Home & Garden

A Granite Bay fantasyland garden hosts a museum benefit

Val McMichael stands in her whimsical garden in Granite Bay earlier this month. This spectacular English style garden will be the setting for a fairy wonderland garden party, “The Garden Party of Wonder and Delight,” a fundraiser for a new museum to house the Victorian and Christmas collections of Dolph Gotelli.
Val McMichael stands in her whimsical garden in Granite Bay earlier this month. This spectacular English style garden will be the setting for a fairy wonderland garden party, “The Garden Party of Wonder and Delight,” a fundraiser for a new museum to house the Victorian and Christmas collections of Dolph Gotelli. lsterling@sacbee.com

Val McMichael gardens with a sense of whimsy on a fantastic scale. That makes her Granite Bay home the perfect setting for a June 20 party dedicated to wonder and delight.

On 2 acres of terraces that cover the steep slope behind her home, McMichael has created living postcards inspired by global travels plus a lot more. From Mexico to the Mediterranean, she packed her outdoor “rooms” with art and unexpected touches. It’s a garden lover’s fantasyland of amazing finds pulled together with an equally breathtaking array of beautiful plants.

Cobbled from found objects, mosaic walkways wind under arbors strung with repurposed crystal chandeliers. Forming their own bubbling fountain, century-old Italian urns spill into a turquoise reflecting pool. Rescued from old foothill farms, rust-covered gates became trellises for colorful clematis and other vines. Purple bougainvillea, which somehow defies winter frost, frames a Baja-style patio ready for a fiesta.

That’s only starters for this magical garden that marches up the hillside. Parked on an impossible vista, a rusted Chevy pickup holds a redwood dance floor on its truck bed; its cab is full of petunias. With a tiled skirt decorated with china flowers, “Gardenista” – a life-size plaster mannequin – greets visitors at the top stair, overlooking a formal garden with more than 600 roses.

Down the slope, a sea of blue glass flowers catches the sun as it flickers through ancient oaks. Perched in their own sanctuaries, other statues and art pieces surprise guests around almost every turn. Topiary shrubs form dozens of green hearts, embracing fountains and benches.

“I’ve always been a collector,” McMichael said. “My mother started me with her own collection; she was a great antique hunter. Her house looked like a shop, it was so crowded with stuff. Going along with her, I learned about collecting, too.

“My husband (John McMichael) has a great eye for art,” she added. “When we travel, we often bring things back with us. Then, I make it work.”

The gardening part came later, she added. “When I moved here (in 1980), I didn’t even know I had a green thumb.”

McMichael combines her decorating and gardening flair with recycling. That includes the garden’s water supply; it uses only recycled nonpotable water on drip irrigation.

“I never throw anything out,” she said with a laugh. “I love old; I like it much better than new.

“Most of the time, I come up with an idea, just for grins, like that rusted Chevy,” she added. “It’s perfect for us; we own a dealership (Performance Chevrolet). But most of all, I like to have fun in my garden.”

Dolph Gotelli, who for decades has been delighting others with his own whimsical visions, feels that McMichael is “a kindred spirit. I just love her place. I love it because she’s very eclectic.”

To be housed adjacent to the parking structure in Folsom’s historic district, the Museum of Wonder and Delight will hold three main galleries and is set to open Sept. 11.

Gotelli, who taught visual design for 35 years at UC Davis and founded the university’s Design Museum, for years brought parts of his collection out of storage to display – primarily at local museums – in fascinating and excruciatingly detailed vignettes, usually during the holiday season. With thousands of Victorian toys, Christmas decorations and other unique finds, his vignettes as well as his own expertise earned the UC Davis professor emeritus the nickname “Sacramento’s Father Christmas.”

“I’ve always wanted to share it with others,” he said of his expansive collection, “but I needed a place.”

His dream project, the Museum of Wonder and Delight, brings him together with McMichael through a June 20 “secret garden party” – the address is revealed only to ticketholders.

The new museum, which will open in September in Folsom, will be a permanent home for his vast collection of antique and vintage toys, ephemera and folk art, collections he started in the ’80s.

“I can’t believe it – but now I can; it’s finally happening,” Gotelli said of the museum project. “The Folsom Historical Society took it under their wing. It’s like giving birth after 20 years of thinking about it.”

His vignettes are designed to stimulate the imagination and bring back a sense of wonder to people of all ages. Eventually, he plans to host workshops and children’s programs at the museum, too.

But before the museum could open its doors, Gotelli had to keep extra busy fundraising. That’s where McMichael stepped up. She met Father Christmas at a yuletide party about 15 years ago through a mutual friend of the Folsom History Museum. When she heard about Gotelli’s museum project, she immediately wanted to help.

“I love it, everything about it, ” she said of Gotelli’s collection. “I was in awe – oh my heavens! What a collector! I love it all.”

For the party, Gotelli is creating a special tableau: a fantasy party tablescape of porcelain cakes, delectably painted desserts and carrot candlesticks.

“It’s the finale to the tour right next to the (real) dessert and coffee,” he explained. “It will be fun and very whimsical.”

Also on hand for the garden party will be several special “guests” – fairies, pixies and fictional folk. Greeting visitors will be Alice (as in Wonderland) along with her friends, the Mad Hatter and the Red Queen. They may invite patrons to play bocce on the garden’s manicured court.

“The event promises to be an adventure of fun, fantasy and surprises at every turn,” Gotelli said. “Much like the Museum of Wonder and Delight, you’ll meet fascinating characters as you stroll along the garden paths.”

A sense of wonder needs inspiration to keep it nourished, he added. Delight comes as the bonus.

Debbie Arrington: (916) 321-1075, @debarrington

Garden of Wonder and Delight

  • Where: Granite Bay; address and directions with ticket purchase
  • When: 2-6 p.m. June 20
  • Admission: $50 in advance; $60 day of the event
  • Details and tickets: www.folsomhistorymuseum.org, (916) 985-2707
  • Note: Tickets available online and at Folsom History Museum, 823 Sutter St., Folsom, plus all Green Acres Nursery & Supply locations. Adults only. Wear comfortable shoes. Garden is not wheelchair accessible.
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