Drive-By Gardens: Desert-style garden in Wells Branch


In the Wells Branch neighborhood just north of Austin, on the way to my mom’s house, I regularly drive past this desert-style, no-lawn front garden. I’ve watched it evolve from a few tiny plants dotted across an expanse of decomposed granite to its current lusher look, softened here and there by pools of spreading groundcovers like silver ponyfoot and the red-flowering perennial along the sidewalk (some sort of salvia?).


While it’s still sparsely planted for central Texas, leaving lots of DG open to potential weed invasion (increasing maintenance), I like how the owners have clustered plants in loose triangles for a more natural effect, like the agaves and foxtail ferns. Clumps of winter-tawny Mexican feathergrass and pink-flowering Gulf muhly help soften all the rock.


Extremely drought-tolerant Wheeler sotol (Dasylirion wheeleri) is an unusual choice for the foundation, but planted in a raised, steel-edged bed it’s obviously getting good drainage. How do I know? Because otherwise it would have rotted. Wheeler sotol won’t play the fainting-couch game. A handsome prickly pear anchors the left side of the garden.

The house sits on a corner lot, and along the other street (not pictured) the owners are growing an ocotillo — with apparent success! Octotillo (Fouquieria splendens) is rare in subtropical Austin; we just get too much rain and humidity for this southwestern desert plant. These folks have had theirs for about three years, and I saw it in leaf a couple of months ago (ocotillo branches are bare much of the year, a desert survival adaptation), showing that even this year’s ultra-rainy spring and fall didn’t phase it.

This water-conserving garden likely needs no irrigation for most of the year, with perhaps a once- or twice-a-month soak in summer if it hasn’t rained. An open desert style is unusual for Austin, but I think it’s working for them.

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

Peak fall color before the wash-out


A rainstorm overnight knocked a lot of the leaves down, so I’m especially glad I took these pictures yesterday afternoon. The ‘Wonderful’ pomegranate was glowing golden under gray skies, echoing the yellow stripes on the ‘Color Guard’ yuccas.


A golden puddle of leaves at its feet. The weeping redbud to the left of the Yucca rostrata had also gone yellow, although most of its leaves were already gone.


The sunny view from the deck


Out front, copper canyon daisy (Tagetes lemmonii) kept the sunshine going.


In the gutter lay the crimson leaves of the neighbors’ Bradford pear. Perhaps they’re washed away this morning from the overnight rainstorm.

October’s leaves were dancing around
Like angels dressed in robes of red and gold
But November’s come and gone now
And they’re lying in the gutter out along the road
They’re gonna make their way out
To the ditch or someday to the sea
They’ll get to where they’re going
Without the help of you or me
–Iris Dement

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

Decked and swinging at the Wildflower Center


The weather has been so beautiful lately — Austin’s payoff for making it through another summer. Last Sunday, the whole family joined me for an afternoon stroll at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, one of my very favorite places. Right now it’s a mix of fall color and Christmas decorations, one of those quirks of Austin’s cooler season, which compresses fall, winter, and spring between October and April.


The garden is decked out for Luminations this Saturday and Sunday, a holiday tradition I highly recommend. (Here are my pics from last year.) This year the staff has upped their game, with red and green Christmas balls adorning the spiny arms of agaves in the Family Garden.


Arizona cypresses, which last year glowed with simple white lights, this year sport colorful Christmas balls too, for daytime and nighttime enjoyment.


Arizona cypress (Cupressus arizonica) makes a perfect outdoor Christmas tree, complete with fir-like fragrance.


Nearby, a gray-trunked Texas persimmon (Diospyros texana) seems to shelter a handsome buck, one of the many bronze animal sculptures placed throughout the Family Garden.


A spiral wall for kids to play on, tiled with numbers in the Fibonacci sequence, always catches my eye.


The flowers depicted in this section are Turk’s cap (Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii), one of several plants with spiraling features planted nearby.


Here’s some of that fall color I mentioned: Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) turning orangey red on the aqueduct along the entry walk.


It harmonizes nicely with the warm stone of the pillars.


We walked all the way out along the Texas Arboretum trail, a relatively new section of the gardens. My son goes tree-hugger with a live oak, as David, my husband, looks on.


Daughter was perched in the low branches like a bird. In case you’re wondering, we don’t normally climb trees (or any other plant) at public gardens. But it seems to be encouraged with this particular tree, which at some point fell over while remaining rooted and alive. A well-kept mulched path leads to it and encircles it, inviting you to sit on its horizontal trunk and clamber up.


Nearby, my favorite part of the arboretum is even more tree-interactive. A picturesque glade of mighty live oaks is hung with an assortment of swings: swinging armchairs, swinging benches, board swings, spinning disc swings, and even a few child swings with safety bars.


We tried them all out (except the baby swings), gliding and spinning and pushing for nearly an hour.


It was so much fun!


And even a little zen.


We climbed the big viewing tower before we left, and I stopped to admire this possumhaw (Ilex decidua) in full berry. When the leaves drop it’ll be even more stunning.


Here’s one more picture of the festive agaves to remind you of Luminations this weekend. It’s a fun holiday activity for the whole family. Go early to see the gardens before it gets completely dark, or go later to avoid the kiddie crowd. Either way, it’ll give you a warm glow!

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

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