted on a slope and receive little to no water in the summer.

Dudleya pulverulenta inflorescence. Note the red flowers. The similar looking Dudleya brittonii, which is far easier to grow in a garden situation, has yellow flowers on red stems.

Agave ’Multicolor’ with dozens of bulbils (and a few remaining flowers) on its inflorescence

Potted cacti and succulents prettifying the area next to the yard waste bin. Not everybody has a coffin resting against the house!

Potted agaves

Agave ‘Bed of Nails’, a vigorously clustering mutated form of Agave parryi var. truncata 

Echinocereus rigidissimus var. rubispinus

Mammillaria bocasana ’Fred’

Mammillaria in a skull planter

Agave cactus (Leuchtenbergia principis)

Ariocarpus retusus

Some caudiciform from the cucumber family (how’s that for an ID?)

Some euphorbia similar to Euphorbia cylindrifolia

Copiapoa hypogaea

Whew! That was a lot of plants!

I’d visited Mariel’s garden twice before, in June 2017 and in August 2020, and the changes are jaw-dropping, especially compared to 2017. Here’s side yard #2 before the mounds went in:

Click the links below to see how Mariel’s garden has evolved:

CORRECTION: A friend pointed out that, technically speaking, a gargoyle is only a gargoyle if it acts as a spout to carry water away from a wall or building. If it's just a figurine or statue, it's a grotesque.

© Gerhard Bock, 2023. All rights reserved. To receive all new posts by email, please subscribe here.


  1. Wow! Mariel has an overwhelming large collection of incredible plants. You could spend hours in a Master Class just to learn how to identify everything. The Leuchtenbergia is quite interesting. Muriel obviously has a lot of fun in her garden. What is the story behind the coffin?

    1. I think the coffin is part of her large collection of Halloween decorations.

  2. I just love, love, love Mariel's garden! What a work of care and dedication! I will definitely check out the earlier posts!

    1. Dedication is right! Simply watering the potted plants must take forever.

  3. You're right, it's Mariel's garden and she's the only one who needs to love it! I love the "half-dormant aeoniums in matching square pots"... such a great display. So just how many of those thousands of containers does she have to move to the greenhouse?

    1. I think all the plants that are on racks up against the house go in the greenhouse.

  4. That's quite an investment in plants and pots! I hope Mariel has friends in the pottery industry - or a trust fund. I love those well-maintained plant shelves. I love gargoyles too, although I just have one at present (not counting the gargoyles' distant cousins, the gnomes.) Kudos to you too for the detailed survey of her expansive garden.

    1. Mariel is an inveterate treasure hunter. She has a knack for finding unusual pots.

  5. Loved Mariel's garden. And all those beautiful pots too! Your photo of her Opuntia Santa Rita has a yellow flower. Mine bloomed for the first time this year and the blooms were red. Is that just a variation or is mine not Santa?

    1. Apparently, the flowers on Opuntia santa-rita can be anything yellow to red.

  6. Wonderful collection. She must be super-organized to keep so many all looking so good grown in pots. After seeing these I was so embarrassed I went out and watered mine.

    Jatropha...berlandieri(???) for the caudiciform? What a pretty caudex!

    1. LOL, I know what you mean about feeling embarrassed.

      Jatropha looks right.

  7. What a fantastic collection of colorful pots and beautiful cacti/succulents. It's a celebration of diversity in form and color. Stunning! I could spend hours pouring over these photos over and over.

  8. Good way to maximize the usage of such an odd-shaped lot (likely split off from the owner of the MacMansion who does not like gardening.)


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