Drive-By Gardens: Grape Kool-Aid trees in northwest Austin


Can you detect a scent of grape Kool-Aid through your screen? I wouldn’t be surprised if you could. Austin’s enjoying a banner year for the fragrant, wisteria-like blooms of our native Texas mountain laurel (Sophora secundiflora).


This is the tree that helped sell me on Austin, as it was in full bloom when my husband and I first visited. In my 21 years of living here, I can’t recall the mountain laurels blooming better than they are right now. Each cascading purple flower cluster sends you right back to childhood with an intense, grapey fragrance.


And few gardens could have a more bounteous display than this Westover Hills home that I drive past every school day. This is a wider view of the scene pictured at top: a well-established, xeriscape garden composed of low-maintenance shrubs, trees, and palms, which shelter a small front lawn and provide privacy on a busy corner lot.


I’ve long admired the garden’s collection of mature natives like grassy Texas nolina (N. texana), currently in bloom; tall palmettos (Sabal texana) with cross-hatched trunks; and airy, silver cenizo (Leucophyllum frutescens).


A majestic screen of ‘Will Fleming’ yaupon hollies (Ilex vomitoria ‘Will Fleming’) is nice too. But wow, the mountain laurels! These are slow-growing trees, requiring years of patience and careful pruning to achieve this cascading form. So many people overprune Texas mountain laurel, leaving just a fluff of foliage on the top third of the tree. But I prefer a fuller look, and leaving some lower branches lets you get your nose in for a good sniff.


Just walking down the street gave me a pretty good whiff yesterday morning. Here, by the front walk, dwarf yaupon holly and Mediterranean fan palm (Chamaerops humilis) add more evergreen texture and contrasting form. As you might have guessed, deer tend to leave all of these alone.


Fan dance!


Looking up


Leaning in. Hey, Kool-Aid!


Layering with cenizo, Texas mountain laurel, and palmetto


On the other side of the street, unlikely bedfellows happily bloom side-by-side: Texas mountain laurel and flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), a small ornamental tree commonly planted in the Southeast but not this far west. Like azaleas, dogwoods prefer acidic soil, not the rocky, alkaline crumble we call soil. And yet here it grows — several of them, in fact, with a couple more in the neighbors’ yards. It just goes to show, never say something won’t grow here.


Around the corner I spotted this interesting xeriscape garden. Stone planter boxes add height to a pair of already towering beaked yuccas (Y. rostrata), while feathery bamboo muhly (Muhlenbergia dumosa) softens the midsection. A long steel planter in front holds a collection of agaves, including ‘Sharkskin’, New Mexico agave (I think), and Agave parryi var. truncata. More agaves and yuccas anchor an undulating, stream-like bed of river rock. There’s a lot going on, but kudos to them for going water-wise and going bold. No timid efforts here!


Heading south I spotted a sweet, solitary redbud (Cercis canadensis var. texensis) in full bloom against a cobalt front door.


And another one, a deeper pink, at a business park. In another few days the redbuds will be putting on fresh green leaves, and the flowers will fade.


But right now it’s spring perfection.

My thanks to everyone who’s voted for Digging in the Better Homes and Gardens 2015 Blogger Awards. Voting ends this Sunday, and the Gardening category is now listed first, so it’s easier than ever. I was told that you don’t have to click all the way through the other categories for your vote to count. Thanks as always for your support!

All material © 2006-2015 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

The great unfurling


Petals unfurl seemingly overnight, new blossoms appearing each morning. Every garden stroll is a small voyage of discovery right now. This week I’m seeing masses of dainty, lilac spiderwort (Tradescantia occidentalis).


A single summer snowflake (Leucojum aestivum) with flowers like dancing ladies in white ballgowns trimmed with jaunty, green dots.


‘Amethyst Flame’ iris, brought along from my former garden and blooming much better this year after being moved to a western exposure in the front garden.


Texas mountain laurel (Sophora secundiflora), close enough, almost, to give you a whiff of grape Kool-Aid fragrance right through your screen.


‘Blue Elf’ aloe, whose tubular orange blossoms offer a siren song for returning hummingbirds.


Mexican honeysuckle (Justicia spicigera), putting on a festive show of orange under an orange-red Circle Pot filled with succulents.


An orange Hover Dish hovers under a crepe myrtle, filled with flowering Texas sedge (Carex texensis) and columbine (Aquilegia chrysantha). Rain lily bulbs are tucked in there too.


