Hill Country style and a downtown view in the garden of Ruthie Burrus

I see a lot of gardens on public tours, which I enjoy tremendously. But being invited for a private tour of a new-to-me garden is a special treat, especially if the garden happens to belong to an avid gardener making the most of a beautiful, hilltop site overlooking downtown Austin. Such is the garden of Ruthie Burrus, a reader of Digging who recently dangled a fall garden visit in front of my nose, which I snapped up like a trout.

Ruthie’s home sits at the top of a long, sloping driveway, and you approach through a rustic, Hill Country-style garden. Large limestone stepping stones lead past a deep foundation bed filled with salvia and roses and accented by powder-blue ‘Whale’s Tongue’ agaves (A. ovatifolia).

A large trough filled with water sits at the curve of the path, aligned with the front door.

Water dribbles down one corner of the trough onto a holey piece of limestone, making a hollow trickling sound, and then disappears into an underground basin to be recirculated. Maidenhair and other ferns grow at the base of the trough, enjoying the moist environment.

The view across the entry garden. Pink roses add romance to the front walk.

A pair of ‘Little Ollie’ dwarf olives planted in — what else? — olive jars dresses up the front porch.

The entry garden is partially enclosed by a wing made to look like a Fredericksburg-style Sunday house. I didn’t know what a Sunday house was, so Ruthie explained that the German farmers who settled the Hill Country built small houses in town, which they stayed in when they came to town to attend church.

Stepping through the house and out onto the back porch, the skyline of Austin seems almost close enough to touch. Framed by live oaks and a lawn that leads to the edge of steep drop-off, the view is stunning — and what most people notice instead of the garden, Ruthie told me. It would be hard for any garden to compete with that view…

…and wisely Ruthie keeps the garden clean and simple here. A sleek swimming pool accessed by geometric pavers of Lueders limestone lets the view take center stage.

But off to the side, Ruthie cuts loose with a naturalistic, fall-blooming garden of Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha), fall aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium), and Gulf muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris). Concrete orbs with scooped-out seats make a charming contrast to the squares and rectangles of the paving and pool.

Ruthie likes snake herb (Dyschoriste linearis), which blooms purple in spring, as a groundcover amid the salvias and asters.

The long view across the pool reveals string lights, which I believe Ruthie told me were temporary for a party they were preparing for.

The view back toward the house — such an inviting space.

The modern arrangement of the limestone paving is interesting. The pavers at right seem to float off from the main patio.

The covered porch with a fireplace offers a cozy spot for a chilly day, although it was the opposite of chilly on the day I visited.

A second, open-sided porch offers an outdoor dining spot. Notice the rain chains coming off the corners of the roof?

They channel rainwater into underground pipes that feed two large cisterns on the property. Runoff is collected from various points along the roof of the house, allowing for a lot of rainwater storage.

Beautiful dining table and succulent planter

From the dining porch my favorite feature of the garden comes into view: Ruthie’s gardening haus.

Ruthie told me that it’s constructed from stones collected on the property during the house’s construction. She searched high and low to find the weathered metal roofing.

A ‘Peggy Martin’ rose, also known as the Katrina rose (please click to read its moving story if you don’t know it), arches over the doors. Lavender and santolina fill raised stone beds that line the walk.

The arched doors inspired the whole thing, Ruthie told me. She found the weathered blue doors in a local French antique shop and had the shed constructed around them.

It’s an utterly charming garden shed from every angle. Behind it sits the smaller of the two cisterns.

Looking back you see the dining porch and, at right, a pizza oven.

White ‘Ducher’ roses must glow during evening cookouts.

In front, planted in a large iron cauldron, is a Mr. Ripple agave surrounded by purple-blooming ice plant, a lovely combo.

A wooly opuntia in a textural container on a low wall just begs to be stroked. Did I? Yes, I did.

Ruthie has a flair for creating interesting containers.

Walking back around to the driveway you see the bigger cistern, which holds 10,000 gallons. A pump allows Ruthie to irrigate with it for as long as the water lasts.

Just over its shoulder is a sliver of a view of Lake Austin.

More salvias line the driveway, and an island bed’s dry soil is filled with agaves, giant hesperaloe, blackfoot daisy, Mexican feathergrass, and artemisia on one side…

…and with blue mistflower and what looks like ‘Green Goblet’ agave on the other.

