Before and after: 6 years making a garden


Bluesy garden: our upper patio, just off the living room and master bedroom

It’s always eye-opening to see how much a garden has evolved by comparing before and after images. We moved into our current home in October 2008, and I started tinkering with a few beds right away, planting old favorites dug up from my former garden, and simply observing other areas to see what I had. As anyone knows who’s made a garden, it’s a process that takes years, especially if you frequently revise plantings, as I do.

I didn’t draw out a plan for this garden, even though I recommend it and did one for my former garden. Instead I worked on one area at a time, tackling whatever demanded my immediate attention and saving up for bigger projects along the way. The garden is and always will be a work in progress, but 6-1/2 years is long enough to see changes taking shape and plants maturing.

Just a few days after moving in, I wrote an introductory post about our new home. I’m reposting those “before” pictures here, followed by “after” pics I took yesterday morning from the same perspective. I offer the contrast not to show “improvements” but simply to illustrate the process of making it my own. After all, taste is subjective, and the serene, green, easy-care “before” garden not only enticed us to buy this house but may be preferable to many people over my densely planted, spiky style. I’m grateful for the garden we inherited and am enjoying putting my own stamp on it for as long as we’re its caretakers.


Before: The front entry of our 1971 ranch right after we moved in 6-1/2 years ago


After: We added architectural interest to the facade and the low, steeply pitched roof with a gabled porch roof addition. Poured-concrete slabs in an offset pattern replaced the narrow, down-sloping, tiled front walk, eliminating a step in the process. The lawn and foundation shrubs at left are gone, switched out for a water-thrifty gravel garden. The old aluminum windows are refreshed with new, efficient double panes, and we took down the shutters for a more contemporary look. New paint and updated porch lights complete the refresh. The aging roof, which was patched when the porch roof was altered, is next on our list.


Before: Pretty but traditional-style landscaping and a lawn showing signs of drought stress


After: My containerized spikefest, with ‘Alphonse Karr’ bamboo replacing a redbud in the back corner


Before: A species Japanese maple, which I immediately fell in love with but worried would need too much water


After: Not to worry — the Japanese maple has thrived in the shade on the north side of the house, and all I’ve had to do is prune it for shape. A dry stream channeling water away from the foundation runs between the maple and the native river ferns in the foreground. I also had the back fence moved toward the front corner of the house.


Before: The island bed in the center of the circular drive was cloaked in creeping jasmine and purple lantana.


After: Today a xeric garden of yuccas, euphorbias, grasses, and other drought-tolerant plants grows there. A stepping-stone path runs across the berm (hidden by plants in this view) for access.


Before: In back, the swimming pool and private, tree-shaded lot was one of the selling points of the house for us, as our children were the perfect ages to enjoy it.


After: The large gum bumelia tree behind the pool died in the drought, opening up the area to more sun. I added painted stucco walls last fall for structure and color.


Before: Limestone retaining walls near the pool offered gardening space off the back of the house. I was eyeing this bed from day one for the ‘Whale’s Tongue’ agave I’d brought from my former garden.


After: Today Moby is happily growing in that spot and at least twice as big as he was when I moved him. I added terracing to the bed and removed the grass below it to expand the garden. The ocotillo bottle tree replaced a more stylized version last summer.


Before: A cluster of live oaks at the bottom of the garden was set off with edging of casually stacked limestone.


After: Today Mexican honeysuckle grows under the trees, and one of the new stucco walls adds structure in front.


Before: Looking up-slope along the west side of the property. A red-tip photinia hedge along a chain-link fence screened the neighbor’s pool from ours.


After: For more privacy, we had a fence constructed in front of the hedge. I removed the lawn on this side of the yard and replaced it with garden beds and a terraced, gravel path (like this path, which I laid on the other side of the yard).


Before: Behind the pool, slabs of exposed limestone make a natural floor. A shaggy bed of liriope and purple heart edged the back of the pool.


After: The limestone hasn’t changed a bit, although I have to beat back the purple heart, which wants to take over. (The standing water is from the previous night’s heavy rain.) The stucco walls and stacked-stone retaining wall behind the pool are new. I’ve planted ‘Blonde Ambition’ grama and Texas sedge in place of the liriope, which died away during the drought.


Before: I was pleased to discover a Mexican buckeye in the garden. Cast-iron plant was welcome too.


After: The buckeye has continued to mature, and my main job is pruning once a year for shape. The cast-iron plant is still there as well, behind a large, potted Texas nolina parked on one of the limestone slabs as a focal point along the lower-garden path. Dwarf Barbados cherries make a low hedge at right.


