It’s hard to believe Steven Schwager is celebrating his second spring at Marin Art & Garden Center, where he joined as Garden Manager in 2018. In a short time, he has made enormous strides towards achieving his vision of creating a garden that is abundant, joyous, and celebratory.
Growing up in the outskirts of Chicago, Steven cared for his mother’s roses until he eventually convinced her to give him a small plot of land to start a vegetable garden. He misses those first signs of spring in the Midwest – peonies, lilacs, and especially poppies, his favorite flower. Perhaps it was his Hungarian upbringing, he mused, “we had poppy seed everything: poppy seed strudel, poppy seed with noodles and cabbage, poppy seed cookies and cake!” Ironically, Steven’s professional career began as a chef in Cologne, Germany, where he also apprenticed with a master gardener. Steven returned to the States and decided to pursue garden design full time. He immediately enrolled in design/build, plant identification, and greenhouse practices courses, and became a certified horticulturist by the American Society of Horticultural Sciences. Before joining Marin Art and Garden Center’s team, Steven was a showroom manager and designer for Living Green Design, a sophisticated landscape and furnishings business. He also worked as a landscape designer and project manager for Katherine Webster Inc. in San Francisco.
Joining Marin Art and Garden Center’s team and spearheading the future of the gardens presented an exciting challenge. “My main intention was to make the grounds even more inviting and beautiful—a place to create memories,” says Steven, “and from a design standpoint, I could see there was room to introduce new plant varieties and form connections between different areas of the grounds for a more engaging experience.”
The Center features several distinct garden areas: the Memory, Edible, Rose, Basketry, Succulent, and Fountain Pond. When he saw the film, Five Seasons: the Gardens of Piet Oudolf, he had an ‘aha’ moment of how he would create a more inviting and immersive atmosphere. Steven expanded and curved the edges of the triangle bed, gazebo garden, and around the Magnolia tree circle. “There is no single plant variety within these three beds and no variety is in just one bed—there is repetition and synergy from a plant palette standpoint. You feel like you’re in the middle of something then.”
Steven appeared on Bob Tanem’s In the Garden show on KSFO in May.
When it is necessary to replace a tree, he aims to select one that is horticulturally significant, water efficient, and fire smart. He favors varieties that are “unique and have a special twist,” for instance, he replaced a birch tree with a Chitalpa tree because it is more suitable for our climate and it will bloom throughout the summer. The Center is home to several heritage trees—some were planted by the founding members of the town of Ross. Steven’s favorite tree is the Dawn Redwood. It is deciduous with bright green, feathery leaves that turn reddish-brown in the fall; and it was considered extinct millions of years ago until it was rediscovered in China in 1941. The Center is one of the few places in the world where you can find all three varieties of Redwoods: the Giant Sequoia, Coastal, and Dawn.
Another reason Steven joined the Center is the opportunity to give back to our community. He is grateful to a dedicated group of volunteers who help him realize the work of nurturing and tending to the gardens. “It is energizing to bring people together who have various levels of expertise, fresh perspectives, and new ideas,” he says. Marin Garden Club, an affiliate of The Garden Club of America, holds workdays to sustain the Memory Garden. The knowledge and guidance of MAGC’s Horticultural Advisory Committee and relationships with Bay Area Garden Network members has been an effective way to share ideas and resources with other public garden managers. “We are all stewards,” Steven points out. “Providing a place for skilled volunteers along with teaching the next generation how to responsibly care for the gardens is part of our legacy here at Marin Art & Garden Center.”
May is National Public Gardens month. Last year, Marin Art and Garden Center hosted an Open Day to highlight the cultural importance of public gardens and offered campus tours, cupcake samples with frosting flowers, a basketry demonstration, and plant sales from the nursery.
Steven hosts public workshops and instructional videos on many topics – everything from how to prepare your garden beds to ways to enjoy your harvest – remember, he is also a chef!