Brenda Brown was involved with schools throughout her career in Marin County, but in retirement, she’s turned her attention from nurturing students to nurturing her garden.
“Like teaching, gardening is challenging but the results are gratifying,” says Brown, librarian for the San Anselmo School District and the Branson School, and the founding school librarian at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay. “It gives me pleasure to be in the yard, looking at flowers or helping harvest or even seeing results after weeding.”
While the Corte Madera resident says she and her husband were always conscientious about weeding and maintaining their trees and shrubs while they worked, “it’s only been since our retirement that gardening has become a major endeavor and essential to our well-being.”
Brown grew up in San Francisco, in apartments without gardens, until she was 21 years old, but loved visiting gardens and learning about them from her friends and her husband’s grandfather, who was a farmer.
“I’d never had a permanent ‘home’ growing up,” she recalls. “Even after I married and worked abroad, we knew our house there was a temporary.”
That all changed in 1966 when her mother-in-law spotted a newspaper advertisement for a home, on about a half-acre, for sale in Corte Madera.
“When we first saw the house, we loved its setting among mature redwoods and pines and other green, growing things,” Brown says. “Our house was small with two bedrooms. Even today, after we’ve added on as our family expanded, my thought is that the house is still ancillary to the setting; it’s almost like a treehouse, or a nest, with a view of green from every window.”
The Browns are in the garden every day for about one to three hours. “Yet, when we’re working, time accelerates and we get great exercise and feel good afterwards,” she says.
Together, they’ve worked to reduce the fire dangers in their garden by removing bamboo, juniper, eucalyptus, pine and other highly flammable plants. They’ve also begun to use less plastic weed barrier on the ground, and to rely more on forest mulch to keep the weeds at bay. “We learned about, and use, a great weed killer that is a combination of vinegar and clove oil,” she says.
They’ve also jointly planned stairs with railings, terraced walls of stone, a large awning to shade and cool a brick yard space, and installed a stone waterfall to memorialize her mother, Tina, who “loved the water and went to Hawaii many times,” Brown says.
“I thought a waterfall was a nice way to celebrate her along a path we passed each day.”
When it comes to day-to-day labor, though, she and her husband have separate roles. Her main tasks are sweeping, raking, weeding, fertilizing and tending to the roses planted in their three terraces or containers. He’s responsible for the overall site planning, planting, drip irrigation and tending of the edible garden planted in six raised beds.
“In the last 20 years, we’ve harvested a variety of fruit and vegetables — blueberries, apples, persimmons, lemons, artichokes, green beans, lettuce, tomatillo, tomatoes, potatoes, purslane and herbs of various kinds,” she says.
Over the years, two garden professionals have provided guidance and help.
“Avis Licht is our landscape consultant and continues to help us in her retirement,” Brown says. “Arie Redlich, of Jasmin Landscape, remade our shade yard, installed stone pavers, the terraced rose garden and drip irrigation.”
With all this loving support and attention, the Browns’ garden repays them with a seasonal display of interest — “the stark scene of deciduous trees and the ripening of tangerines and fuyu persimmons in winter; the fresh leafing in spring along with the first bloom of roses, ‘snow in June’; the liquid ambers and our sole gingko tree turning color in the fall; and the summertime harvesting of apples and making apple sauce, and sharing that and the rest of the produce from our vegetable garden with friends and family,” she says.
This includes their children and grandchildren. “It’s always ready for their visits,” she says.
She also loves to have friends walk through the garden and enjoy a meal under the wisteria or awning.
“Honestly, there’s a lot said about gratitude these days, but both my husband and I are grateful for our long lives in this neighborhood, among close friends,” she says. “We’re proud of what we’ve done together and enjoy that it continues to be a gathering spot for family and friends.”
If you have a beautiful or interesting Marin garden or a newly designed Marin home, I’d love to know about it.
Please send an email describing either one (or both), 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.
• Decorate your pumpkin at the Novato Garden Club’s monthly meeting at 11 a.m. Wednesday at the Margaret Todd Senior Center at 1650 Hill Road in Novato. Bring your own pumpkin, supplies and succulents. Go to novatogardenclub.org.
• Take a free virtual “Green Home Tour” of 10 homes, sponsored by the Marin County Community Development, from 6 to 8 p.m. Oct. 19 and 20, and learn about sustainable building practices. Register at maringreenhometour.org. Call 415-450-5616 or 415-473-3069.
PJ Bremier writes on home, garden, design and entertaining topics.