Before: Looking across the swimming pool toward the back of the house, where terraced limestone walls hold narrow garden beds. At first I worried that I’d have to remove the large Texas persimmon, which was encroaching on the house.


After: Regular pruning has allowed the persimmon to remain, and I enjoy its white-gray bark and graceful, leaning form. Aside from the persimmon and a crepe myrtle (at right), every single plant here has been replaced. From this angle it doesn’t seem like a significant bed. But it’s crucial to the experience of exploring the garden because the main path runs between this wall and the pool.


Before: A lengthwise view along the terraced bed shows a ‘Dortmund’ rose on a cedar-post support, which was nice.


After: But the rose bloomed only for a short time, and the rest of the year it was not very attractive. So I removed it and planted up the area with bold, variegated foliage plants, like ‘Alphonse Karr’ bamboo, ‘Bright Edge’ yucca, and ‘Color Guard’ yucca. A stock-tank planter that was a small container pond in my former garden was turned into a planter for height here. Two blue pots bring extra height and color.


Before: I liked the large, fuchsia-flowering crepe myrtle near the back deck. The white-trunked Texas persimmon is just behind it.


After: I widened the bed around the crepe myrtle and installed a disappearing fountain with a shallow basin to entice birds.


Before: We inherited a nice deck off the back of the house, with lattice screening at the base.


After: I soon widened the planting bed at its base. At first it was a trial spot for various plants, but over time I simplified and massed the plants for impact. We also restained the deck and lattice screening dark gray.


Before: I loved the limestone slabs jutting from the lawn here and there, although I worried that it meant the garden would be rocky and hard to dig.


After: Happily, the soil is fairly deep except right around the boulders, so digging hasn’t been a problem. I made a garden around these boulders and incorporated the flatter stones on the left into a terraced timber-and-gravel path. We pushed back the fence, visible at top-left in the “before” photo, to the front of the house to get more privacy and gardening space in back.


Before: Another boulder, shaped like a turtle head, jutted out of the concrete pool patio. A stepping-stone path led from the pool to the deck steps.


After: Here’s a wider view of the same area. The turtle-head rock is in the foreground. I laid a flagstone path in place of the stepping stones. And at right, in one of the earliest parts of the garden, I installed an 8-foot diameter stock-tank pond and laid a sawn-stone path in a sunburst shape around it. This is one of my favorite parts of the garden, and the circular pond and surrounding sunburst path look especially nice from the elevated deck.


Before: I admired the coyote fence along the back property line. Shaggy cedar posts were wired to an old chain-link fence for privacy and a woodsy look that harmonized with the greenbelt beyond the fence.


After: A few of the cedar posts have rotted, but most are hanging in there. We’ll definitely replace them as needed to retain this look. Other noticeable changes include the stucco walls and the loss of the gum bumelia tree.


Before: I liked the wide, decomposed-granite path in the lower garden.


After: But under all those trees it quickly grew overgrown with oak sprouts and ligustrum seedlings and was buried in leaf litter. So I mulched over the path for a more natural look and ran a stepping-stone path instead. I also removed the pineapple guavas that were planted along the back fence. They suffered in the drought and also from lack of sunlight. Various plants have taken their place.


Before: Looking up toward the pool patio from the lower garden path. A rock-strewn, narrow, grassy slope provided trip-hazard access to the lower garden.


After: Initially I used found rocks in the garden to build steps between the lower garden and the pool. But last fall I was able to redo the steps with large boulders while having the stucco walls built.


Before: Another limestone expanse between the lawn and the lower garden


After: The limestone’s still there (at right), but the lawn is long gone.

There were other parts of the move-in garden I didn’t show in that introductory 2008 post because they weren’t particularly interesting — just large areas of lawn. But I worked on those too over the years and today enjoy gardens where there used to be just grass. Here’s a quick run-through.


This is one of the more recent parts of the garden: the east side path and garden. I started out with a decomposed-granite path and garden beds for grassy, deer-resistant plants. More recently I had the lattice fence built for a sense of enclosure.


Earlier this spring I made mirrored trellises to add depth to the long, blank wall of the garage, staining them to match the new-stained fence.


Looking lengthwise across the front yard, the dominant feature is a Berkeley sedge lawn. A giant hesperaloe anchors one end near a cluster of live oaks. A broad, curving path of decomposed granite leads through the front garden.


The same view in reverse, from the driveway looking toward the lattice fence. The meadowy sedge lawn at right needs much less water than a traditional lawn and mowing only once or twice a year.


Closer to the house, I had a limestone retaining wall built to tame a slippery slope on a natural berm alongside the driveway and foundation. It gave the house room to breathe and opened up space for additional pathways through the garden.


