Palms and dinosaurs at McKee Botanical Garden


Two weeks ago, in mid-March, the family and I drove to Orlando for spring break. Before heading home, we stopped in Vero Beach, Florida, for a day at the shore and to visit McKee Botanical Garden. Yes, those are dinosaurs in the garden. Roar of the Dinosaur, featuring the life-sized creations of Guy Darrough, are displayed throughout the garden through May 1. Fun for the kids, no doubt, but I found them distracting. Still, I’d just enjoyed Orlando’s theme parks, so why not?


Happily, there’s plenty to see other than dinosaurs. This small public garden is a resurrected fragment of an 80-acre garden park that attracted droves of tourists from the 1930s through the 1960s. Operated by Waldo Sexton, an eccentric builder and nurseryman, and Arthur McKee, a Cleveland industrialist, McKee Jungle Gardens was famous for a “cathedral” of 300 royal palms, an extensive orchid collection, waterlilies, monkeys, and an alligator, Ole Mac. (The dinosaurs would likely have fit right in.) Disney World stole away its tourism base, however, and the garden was closed in 1976. Developers tore out most of the garden to build condos and a golf course.


Today, thanks to the efforts of locals and a land trust, 18 acres of the garden have been restored, showcasing palms, bromeliads, waterlilies, and other native subtropical and tropical plants.


The place does look a bit Jurassic, doesn’t it?


Richly colored bromeliads glowed in the sunlight during our late-morning visit. In the background, Spanish moss hangs from a tall, spreading oak.


A fallen tree trunk, arched at the edge of a pond, hosted an artful display of bromeliads and other plants.


Powdery blue culms of a beautiful Bambusa chungi


The silky plumes of this tall, grass-like plant caught my eye as well. Anyone know what it is? It’s tiger grass (Thysanolaena maxima). Thanks, Max!


Or this long-stemmed cluster of pink flowers — some sort of begonia?


Another temporary exhibit on display in the garden is a large-scale “stickwork” by artist Patrick Dougherty. Dubbed The Royals and sited amid the remaining royal palms, it’s like an oversized playhouse made of pliable willow branches, many of which showed signs of green-leaved regrowth. Dougherty’s fantastical stick structures last only until weather and time bring them down.


One of Waldo Sexton’s creations is The Hall of Giants, a 2-story wooden clubhouse that resembles something the Swiss Family Robinson would have constructed. A ruin after 20 years of abandonment when the garden shut down, it’s been restored to man-cave glory thanks to a grant from Florida’s Division of Historic Resources.


Sexton’s old bell collection is displayed along the porch eaves.


Inside it’s all elk-lodge timbers and iron lanterns. The crowning feature is a gleaming, 38-foot banquet table made from a single slab of Philippine mahogany. What a tree it must have come from!


Just outside, Sexton’s enormous Spanish Kitchen has also been restored, with room to grill 100 steaks at a time, according to garden lore. Those guys must have had some kind of parties here back in the day. Today the hall and outdoor kitchen are rented out for weddings and other events.


McKee Garden is small enough to see in about an hour, and even though I’m not especially into tropical plants, I enjoyed our visit.


It gave me a sense of Florida’s history, the costs of its rapid development, and the commitment of today’s residents to restoring some of what was lost.

I welcome your comments. If you’re reading this in an email, click here to visit Digging and find the comment link at the end of each post.
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Digging Deeper: News and Upcoming Events

TODAY AT NOON: Join me for Coffee with the Author at noon, April 6, at Holy Grounds
KUT’s Jennifer Stayton will interview me about water-saving gardening and host a Q&A with the audience — which I hope will include YOU. Afterward I’ll sign copies of The Water-Saving Garden and Lawn Gone!. I hope to see you there for this intimate, lunchtime event. Holy Grounds coffee shop is located in downtown Austin in the main building of St. David’s Episcopal Church at 301 East 8th Street. You can park in the surface lot in front of St. David’s main doors.

Do you review? Have you read my new book, The Water-Saving Garden? If you found it helpful or inspirational, please consider leaving a review — even just a sentence or two — on Amazon, Goodreads, or other sites. Online reviews are crucial in getting a book noticed. I really appreciate your help!

I’m on Instagram as pamdigging. See you there!

All material © 2006-2016 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Orange you glad it’s spring?


The weather’s not yet hot, but the flowers are. I’m embracing orange and reveling in the saturation. Thanks to an unusual, freeze-free winter, the garden has a jump-start on lush growth. Mexican honeysuckle (Justicia spicigera) is smothered in pumpkin-colored blossoms, framed by Mexican weeping bamboo (Otatea acuminata aztecorum), which arches gracefully from the side.


Just waiting for the hummingbirds to arrive


I like to make color echoes with garden art and containers. Just in front of the saffron dragon pot, another color echo is provided by ‘Bartley Schwarz’ abutilon. I recently staked its spindly stems to lift its bell-shaped flowers out of the mulch.


But you still need a bug’s-eye perspective to really enjoy those pendant blossoms. An elevated pot would do the trick — imagine those peachy orange flowers cascading over a pot’s rim — but I don’t believe it would be as dry tolerant as I require my container plants to be. Sorry, Bartley, you’ll have to stay where you are.


Standing at the bottom of the garden and looking up the path, a blue nolina (Nolina nelsonii) comes into view. I love the powder-blue, strappy leaves against all that hot orange. Self-sown spiderwort (Tradescantia occidentalis) pokes up at the nolina’s feet.