Gopher plant (Euphorbia rigida) is still glowing in the side garden, although the pincushion foliage of Yucca rostrata ‘Sapphire Skies’ steals the show from certain angles. OK, from all angles.


Insects, after slumbering through winter, are unfurling too. This is one of several argiope spider egg sacs I’ve observed in the front garden. A tiny hole has been punched through the sac. Is this where spiderlings emerged, or did a bird get them, as I’ve read happens to most egg sacs?


And in tribute to the welcome, soaking rains we received last weekend, here’s “Tempest in a Teapot,” a water-evoking wind chime from Living Desert, now called Living Desert Ranch, given to me years ago by my husband. Isn’t it fun?

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I’d love to have your vote in the Better Homes and Gardens 2015 Blogger Awards. The Gardening category is listed first this week, and you can vote as much as you like. Thanks for your support!

All material © 2006-2015 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Gorgeous weeds and walls at the Wildflower Center


With a hat tip to Phoenix landscape architect Steve Martino, who coined the phrase “weeds and walls” to describe his design style — planting native plants for toughness and building walls for structure — here are some of the beautiful weeds and walls at Austin’s own native-plant showcase, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. I visited yesterday to see the early spring show, like gray globemallow (Sphaeralcea incana).


Native trees are at peak bloom all over town, and the Wildflower Center was colorful with Texas redbuds (Cercis canadensis var. texensis)…


…grape Kool-Aid-scented Texas mountain laurel (Sophora secundiflora)…


…and Mexican plum (Prunus mexicana).


The entry gardens are framed with fabulous stone walls that reference the architecture of Texas’s Spanish missions and German settler homesteads. This one contains a zigzagging sluice for recirculating water to spill into a pond.


Two red-eared slider turtles, including a baby turtle resting its head on the back of another’s shell, were basking on a rock, enjoying the warm spring sunshine.


Arched and linteled walls frame a long view to a window.


In the central plaza, a spiraling cistern tower (yes, it collects and stores rainwater) is the signature building of the Center. The cafe’s rooftop seating offers a place to enjoy the view, but you can also climb all the way to the top of the tower for sweeping views of the surrounding landscape.


This wall extends from the cafe and used to contain a dripping water feature in the stone window, which supplied a narrow trough of water below. I just noticed yesterday that the water feature is gone, and the trough is now filled with plants. I wonder what instigated the change?


Golden groundsel (Packera obovata) grows at the base of the tower — and was in bloom throughout the gardens.


In the children’s Little House garden, Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens) swathed a coyote fence in fragrant yellow blossoms.


Inhale…and ahhhh


Limestone walls mark the entrance to the demonstration gardens, where a flowering Texas redbud arches toward the light.


Blazing orange California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) add hot color to a gray-green cactus bed.


At another pond near the butterfly garden, I stopped to admire this Roger Foster “ocular” sculpture, carved from native limestone. Foster’s sculptures are currently on display throughout the garden, but you may remember seeing one in Lee/The Grackle‘s garden too (click for my tour of Lee’s East Austin garden).


It’s been almost a year since the new family garden opened to the public, and I enjoyed seeing how the plants have grown. This silver-blue bed contains ‘Blue Ice’ Arizona cypress (Cuppressus arizonica var. glabra) and Wheeler’s sotol (Dasylirion wheeleri). Nice, but wouldn’t it be fun to see a smattering of California poppies in here to liven things up in spring? Or ground-covering winecup?


Walls of massive limestone blocks build up raised beds of sky-reaching yuccas and create “pictograph”-adorned tunnels and caves for children to explore.


Spanish bayonet (Yucca faxoniana), I think


Caves beckon youngsters to explore behind a waterfall.


Bronze sculptures of animals are placed throughout the family garden, including this one I hadn’t noticed before.


Water collection is an important feature at the Wildflower Center. I love these galvanized-steel cisterns — so handsome. A rain garden around it collects the overflow.


If you haven’t been to the Wildflower Center lately, or ever, it’s well worth a visit. In another few weeks, wildflowers will be at peak bloom, including bluebonnets, but the WC has a lot more going on than just wildflowers. It’ll teach you to love our native Texas “weeds.” And the walls aren’t bad either.

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I’d love to have your vote in the Better Homes and Gardens 2015 Blogger Awards. Skip through to the Gardening category, select Digging, and then skip to the last page for your vote to be counted. You can vote as much as you like. Thanks for your support!

All material © 2006-2015 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.