On the west side of the garden, I took out all but one small, semicircular patch of lawn and planted a deer-resistant garden of irises, grasses, dyckia, sotol, and yucca.


Finally, as you enter the back garden on the west side, you pass through a work/storage space and then come to the upper patio, along one edge of which I built this cinderblock wall planter filled with succulents.

I’m kind of tired now as I think back through all these garden projects, and my wallet feels a lot lighter. But it’s more rewarding than buying clothes, jewelry, or a car, so what can I say? I love to make gardens! I hope you’ve enjoyed the retrospective. As you busily make your own garden, remember to take photos and document the process so you can look back and see all you’ve accomplished.

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

Evergreens, color, and hardscape carry garden through winter into spring


A recent conversation on Linda Lehmusvirta‘s Facebook page got a few Austin gardeners talking about winter interest. Tracie, a local gardener, wrote that her mostly native garden looks great spring through fall but is “asleep” in winter, and she wanted ideas. Lori at The Gardener of Good and Evil responded by posting year-round views of her Blue Border, showing how evergreens sustain her garden.

I’m joining in by sharing current pictures of my garden, in all its patchy, cut-back, late-winter-on-the-cusp-of-spring glory. While winter is not high season in mine or any garden, I find that three elements keep a garden interesting post-freeze: evergreen plants; color on pots, furnishings, and structures; and defined hardscaping like paths, patios, and walls.

All three are put to use in the pond garden pictured above. ‘Winter Gem’ boxwoods, ‘Color Guard’ yuccas, squid agaves (A. bracteosa), evergreen sumac (Rhus virens), and Texas mountain laurel (Sophora secundiflora) keep the garden in green (and gold) all winter. Blue paint on the shed door, a blue pot fountain, and strongly defined hardscaping continue to attract and lead the eye when flowers have faded away.


At the other end of the garden, which slopes dramatically, retaining walls give structure and line, and a cold-hardy agave and yucca collection is evergreen (and gold and blue-gray) all year. ‘Whale’s Tongue’ agave (A. ovatifolia) anchors the grouping. A bottle tree and blue pots add more color to brighten dreary days.


‘Blue Elf’ aloe is not only evergreen but blooms in late winter/early spring.


In the narrow raised bed behind the house, which I’ve begun to think of as my golden garden, several variegated evergreens keep it “awake” in winter: ‘Alphonse Karr’ bamboo, ‘Bright Edge’ yucca, and ‘Color Guard’ yucca (in the blue pot). In the stock tank, Artemisia ‘Oriental Limelight’ adds to the show in winter and spring, before dying back in our hot, humid summer. In summer, Duranta ‘Sapphire Showers’ will return.


More evergreens hold the winter garden together in the east side path from the front garden to the back: Arizona cypress ‘Blue Ice’ (blue-green tree at left), bamboo muhly grass (at left), gopher plant (in bloom on both sides of the path), ‘Bright Edge’ yucca, ‘Will Fleming’ yaupon holly (columnar tree at right), ‘Green Goblet’ agave, Yucca rostrata ‘Sapphire Skies’, and ‘Winter Gem’ boxwood.


Moving into the front garden, Mediterranean fan palm (Chamaerops humilis) offers lush winter greenery. The Berkeley sedge (Carex divulsa) lawn behind it gets a little yellow but mostly remains green. Low retaining walls add a strong line of hardscape.


Wide-leaf giant hesperaloe (Hesperaloe funifera ssp. chiangii), evergreen with interesting white filaments along the leaf margins, tolerates part shade with ease. I need more groundcovers here though. I tried Jewels of Opar one spring, but the deer ate it. The dormant (maybe dead) plant at right is ‘Wendy’s Wish’ salvia, which I’ll replant if it doesn’t come back. It’s only borderline hardy here but blooms beautifully spring through fall in dappled shade, and deer ignore it.


Another shot of the Berkeley sedge lawn, which is studded with evergreen ‘Margaritaville’ yuccas. A broad decomposed-granite path through the front garden leads to the back gate. Its curving line directs the eye and defines the surrounding beds. I’ve decided to stain the lattice fence a dark gray-green, which will, I hope, make the plants in front of it pop a little more.


Jerusalem sage (Phlomis fruticosa) and paleleaf yucca (Y. pallida), both evergreen, take over on the sunnier side of the garden.


‘Green Goblet’ agave, a curved line of ‘Teresa’ autumn sage (Salvia greggii), and groundcovering wooly stemodia (Stemodia lanata) keep things green all winter in the raised bed near the driveway. The stemodia can get a little ratty by winter’s end, but it greens up quickly in spring.