Mexican bush sage was in full flower.

Native rock rose (Pavonia lasiopetala) was blooming too.

In a shady area I noticed this unusual combo: a red billbergia and grassy Texas nolina (Nolina texana).

As I made my way down the driveway and through the gate I had to take a parting photo of Ruthie’s colorful streetside garden, filled with lantana, native daisies, agave, and even cholla. It’s a wonderful welcome that tells any visitor that a Texas gardener lives here.

Thank you, Ruthie, for sharing your beautiful garden with me!

All material © 2006-2014 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Monarchs flutter into Dallas Arboretum on fall migration

We weren’t the only visitors to the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden last Sunday. Aside from all the human visitors, hundreds of monarch butterflies arrived on the north wind blowing into Texas and settled into the garden for a rest stop.

I understand their fall migration is stalled out at the moment because southerly winds have returned. But not to worry: north winds will return soon and speed them on their way to Austin and on to Mexico.

After all that flying, they sure were hungry.

They flapped past in their eagerness to hit the snack bar of salvia, red yucca, and lantana. It warmed our hearts to see them, knowing their numbers are in decline, and having just watched a film about their life cycle, Flight of the Butterflies, at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science.

I showed you the fall extravaganza of Pumpkin Village in my last post, but there’s much more to see at the Arboretum. Fall bedding annuals like these marigolds make a cheerful show, although they were not attracting the butterflies.

What else was showy? Blazing red gomphrena, for one.

Add variegated tapioca and you have a sunglasses-worthy combo.

Interesting water features appear throughout the gardens, like this negative-edge pool overlooking White Rock Lake in the Woman’s Garden.

And this tumbling stream in the Red Maple Rill garden.

How about supersized, water-spouting toads? The Arboretum has those too.

Kids are always drawn to these “frog fountains” and play in the spouting water in the summertime.

On this day it was comfortably cool — no toad spray needed.

This squirrel appreciated a drink of puddled water though.

Several charming sculptures hint at the presence of water, like the playful Chico y Chica de la Playa (Boy and Girl on the Beach).

The Playdays young woman tentatively dips her toes into an imaginary pool filled with frogs. White Rock Lake in the distance adds a real water view.

As always, lots of pro photographers were in the garden (too many, in my opinion), including at least a half-dozen doing photo shoots with girls in candy-colored, frothy, Scarlett O’Hara-worthy quinceanera dresses. Something about this girl posing in the Fern Dell put me in mind of a fairy tale, maybe Thumbelina?

Speaking of ferns, I spy a leafy frond through the stone lantern’s window.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the Arboretum visit. For a look back at the light-hearted, colorful Pumpkin Village and autumn displays, click here.

All material © 2006-2014 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Tanzanian safari: Maasai school and Lake Manyara National Park

On our fourth day in Tanzania (June 2007) we visited a local school on the way to Lake Manyara. An English-language world map was painted on the school building. The only city noted on it is New York, which is of course how New Yorkers see the world. (Am I right?) If you don’t know exactly where Tanzania is, look at the map of Africa on the right. Tanzania is represented by its flag, diagonal gold and black lines on a green and blue ground: green for the country’s fertile lands, gold for their mineral deposits, black for the Tanzanian people, and blue for their waters and the Indian Ocean.

A teacher invited us inside to meet the students and learn about the school. She told us that the students are Maasai, one of the many ethnic groups in Tanzania, and a semi-nomadic people who are pasturalists (cattle farmers). There’s no school bus, and some children must walk 3 to 10 kilometers a day, even up to 4 hours, to get to school. Therefore, she said, the school is building dormitories so that students can stay overnight during the week. Maasai are seasonally nomadic, and when a village moves to greener pastures the children often don’t return to school.

First we visited the 4th-grade class. I was struck by the spareness of the classroom. But in comparison to a schoolhouse we saw later on our journey, in a Maasai village, this one was well furnished, with desks, paper, pencils, and a long blackboard.

The children sang for us. We stood by the blackboard and listened. If you’re wondering about the uniformity of our clothing, we were instructed to pack light-colored, earth-toned clothes for the trip. Dark colors, we were advised, attract biting tsetse flies. I can attest to that, as one day I (stubbornly) wore a dark-brown shirt, and a tsetse fly got into the safari car and tormented me with horsefly-like bites.

