ISSUE 8  |  The Power of Scent

Rehab Diaries: Rescuing a 100-Year-Old Garden

February 26, 2015 2:30 PM

BY Michelle Slatalla

Joel and Diane Schatz have photos (circa 1927) of their Mill Valley, California, house that show a garden party in progress under a great canopy of wisteria, with guests in party hats posed against a backdrop of pampered rhododendrons, camellias, and holly. This is not how the place looked the first time the Schatzes saw it 75 years later.

“It was a wreck,” Mr. Schatz recalled the other day. The “lawn” consisted of hard-packed clay covered in cat droppings, the rhododendrons were strangled by overgrown vines, and the redwood house–subdivided into five apartments after World War II–was a mess. The Schatzes took one look and bought the place on the spot.

Photography by Marla Aufmuth.

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Above: The Schatzes rebuilt the house–and the garden, with the help of San Anselmo, California-based garden designer Jan Gross of Heritage Landscapes.

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Above: The effect of mixing different textures and leaf colors is to create a serene retreat. Photographer Marla Aufmuth got stuck in traffic and rushed through the gate 30 minutes late; her first words were, “Well, at least I arrived in paradise.”

For a sprawling kitchen garden designed to accommodate gardeners in wheelchairs, see A Garden With No Obstacles.

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Above: What prompted the Schatzes to take on such a huge project? The 5,000-square-foot house did have a few things going for it. Like many of the earliest homes built in Mill Valley, which got its start as a summer retreat for San Franciscans, it is situated on a gentle ridge a few hundred feet above a picturesque downtown square. The house has dead-on views of Mt. Tamalpais, in whose shadow the town was built. And underneath the tangle of undergrowth, the Schatzes suspected, there might lie the bones of a magnificent garden.

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Above: They were right. The property is ringed by towering redwood trees; as the sun moves overhead, a mix of light and shadow create vignettes of color and texture throughout the garden.

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The first steps Ms. Gross took were to amend and enrich the soil, which also aided drainage, and to rescue through judicious pruning established plants, including century-old rhododendrons (above), camellias, and wisteria vines. Shaping the old shrubs into “trees,” she created “trunks” and culled the branches to allow air and light to circulate.

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Above: All the windows, doors, and shingles on the house are from a single reclaimed redwood tree from Mendocino County. On a slope near the house, Ms. Gross planted mondo grass, baby tears, and one of many Japanese maple trees whose leaves punctuate the garden with a dramatic burst of color.

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Above: A weeping cedar grows against the house. The one-acre private garden, open to visitors last month during a convention of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers, is on the largest lot in downtown Mill Valley. The original owner, a congregational minister, dubbed the property “Crown Point,” a name the Schatzes still use.

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Above: A hundred-year-old holly true was pruned from within to retain its shape while allowing air and light to circulate. For a shade garden planting scheme, see Design Sleuth: The Ultimate Shade Garden.

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Above: A patio area gets mid-day sun.

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Above: Tropical foliage surrounds the swimming pool.

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Above: Ms. Gross routed the stream to lead to a fish pond and lined the path with ferns and plants with tropical foliage to enhance the property’s natural feeling of being in a jungle.

For more Rehab Diaries, see:

N.B.: This is an update of a post originally published October 15, 2012 as part of our coverage of West Marin and Beyond.