How about the streetside view? This is actually my neighbor’s garden, which I planted for her. A ‘Whale’s Tongue’ agave will be the centerpiece of this bed as it grows. Cut-back autumn sage is still green, though not showy yet, and Jerusalem sage (Phlomis fruticosa), red yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora), and Mexican feathergrass (Nassella tenuissima) offer year-round color and texture.


Panning right, my own streetside garden is at its quietest, recently shorn of last season’s growth and awaiting spring. Possumhaw holly (Ilex decidua) — caged against deer — is our native deciduous holly. It makes up for losing its leaves with brilliant red berries, which the birds have mostly devoured. In front are autumn sage, catmint, Mexican feathergrass, ‘Pink Flamingos’ muhly grass, and softleaf yucca (Y. recurvifolia) — a mix of evergreens, flowering perennials and sub-shrubs, and grasses selected for deer resistance.


Panning right some more, softleaf yucca, ‘Margaritaville’ yuccas, sedge lawn, and foxtail ferns (Asparagus meyeri) in pots add plenty of winter greenery. The dead grass in the foreground is purple fountain grass, which I replace every spring for its rich, purple foliage.


On the west side of the circular driveway is a more colorful scene thanks to a sprinkling of ‘Color Guard’ yuccas. Gopher plant (Euphorbia rigida), currently in full bloom, echoes their golden stripes. Other evergreens like rosemary, spineless prickly pear (Opuntia), and softleaf yucca keep things green until flowering vitex, copper canyon daisy (Tagetes lemmonii), and majestic sage (Salvia guaranitica) return in spring.

So how do you achieve winter interest in your garden? Or is that something you are working toward?

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

New year in green and gold: January Foliage Follow-Up


It’s a new year in the garden, and I haven’t really been out in it for a while. An unusually long stretch of cold, gray days had me feeling like I was in Seattle, and let me tell you, it made me feel pretty gray myself. But yesterday the sun came out, the skies turned blue, and with a pleasant chill in the air it was the stuff of winter-in-Texas dreams. So let’s kick off Foliage Follow-Up for 2015! I’ll start with my ever-so-slow-growing Berkeley sedge (Carex divulsa) lawn, studded with a few lemon-lime ‘Margaritaville’ yuccas. I love this little sedge lawn so much more than when it was St. Augustine grass, and I only have to mow twice a year (with a quiet, battery-operated mower). Yippee! If you’re curious about the palm in the middle-back, it’s a Mediterranean fan palm (Chamaerops humilis), which will eventually fill that spot with tropical-looking foliage.


My pipe-planted toothless sotol (Dasylirion longissimum) is an FFU favorite of mine, but I have to show it off again but it looks so freaking fantastic, like a giant’s fiber-optic mood lamp shimmering by the front door. I felt like I was taking a chance on this plant when I bought it at Big Red Sun exactly 3 years ago, but boy has it paid off.


At the time (and even today) I rarely saw toothless sotol planted around town, and I wasn’t sure how it would hold up, especially in such an elevated, tight spot. However, it sails through winter freezes and blistering hot summers and only requires watering maybe once every two weeks in summer. I do think that sharp, sharp drainage and lots of sun is key to making it happy. For a laugh, here’s my post about my pipe-planting goof, but you can also see how much it’s grown since I planted it.


In the same space, softening a corner and screening the laundry room window from the western sun, is ‘Alphonse Karr’ bamboo, which I’m enjoying much more since I took the time to prune it up and show off its golden “legs” last fall. I need to stay on top of the pruning. Bamboo gets waaaay out of hand if you don’t, even clumping bamboo like this.


Foxtail ferns (Asparagus meyeri) in white pots sit atop short cantera stone columns gifted to me by my gardening friend Randy. (Thanks again, Randy!)


More golden foliage is glowing in the newish front-side garden, courtesy of two variegated maiden grasses (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Variegatus’). Particularly observant readers may notice a lot more sunshine in this area now. Yes, indeed! While having my oaks trimmed last fall, I convinced my neighbor to have the arborist remove a half-dead, truly pitiful, tree-sized red-tip photinia from her side yard. Its trunk was at least a foot in diameter, and coppery, dead leaves clung to it all year, plus it was leaning over my new fence. Once it came down, the whole space was opened up, and now this part of the garden gets a good dose of morning sun, which should make everything quite happy.


What kind of foliage is making you happy in your January garden? Please join me for Foliage Follow-Up, giving foliage plants their due on the day after Bloom Day. Leave a link to your post in a comment below. I really appreciate it if you’ll also link to my post in your own — sharing link love! If you can’t post so soon after Bloom Day, no worries. Just leave your link when you get to it. I look forward to seeing your foliage faves!

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