Evidence of a math lesson in progress

The children wore blue uniforms, the girls in round-necked blouses or sweaters, the boys in button-up shirts. All had closely cropped hair, making it hard for me to differentiate between boys and girls, except for clothing style.

The students were polite and friendly, showing us their work if asked. They all knew a little English.

These boys hammed it up with sunglasses borrowed from someone in our group.

We met older students — and far fewer girls — in the 7th-grade classroom next door.

Many students were eager to have their photo taken. They all wanted to see the digital images of themselves, and some of them pulled at our cameras, wanting to take pictures of their friends. They laughed with glee to see their own image on-screen. Do they have mirrors at home, I wondered, or are tourist visits the only time they see images of themselves?

Many of the children had circle scars on their cheeks or vertical markings, brands that are a traditional practice in their culture.

Dad photobombing two students

Afterward, the teacher told us about the school’s lunch program, which requires that students eat the school lunch rather than bringing their own. This ensures, she said, that portions are equal and everyone gets fed. On this day lunch was a sort of corn porridge, which cooked over a fire in an outbuilding.

We presented the students with school supplies we’d brought with us and said our goodbyes. Then we drove to our next hotel, Lake Manyara Serena Safari Lodge, “perched on the edge of the Mto wa Mbu escarpment and [offering] one of the greatest views of the Great Rift Valley,” our tour packet informed us. Here’s the lobby, where we sat under basket-lights and sipped our champagne and fruit juice.

Four hotel rooms made up each round, thatched-roof building.

Mosquito nets shielded sleepers here too.

The hotel pool — quite an extravagance

The poolside bar enjoyed a view of the valley.

Large agama lizards sunned themselves alongside guests on the pool patio.

As did striped skinks

Weaver nests in the trees. Isn’t it amazing to consider how the birds are able to weave these hanging nests with only beak and claw?

After lunch we headed into the valley for a game drive through Lake Manyara National Park, a lushly forested preserve surrounding a grassy floodplain and lake.

A troop of baboons captured our attention for a while. They relaxed along the roadside, just looking around, grooming each other, and giving their young some playtime.

Scratching an itch

They’re rather fierce looking.

Being social creatures, they assiduously groomed each other, eating what they picked off.

Not far away, vervet monkeys were hanging out in a tree.

Leaving the forest, we drove out to the lake and watched hippos.

What a mouth!

On the short-grass plain we spotted wildebeest.

The Great Rift escarpment rose before us. Our hotel was somewhere at the top.

Elephants were busy with lunch in the shrubbery alongside the road.

Wrapping his trunk around a sapling tree, this elephant would put his foot on the roots and pull, breaking off branches and leaves, which he then stuffed in his mouth. He was methodical about it.

Elephant skin

The next morning a naturalist named Yotham took us on a nature walk around the hotel and along the edge of the Rift. He was very knowledgeable and told us about the ant defense of the whistling acacia tree, termite mounds as animal habitats, and the Little Five (as opposed to the Big Five). The Little Five are: rhinoceros beetle, ant lion, buffalo weaver, leopard tortoise, and elephant shrew.

We’d already heard about the Big Five — a term coined during the era of hunting safaris for the animals most dangerous to hunt on foot: rhinoceros, lion, buffalo, leopard, and elephant. Thank heavens safaris are today about shooting with cameras, not guns. We were not lucky enough to see all of the Big Five on this trip. The rhino and the leopard eluded us, giving me a reason, if I needed one, to return one day. (Assuming, that is, that rhinos don’t go extinct in the next decade or two. Sadly, the rhinoceros is in grave danger of going extinct in the wild.)

We also got a tour of the hotel’s extensive vegetable garden, naturally fenced against hungry and destructive animals like elephants with Manyara trees, the tall euphorbia for which the park is named. A wire fence provided additional protection from smaller animals. Inside, staff gardeners grew bananas, oranges, papaya, spinach, leeks, tomatoes, radishes, and avocados.

Banana tree

The garden was irrigated by channels that carried water poured at one end to each planting bed. We enjoyed many fruits and vegetables grown here during our meals at the hotel.

Up next: A visit to the multicultural village of Mto Wa Mbu, where we toured a local home. For a look back at our game drives in Tarangire National Park, click here.

All material © 2006-2014 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.