Austin Open Days Tour 2012: Rockcliff Road Garden

My fifth stop on last Saturday’s Open Days tour, the Rockcliff Road Garden, was really more of a sculpture garden. Lots of open space on this lakeside property, graced with a home designed by Lake Flato Architects, gives prominence to many large works of art placed on the grounds. But I couldn’t help noticing a devotion to Japanese maples in the entry garden. There were dozens, not all in the best of health, but clearly they were part of a collection, like the art. This one is a beauty, its rusty leaves set off by the chartreuse foliage of the tree behind it.

Some glowed red…

…and some greenish yellow along a curving limestone path. So many Japanese maples lent an Asian vibe to this part of the garden…

…played up even further with this courtyard combo of pines, junipers, and boulder.

Overall, however, plants seemed chosen for their sculptural qualities more than anything else, like these weeping blue atlas cedars, bent like wizened, gray-haired women and framing a boulder set on a concrete pad—art or nature? And are the plants part of a garden or pieces of art themselves? It was hard to tell.

Moisture-loving leopard plant (Farfugium japonicum) brightened a shady spot. Many of the plants in this garden were water lovers, but since the garden sits on the banks of Lake Austin it may well be naturally moist.

Leaving the entry garden behind, you step onto a railing-less boardwalk edging a small canal. The boardwalk leads in a straight shot toward the main house, set closer to the lake.

As you near the house you see this fascinating sculpture of crouching men stacked in a vanishing line atop the shoulders of an Atlas-like figure.

Each figure is blinded by the one above—a somewhat disturbing effect. Talk about a monkey on your back! Now that I think about it, all of the sculptures on the property had a vaguely ominous or unsettling mood, or so it seemed to me. Many were so visually off-putting that I didn’t photograph them. The owners obviously have a particular taste in art, and it doesn’t involve beauty but provocativeness.

Beauty was to be found in the design of the home itself, the natural lake view, and dramatic accents like these hanging, bare-root orchids.

I’m not usually much of an orchid fan, but I found these quite appealing.

Looking back down the boardwalk we just crossed—long vistas, straight lines, and vanishing points.

A soaring porch was open to garden visitors. In fact, we passed through the porch to see the rest of the garden along the lake.

Succulents in organically shaped pots and saucers

Another look—beautiful framing and craftsmanship

A wider view

I admired the interior for a bit, and then I noticed that a stone-block side table was engraved with some unsettling declarations. Later I learned that they are from Truisms (1978-1983) by Jenny Holzer. Hmmm. “Murder has its sexual side” is not something I’d want to read every time I set a drink down.

Stepping outside, a green-and-blue vista of lawn and lake greets you.

But uh-oh, here’s another vaguely creepy piece of art, like a swirling whirlpool, or a black hole ready to swallow you up.

Another look

Ah, I much prefer the view of water and green hills.

Chairs at the end of the lawn overlook the lake…

…but mischievously, some of the chairs are cleverly disguised pieces of art, placed in unsettling positions—one leg hanging off the edge of a deck or tilting to one side or, like this one, strewn into the lake as if a really good party had occurred the night before. Well, it was fun to see! This was definitely a garden with a sense of humor and a dark side.

Up next: The cactus and agave collector’s garden of Jeff Pavlat and Ray Clayton. For a look back at the contemporary Bonnell Drive Garden, click here.

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

Rocky Mountain National Park: Bear Lake, wildlife, & tundra

My family and I recently enjoyed a nearly two-week vacation in Colorado, and I’d love to share some photos from Rocky Mountain National Park, a favorite destination for this Texan looking to escape the heat for a little while. Bear Lake Trail is an easy hike around a small, nearly circular mountain lake on the east side of the park. Although the trail is heavily used by visitors, I still find a slow meander around the lake to be a restorative experience.

We’ve walked around Bear Lake many times before, on sunnier days. But this time rain clouds had socked in the lake, making for a dreamy, contemplative hike.

On this still day, the glassy surface reflected a mirror image of the surrounding firs, pines, and mountain ridges.

Although the pine bark beetle has killed off many thousands of evergreens in the park, Bear Lake is still relatively untouched, although we did see stands of dead trees here and there. All part of the natural process, we were told, though it’s still sad to see entire mountainsides of bare trunks and fallen trees.

Shapely, white-trunked aspens are a favorite of mine. Walking through a grove of them, with their fluttering leaves overhead, is almost a transcendent experience.

