Spanish-style courtyard comes to Corte Madera – Marin Independent Journal

Fred and Carol Schwartz grew up in Marin, he is in Mill Valley and she is in Novato. In 1980, they moved to the Boston area where they lived in a house by the ocean with a huge yard, large front porch, widow’s walk and garden.

“This is where we learned to love landscaping and gardening,” says Fred Schwartz. “Of course, the winters in the Northeast are very harsh, so we had to learn a new style of gardening.”

That was not all.

“We also brought some of our California roads with us to that unsuspecting Yankee neighborhood,” he says. “To the horror of our neighbors, we installed an outdoor hot tub on our back deck. Now remember, this was 1980.”

The couple installed a large koi pond with a waterfall, and they enjoyed seeing the fish swim to the side of the pond to greet them whenever they passed by.

“We lived there for 18 years, and the neighbors still refer to us as Fred and Carol from California,” he quips.

In 1998, they returned to Marin and settled in Corte Madeira.

“We live in a typical L-shaped California ranch house, which has your usual plain driveway to the front door and a waterlogged lawn that never looks so good,” he says. “We decided that a major change was to be expected.”

Now a retired general contractor, Schwartz and his wife, who works as a program and services specialist for disabled students at the College of Marin, discovered that because they both had technical abilities and were detail-oriented, they were up to the challenge.

“We knew this was going to take some time and thought,” he says. “Between us and a few glasses of wine, we came up with some interesting ideas.”

Inspired by a concept they saw in Sunset Magazine, they envisioned a new garden designed in a Spanish-style patio paired with tropical flair. And so in 2009, the Schwartz family began reworking their 60 by 30-square-foot front garden.

Photo by Fred Schwartz

Hardenbergia, or Happy Wanderer vine, is a feast for bees during the winter months.

“It took a few years and a lot of effort to get to this point, but now we have a front yard that acts as an extra layer of privacy and extra living space,” he says. “There is a seating area surrounded by ground cover, tree ferns, palm trees, and dwarf Japanese maples.”

Plastered concrete walls surround the space and the path and patio are covered in warm flagstone. Mexican tiles adorn the steps and front door landing.

Fred Schwartz designed the front gate to resemble one that would be seen in a Spanish castle, hand-selecting pure redwood heartwood, then finishing the gate with eight coats of teak oil, and adorning it with black wrought iron hardware.

“Once you enter the front gate, you’re surprised because you can’t see (the courtyard garden) from the outside,” he says. The usual response is “Awesome!” “

Low-voltage lighting illuminates the garden during the evening hours and a water fountain attracts bathing birds. And of course there is a koi pond.

“It’s very small compared to the one we had in New England, but the fish still see us when we walk by and want to be fed,” he says.

The couple worked with Ian Magnus of IM Gardens in Mill Valley to create the garden they imagined, one with interesting plants in a color palette of greens and other earthy hues, with some touches of bold color, and plants that can thrive in a space that ranges from shade to full sun.

Fred and Carol Schwartz replaced the Corte Madeira garden with a Spanish-style patio.  (Photo by Fred Schwartz)

Photo by Fred Schwartz

Fred and Carol Schwartz replaced the Corte Madeira garden with a Spanish-style patio.

Among the plants they chose were giant bird of paradise, Tasmanian fern, queen coconut palm, hydrangea, sagebrush, Japanese maple, ‘Tropicanna Gold’ canna lily, golden sedge, Australian tree fern, dwarf date palm, dwarf false orange, philodendron and hostas.

“When the holidays come around the neighborhood, they are entertained by ‘happy wanderer’ vines (Hardenbergia) that cover a trellis across the front of the house and remain in full bloom through January,” he says. “When we walk out the front door, the yard is literally ringing from all the honeybees taking advantage of the winter blooms.”

Two drip irrigation plants support the plants – in the sun or in the shade. The timer operates on a percentage system and is based on the amount of water recommended by the Marin Municipal Water District’s weekly email.

Now that most of the work on the garden is done and the tasks are mainly about maintenance, he is happy with the result, saying that the garden makes them happy. And he has some tips for fellow gardeners in Marin.

“Don’t take this sweet spot we live in for granted,” he says. “Enjoy working in your yard. At this time, other people elsewhere are shoveling their driveways so they can drive to work in near-freezing weather.”


If you have a beautiful or interesting Marin garden or newly designed Marin house, I would love to know about it.

Please send an email describing one (or both), what you like most about it, and a photo or two. I will be posting the best of them in the next columns. Your name will be published and you must be over 18 and a resident of Marin.

PJ Bremier writes on home, garden, design, and entertainment topics every Saturday. She can be contacted at PO Box 412, Kentfield 94914 or at [email protected]

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