In this longer view, you see the blue nolina at the path’s turn, along with the Mexican honeysuckle. In the foreground, Texas sedge (Carex texensis) and purple heart (Tradescantia pallida) make a shade-loving, ground-covering combo.


The fallen live oak leaves suggest autumn, but they’re a sign of spring in Texas. On the pool patio, ‘Blue Elf’ aloe hoists pennants of tubular, coral blossoms.


Nearby, soap aloe (Aloe maculata) sends up its own candelabra-shaped bloom spikes.


Native Texas tuberose (Manfreda maculosa) is not to be outdone. Its bloom spike is a good 6 feet tall and still growing. Speaking of verticality, notice the ‘Tangerine Beauty’ crossvine climbing the cedar tree in the background. It’s only noticeable in spring, when it’s flowering.


I have another crossvine growing — and under control — on my side fence. I love those big, trumpet-shaped blossoms.


Another view


On the cooler side of the color wheel, and the other side of the garden, I’m enjoying native spiderwort mixed with white-striped Aztec grass (Liriope muscari ‘Aztec’) and variegated flax lily (Dianella tasmanica ‘Variegata’). A pot-bellied disappearing fountain provides a color echo, and its form is echoed in turn by the clipped ‘Winter Gem’ boxwood and spherical Yucca rostrata in the distance.


A closeup of the spiderwort


One more look. And now I’m ready for the rain that’s forecast this week. It’s been very dry. Fingers crossed!

I welcome your comments! If you’re reading this in an email, click here to visit Digging and find the comment link at the end of each post.

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Digging Deeper: News and Upcoming Events

Garden Design has published on its website an excerpt from my new book, The Water-Saving Garden. It’s titled “Create the Illusion of Water with Plants: How to use grasses, trees, groundcovers and other plants to evoke water in a dry garden.” Check it out, and let me know if you try any of these creative design ideas.

Do you review? Have you read The Water-Saving Garden? If you liked it or found it helpful or inspirational, please consider leaving a review — even just a sentence or two — on Amazon, Goodreads, or other sites. Online reviews are crucial in getting a book noticed. I really appreciate your help!

Come meet me at Zilker Garden Festival, Austin, TX, April 2 & 3
Come see me at Zilker Fest between 10 am and 2 pm, on both Saturday and Sunday, at the Author Booth (near the main building entrance), where I’ll be signing and selling my books ($20 each). Zilker Fest offers all-day entertainment, vendor shopping, plant sales, demonstrations, live music, a beer garden and food vendors, children’s activities, a garden train, a flower show, and a docent-led tour of lovely Zilker Botanical Garden. Click here for full details.

I’m on Instagram as pamdigging. See you there!

All material © 2006-2016 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Drive-By Gardens: Xeriscapes taking off at Mueller neighborhood


On New Year’s Day, we took a stroll through Mueller neighborhood, a New Urban community in east-central Austin. Built on the site of the old airport, where acres of runways and parking lots once sprawled, attractive homes and row houses in a mix of different styles (no cookie-cutter uniformity here) occupy tiny lots on walkable, tree-lined streets. The Lilliputian yards are offset by generous communal green spaces like the Southwest Greenway, and may be seen by many busy residents, like my in-laws, who’ve just moved in, as an asset.

A small garden must make the most of each square inch, and I was pleased to see that residents aren’t shying away from planting up the front yard. Many have embraced water-saving xeriscapes with a mix of native and adapted plants. Here are a few of my favorites, starting with this corner-lot contemporary. Wonderful steel planter boxes wrap around the L-shaped front porch. Nicely constructed at different heights, with a gap on the left to allow porch access, the boxes elevate plants to porch level and provide a sense of enclosure.


I love these foxtail ferns (Asparagus meyeri) but feel like something is missing along the front edge of the box. Or maybe they plant annual wildflowers there in warmer seasons?


On this side, silver ponyfoot (Dichondra argentea) carpets the DG in shimmering foliage and cascades over the steel edge. It’s kept neatly trimmed at ground level. A hedge of softleaf yucca (Y. recurvifolia) has architectural presence.


Another contemporary home has a traditional-style foundation planting, but it’s composed of tough, drought-tolerant plants like grayleaf cotoneaster (Cotoneaster glaucophyllus), sotol (Dasylirion texanum), and rosemary. At the far end, near the door…


…hulks a many-armed spineless prickly pear in a stone planter — beautiful!


I found this brick house very handsome. Its landscaping has some nice plants, although I think the line of bamboo muhly (Muhlenbergia dumosa) along the foundation would be stronger without the insertion of the purple pennisetum, and the yews by the steps overpower the entry. I love that trunking yucca on the right, though.


Nearby, a minimalist side yard comes into view, with a row of clumping bamboo and a Texas sotol in dark-gray gravel. Very tidy.


In front, symmetrical ‘Color Guard’ yuccas in trough-style containers add a burst of yellow to the minimalist green and gray garden.


Before we left, we checked out the big spider sculpture at the Southwest Greenway. What do you think: creepy or fun? I say fun, but thank goodness they’re small in real life.

I really enjoyed seeing what people are doing with their front yards at Mueller, and I look forward to a return visit in the growing season. Does anyone have a particular street to recommend for its gardens?

All material © 2006-2016 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

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