Kicking around the Texas Hill Country, looking for bluebonnets

After my talk at Backbone Valley Nursery in Marble Falls last Saturday, we headed southwest to cruise the Willow City Loop, a series of ranch roads leading through rugged, hilly country where wildflowers are typically thick—as thick as the traffic on a wildflower-peeping Saturday in spring. On this day, however, we saw few other cars and even fewer bluebonnets. (So unlike our wildflower safari in bluebonnet-rich 2010.)

Oh, we saw some bluebonnets here and there, along with smatterings of fiery Indian paintbrush. However, the flowers were not only few but unusually low-growing due to the ongoing drought. The parched ground just hasn’t inspired many wildflowers to return this year.

We did spot quite a lot of hymenoxys, or four-nerve daisy.

Disappointed, we left the Loop to the weekend Harley riders and headed back to Austin through Sandy, where we spotted dozens of old boots turned upside down on the cedar posts of a barbed-wire fence…

…all carefully pointed the same way.

Finally, a decent patch of bluebonnets! I asked my husband to pull over, and after making sure no fire ants or rattlesnakes lurked on the roadside, I got down on hands and knees to frame a lush-looking photo. Don’t be fooled—the roadsides are not thick with bluebonnets this year. But if you look carefully, you’ll still find a few patches of the iconic wildflower of Texas.

All material © 2006-2013 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Tait Moring’s garden with a view

You’ve all been very good this year, and Santa says there’s time for one more garden tour before Christmas, so here you go. I visited this garden in late October, at the invitation of owner/designer Tait Moring, who had it all spruced up for a busload of folks from the Garden Club of America. Lucky (pushy) me—I arrived early, before the bus rolled in, and was treated to an unhurried personal tour. What a relaxed host! Some of you may remember that I posted about Tait’s garden in the spring of 2011, when it was on the Wildflower Center-sponsored Gardens on Tour. He’s made some changes since then, of course, and it was also a treat to see the garden in a different season.

Pictured above is the front entry of Tait’s home, which is located in Westlake right off busy Bee Caves Road. Tucked behind a tall screen of cedar posts and greenery, you’d never know the home (and design office) is hidden away just off the road, a surprisingly spacious property that overlooks a forested canyon. The modest, painted-brick ranch has a clean-lined, concrete front porch set off by a raised pond and fountain cloaked in fig ivy.

On the front porch, a collection of pots attracted my attention. The largest was appealingly top-dressed with colorful glass beads.

These smaller pots, made by local artist Rick Van Dyke, resemble dinosaur eggs. I’ve seen Van Dyke pots for sale recently at The Great Outdoors. (Adding to Christmas wish list…)

A wider view of the front of the house. Tait has a generous decomposed-granite parking area for guests and clients. The rock wall at left of the house has a gate that leads to the private back garden.

A trio of giant hesperaloe in tall, bronze pots balances an asymmetrical window, and a fourth pot concludes the line just past the window. A meadowy mix of two species of ornamental grasses softens the base of a low wall.

I really love this and am tempted to steal the idea.

The rock wall includes a triangular niche.

Found objects and rocky treasures are tucked among the mortared stones, becoming part of the wall too.

Step through the gate and you enter the back garden, which includes a lawn leading to a new swimming pool. Previously a ramada-shaded patio stood at the end of the lawn, but Tait decided a swimming pool was needed to get through Austin’s long, hot summers. (I totally agree, whether you swim in your own back-yard pool, Barton Springs, or one of the many city pools; cool water up to the neck is essential.) Tait told me he got a little grief during one of his garden tours about having a lawn, but he likes it for the entertaining space and says it’s pretty low maintenance. To my mind, these are perfect reasons to keep some lawn: you’ve reduced it to what you use, you keep it for a definite purpose, and you’ve planted a lawn grass that doesn’t need coddling. His lawn is a soothing, cooling counterpoint to the rest of the property, which is either planted heavily with natives and adapted plants or, along the canyon’s edge, left wild and natural.

A fall-blooming daisy tumbles around a birdbath in one of the planted borders.

Looking back, I stopped to admire the curved cedar post that arches over the gate. Such interesting touches add so much delight to the exploration of Tait’s garden. On this side the wall shelters a small seating area.

Tait told me an interesting story about his stone columns (he has several; for a front view of the carved detailing, scroll up a few pictures). He and his crew were digging around in an old quarry on a Hill Country ranch where they were doing some work when one of his crew spotted the carved stone lying amid the rubble. They pulled it out and found this treasure—well, several of them. Who knows how long they’d been lying abandoned in the quarry, and he wishes he knew something about their history. But now they adorn his garden, standing like door posts on either side of the lawn, topped with terracotta bowls of agave and silver ponyfoot. The pink vine climbing the column is mandevilla, a tropical vine that needs winter protection.

From the middle of the lawn, looking back, you see the side of Tait’s house, with a row of native Lindheimer muhly grasses softening the foundation.

