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A Bay Area couple turns their Eichler into a lush oasis

A Bay Area couple turns their Eichler into a lush oasis

Terry Bremer grew up in a New York apartment in Queens. “The only plant I could identify was a hedge,” she quips.

Things would change once she moved to Marin after spending two decades in San Francisco, where as a legal secretary she met and eventually married her boss, attorney David Bremer. Today, they both still work together in his San Rafael law practice.

“I began gardening when I lived in the Sunset District of San Francisco,” she recalls. “I had a tiny yard, but I made the best of it, learning what would grow in that cold, foggy climate.”

When they purchased one of the coveted Lucas Valley Eichler homes, on a large corner lot and a quiet cul-de-sac, they also got a generous quarter-of-an-acre spot in which to garden with a backyard, two side yards and a courtyard.

A concrete block wall, which had originally separated the courtyard from the front yard, had been removed by a previous owner, and the fenced-in area enlarged, thus creating a more open space. The previous owner had also enlisted her brother, a carpenter trained in Japanese design, to build a beautiful front door and fence. A large Chinese elm tree, surrounded by a tree seat, took center stage in the courtyard and was accompanied by a flowering plum and a flagstones area.

Other than that, she says, “nothing else was worth saving.”

The Bremer’s once muddy backyard now has a “dig-proof” concrete aggregate hardscape and rock area. Photo by Pam Witherspoon

The backyard was mostly dirt and she says there was nothing noteworthy in either of the side yards.

The couple figured they’d wait to start working on the garden until after they had they had finished renovating the interior, but their mud-loving dog changed their plans. Just as the rains came, “he discovered he liked to dig,” she says.

They changed course and “that began our landscaping journey in the back,” she says.

Today, the backyard looks completely different — and is dig-proof — with concrete aggregate hardscape, an area of rock, a Japanese maple and a bluestone sitting area.

“Eichler didn’t provide any landscaping guidelines. He simply built the house and let the owners figure out the rest. As a result, many mistakes were made,” she says.

“For instance, families without much income for landscaping would purchase a small pine tree at the local supermarket and plant it close to the house. You can imagine what is now occurring.”

Bremer says she began working little by little, trial and error, on the courtyard.

“It’s quite lush and because of the large Chinese elm — the canopy covers the entire house — and vines and other large plants, all seems to create a quiet retreat appearance,” she says. “The challenges are to find appropriate plants that work well together in a shady environment, creating a private, secluded and meditative space. We have mostly shade in all our exterior space, so when I find a plant that works, I repeat it.”

She’s had help over the years from garden professionals, most recently from a local nursery staffer who helps her plant, along with a maintenance crew to help clean up.

“But I am on my hands and knees almost every day pruning, clipping and cleaning up fallen leaves,” she says.

A rhododendron brightens up the space behind the Chinese elm in the Bremer’s Lucas Valley garden. 

The garden spaces, once rather barren, are now cultivated with roses, camellias, mock oranges, rhododendrons, pieris, nandina, liriope and sarcacocca.

“There are different shades of green as I have tons of ferns,” she says. “Bright magenta rhododendrons bloom in the spring and red is the color of the flowering plum.”

Trees — including apple, pear, cedar, oak and pine — add shade and dimension to the property, and provide habitat for birds and squirrels.

Not every squirrel, though.

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Bremer volunteers at WildCare, the wildlife hospital in San Rafael that partners with the Hungry Owl Project, and so she and her husband were thrilled to install an owl box on their pine tree that overlooks plenty of open space. They looked forward to welcoming owls.

The owls weren’t interested.

“But the squirrels were very happy to move in,” she says. “So, over the years, we’ve had Mrs. Nutkins and her babies inhabiting our owl box. We can sit in the backyard and watch the little baby faces peek out of the hole and eventually come out and learn to climb. Those are our very welcome guests.”

She says she tries to spend as much time in their courtyard and backyard as possible.

“Having these outdoor spaces is particularly special for me since I grew up in an apartment in New York,” she says.

It gives them both a chance to relish the morning sun and relax on calm evenings, but during the day, she says, “the shade is what we crave.”

Roses add splashes of color to the Bremer family’s garden in Lucas Valley. Photo by Pam Witherspoon

And, with the seasons, the scenery changes.

“In the spring, everything gets new leaves, fronds and a multitude of flowers from our rhododendrons and roses,” she says. “Once fall begins, the leaves start to fall. It’s not my favorite time since the huge elm loses every single leaf, but we have two Japanese maples which change color, so we get to enjoy that quite a lot.”

For Bremer, gardens are never done and there are always things to do. Here, she shares two tips that fellow gardeners might consider doing in their gardens.

• “Please keep your plants/trees watered with timed irrigation systems. Even when there’s a drought, there are ways to water without letting your landscaping die.”

• “Pay attention to your garden. Don’t ignore it and expect everything to grow and be happy.”

Show off

Since so many of the popular home tours are off the calendar this year, please consider this your invitation to share with fellow readers the images and description of your garden or newly designed or remodeled Marin home.

Please send an email describing either one, what you love most about it, and a photograph or two. I will post the best ones in upcoming columns. Your name will be published and you must be over 18 years old and a Marin resident.

PJ Bremier writes on home, garden, design and entertaining topics every Saturday. She may be contacted at P.O. Box 412, Kentfield 94914, or at pj@pjbremier.com.