We saw some cute critters, including this bold golden-mantled ground squirrel…

…and lots of birds, including this small nesting female, who flitted into a crevice under a rock shelf, right in front of our eyes, where she settled on her nest of peeping chicks, which we could only hear, not see.

She was quite safe from predators there, as the rock face was steep, and her nest situated under a overhanging ledge.

I don’t know what this satiny gray-trunked tree is, but its bark was very beautiful.

I spotted a number of wildflowers along the trail as well. though I don’t have IDs for any of them. This is a groundsel…

…and this is cow parsnip (thanks for the IDs, Tina).

Beautiful texture amid the ferny undergrowth

We also drove Trail Ridge Road, which takes you seemingly to the top of the world at 12,183 feet elevation. We took a short walking path through the tundra, admiring alpine plants that eke out a living up here, with a growing season of only about 40 days.

It’s easy to get altitude sickness at this elevation, if you’re not careful. That happened to me one year, when we walked the trail on an intensely sunny day. As I got back in the car, a stabbing headache, sensitivity to light, and severe nausea set in, and all I could do was close my eyes and slump against the window until we got back down to our cabin in Estes Park at 7,500 feet. Luckily, that didn’t happen this year.

We were higher than some clouds.

Later we spotted this elk on the side of the road, and I snapped a few photos through the windshield.

Majestic, no?

In one of the valleys, a sighting of a female moose having lunch in a marshy area stopped traffic on the park road, as several of us pulled over to have a look through binoculars and telephoto lenses. Wildlife sightings are one of the highlights of a visit to Rocky Mountain National Park, along with beautiful scenery and mountaintop vistas.

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

No rain, no watering: Imagining a drier future for Austin & its landscaping industry

Photo courtesy of Lee Clippard at The Grackle

Are we brave enough to look the worst-case scenario in the eye? Let’s lay it out: the rains don’t return this winter, at least not sufficiently to ease our exceptional drought, and next summer Austin enters Stage 3 watering restrictions, in which all landscape watering must cease.


Thursday evening I attended a brainstorming session with approximately 40 Austin landscaping professionals—garden designers, landscape architects, horticulturists, educators, growers, retail and wholesale nursery workers, arborists, green roof experts, aquifer management folks, garden-book authors, conservationists, Wildflower Center staff, and others—at which moderator Rich Zarria asked us to imagine this scenario and, war-room style, start thinking and talking about how the industry and we as individuals can evolve to meet the challenge. He and the other organizers convened the meeting because they feel it’s high time everyone started discussing the implications of an extended drought rather than passively hoping and praying for rain and keeping on with business as usual. Neither he nor anyone else there had answers, only the hope that by talking together we can come to grips with the situation and plan for the future—preferably a hopeful one.

Lace cactus

Here are some questions to muse on, some posed by Rich, some by people I conversed with, some by me:

If we can’t water next summer, what will that mean for our city’s natural landscape, our personal gardens, our clients’ landscaping, and Austin’s already stressed tree canopy?

How can industry professionals keep their businesses (landscaping services, nurseries, etc.) alive?

Should we lobby for more water, at the expense of industrial usage or the water-guzzling rice farmers downstream? Is food production more important than ornamental landscaping? Is rice farming appropriate where there’s not adequate rainfall to support it? What is the worth (economic or otherwise) of ornamental landscaping and gardens that depend on at least some water?

What do we, as experts, tell the non-gardener homeowners who will be shocked to see their traditional landscaping die without water? Do we advise them to re-sod with St. Augustine, or perhaps Bermuda, when the rains return? Are native plants the answer? Should the city mandate which plants are OK to plant and which are not?

Can we figure out ways to popularize gray-water irrigation and rainwater collection systems?

Can we convert HOAs that have archaic landscaping rules that include traditional lawn grass (which won’t survive without water) to a new, dry-garden aesthetic?

Should we switch to a desert plant palette, even though we’re likely to have occasional rainy years interspersed in the drought years?

When the rains return and lakes fill again, as they will eventually (whether it be in the next couple of years or next decade), do we return to business as usual or evolve in a new direction, knowing that drought will inevitably return?

Rich’s gloomy scenario was tempered by his optimism that together we can come up with ways to get through this crisis, and that Austin is uniquely positioned to rise to the challenges. We didn’t choose this scenario, we all desperately wish we weren’t faced with it, but we have no power over what Mother Nature throws at us. The only thing we can control is our response. Austin is known as a green city, Rich pointed out, and we can lead by example.

I’ll geek out here and quote Tolkien: “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

Your thoughts?

Lace cactus in bloom

All material © 2006-2011 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.