A closer look

And a wider view

Tucked into the shady border alongside the lawn, amid Salvia coccinea, holly fern, river fern, and ivy, a fountain bubbles up out of a drilled stone.

The rectangular pool is backed by an irregular stone wall topped with staggered-height cedar-pole fencing and softened with lush, tropical-looking plants, giving the space a Mexican or South American vibe.

A tiki-style stone-head planter atop another carved column from the quarry adds to the sense of tropical mystery, as do bromeliads atop the wall.

Some of the tropical-looking plants along the wall are actually quite hardy and drought tolerant, like feathery bamboo muhly (Muhlenbergia dumosa) and giant hesperaloe (Hesperaloe funifera).

Just past the pool (you can see the house in the distance), cedar-mulched paths lead through the trees along the canyon’s edge, and down into the canyon too, as far as Tait’s had time to work on them. This small clearing provided a place for a colorful hammock strung between two cedar (juniper) trees.

Seven-foot-tall mounds of native daisies were in flower along the path, especially where the tree canopy was thinner. It was amazing to walk through these golden berms.

This trail led past one of the special features of Tait’s property: a beautiful, old Texas madrone (Arbutus xalapensis), more commonly found in the Hill Country to the west. Its smooth, white trunks seemed to glow under the leafy canopy. Texas madrone is picky about where it grows in ways not fully understood. Tait said that although he’s cleared out a bunch of cedar (juniper) trees in this area, he left the ones around the madrone. He’d heard of a rancher who cleared out the cedars around a colony of madrones only to watch the madrones die as a result. Perhaps there’s a symbiotic relationship underground, in the roots and the living soil?

I had to reach out and stroke the madrone’s smooth bark.

Just past the madrone, at the canyon’s edge, the trees open to this—a stunning Hill Country view. With rock found on his property, Tait built a stone circle with a fire pit in the middle, which overlooks the canyon. Because of the ongoing drought and burn ban, he hasn’t used it once, he said. But he built it, he explained, as an expression of hope that one day the drought would end and the rains would return. Fire or not, the stone circle is a lovely place to sit and take in the view.

I spotted a pretty cluster of frostweed (Verbesina virginica) on the walk back to the house.

More trails lead from the gardens down into the canyon.

A stone retaining wall marks the boundary between garden and wildscape. A berrying yaupon holly straddles the wall.

Moving around to the other side of Tait’s garden, an ornately wrought, nature-themed gate set between stout cedar posts leads to…

…a vegetable garden that stair-steps along the canyon’s edge. Beautiful stonework defines raised beds…

…and stairs back up to the house. Behind the cedar-pole screen at the top of the stairs is a rustic outdoor shower.

At the back of the house, a patchwork path made up of paving samples leads past the outdoor shower to a back deck.

The small deck overlooks the canyon and looks back to the lawn garden too.

Another Rick Van Dyke pot, planted with pencil plant (Euphorbia tirucalli), sits on a table.

A wider gate, matching the one that leads to the vegetable garden, separates one end of the driveway from a work area in back.

Snake detail

A fountain made of an industrial-looking steel pipe and a stock tank helps to drown out traffic noise along the street-side of the garden.

And a focal-point pot in the center of a small, circular lawn backed by bamboo and cedar trees offers an interesting vignette right before you leave.

I’m grateful to Tait for this tour of his beautiful and fascinating garden. What a treat! For more images of Tait’s garden click for my spring 2011 visit.

All material © 2006-2012 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Plant This: Leavenworth’s eryngo spikes the fall garden

Michael of Plano Prairie Garden, this is for you. Now that purple pineapples in spiky ballerina skirts and crowns are dancing in my garden, I have Michael to thank. During my visit to his garden last October, he gave me some seedheads from Eryngium leavenworthii, the native Texas eryngo he grows in his front-yard prairie each year.

I sowed the seeds this spring in the sunny hillside garden, which gets a lot of reflected heat and not much water. And then I forgot about them, as I do all seeds that I sow. Luckily we had a wet early spring, which helped them get established when I forgot to water. When the first seedlings came up, I pulled a few, mistaking them for weeds before I remembered what they were. (This always happens when I plant seeds.) All summer the rather rank, weedy looking foliage grew, and I dutifully left it alone. Now comes the payoff! I just love those purple, spiky blooms.

Eryngo flops in my garden, probably due to too much shade. It’s handy to grow it near another plant it can lean on for support, like this potted Agave lophantha, whose sword-like leaves prop up the floppy eryngo. You can see, on the left, its brown, weedy looking stems and lower leaves. It would be good to plant eryngo behind a mid-sized perennial that could hide its skinny legs—maybe Salvia greggii or little bluestem.

No matter. I’m really enjoying these spiny annuals, whose purple bracts have a royal intensity of color. I tend to mulch too heavily to get returning seedlings, so I’ll probably collect the browned seedheads later this fall and sow seeds in bare, gravelly soil again next spring.

All material © 2006-2012 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.