Coneflower and tower power at the Wildflower Center

Evening hours last Thursday at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center drew me to the gardens like a moth to flame. And flaming hot it was too — about 97 F (36.1 C) when I arrived at 5 pm. You may already know this about me: despite my love of Austin and central Texas, I’m as much of a heat wimp as someone from Vermont. Most of my Texas garden and state park visits (and posts), therefore, occur during fall, winter, and spring, when the weather is pleasantly cool or at least not broiling.

But the fact is, many of our native plants love the heat. They’re born to it, you might say, and not only survive but thrive in it. While many Austin gardeners view summer as a season of planning rather than active gardening (certainly not planting), our gardens are anything but dormant. At the Wildflower Center last week, their gardens were positively bursting with color and lush growth.

The garden was open late for Nature Nights, which is geared to kids and families. These boys were investigating the pond in the main courtyard, framed by curtains of tall grasses.

A blaze of color attracted my eye to a trumpet creeper vine (Campsis radicans) climbing an arbor. The Wildflower Center describes this vine as an aggressive colonizer, so I’ll be admiring this one from afar.

Strolling to the new Family Garden along with most of the other visitors, I stopped to admire a new garden awash in brilliant coneflowers and soft-blue salvia.

Black-eyed Susans and mealy blue sage

A swath of tall black-eyed Susans stood out against shorter perennials.

Their golden-yellow petals caught the late-afternoon light, as wands of red yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora) gently bobbed in the background.

Looking back I enjoyed this view of the Wildflower Center’s iconic, spiraling cistern-tower, with wildflowers carpeting the foreground.

At the back of the administrative building, I spotted this handsome combination of Texas nolina (Nolina texana) spilling over a rock wall, with the Mickey Mouse ears of a spineless prickly pear above it.

The prickly pear flowers are burnt-gold and surprisingly ruffly.

From another angle it gets even better, with a zexmenia (Wedelia texana) adding to the gold color scheme, its narrow leaves contrasting with the spaghetti-like nolina and muscular pad structure of the prickly pear.

Farther along the path, a billowing cloud of Mexican feathergrass (Nassella tenuissima) seems to float in front of more mealy blue sage (Salvia farinacea).

After exploring the Family Garden (click for my post), I entered the central gardens again, passing this peaceful bench and vine-draped arbor.

In the butterfly garden I admired the Koosh ball-like flowers of buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis).

Or maybe it looks like a pincushion?

The Demonstration Garden was nearly deserted, despite the glowing beauty of the late afternoon light.

Of course I had to stop for the stock-tank pond and planters.

I think this is a Habiturf lawn in the Traditional Homeowner Inspiration Garden. It looks quite nice for a lawn that needs little, if any, supplemental water and seldom needs mowing.

Another view of the cistern-tower, this time from the cafe gardens. Visitors can climb right up a spiraling stair to take in the view from the top.

A nodding sunflower bids farewell until next time.

To read my post about Nature Nights at the Luci & Ian Family Garden at the Wildflower Center, click here.

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

Not voting these survivors off the island garden

Summer’s heat entices chaste lilac, or vitex (Vitex agnus-castus), to send up an explosion of purple spires, adding a dash of rich color to the xericsaped island bed in the circular driveway.

This bermed garden bed, shaded all morning by live oaks and hit with late-afternoon sun, is not on the irrigation system, and I try to remember to water it at least every other week in summer, never in winter. Tough, drought-tolerant plants that are distasteful to deer make up this largely evergreen (and gold and silvery blue) garden.

Right now, the vitex is the belle of the ball, showing off long, tapered bloom spires that attract bees and coarse, palmate leaves that could be mistaken for marijuana foliage. But beware. With fast-growing, thickety growth, vitex requires a firm hand with the pruning shears. I don’t recommend it unless you’re committed to regular pruning after each bloom cycle. Vitex is on Austin’s invasive-plant list, which is a shame since it performs so well in our extreme climate — hence its designation, confusingly, as a Texas Superstar plant. If you want to grow it or already have one, to be a good environmental steward I suggest cutting it back after every bloom cycle, preventing it from going to seed, and pruning it back to about 8 to 12 inches in winter, keeping it shrub-sized.

Actually, several plants in this bed have seeding-out tendencies (only in my own garden; they never invade my neighbors’ lawns or beds) — namely Mexican feathergrass (Nassella tenuissima) and gopher plant (Euphorbia rigida) — but I love them anyway.

The wide view. The left side receives a blast of the Death Star in the afternoon; the far-right side is shady. The main players, roughly from left to right, are gopher plant, ‘Color Guard’ yucca, wavy prickly pear, vitex, Mexican feathergrass, ‘Powis Castle’ artemisia, Mexican oregano (Poliomintha longiflora), softleaf yucca (Y. recurvifolia), turk’s cap (Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii), heartleaf skullcap (Scutellaria ovata), and Texas dwarf palmetto (Sabal minor).

To illustrate how far this bed has come, let’s pop back to 2008 for a “before” picture. Even then it was lawn-gone, thanks to the efforts of the previous owners, who’d planted groundcovering Asian jasmine, trailing purple lantana, and a few other plants. But I wanted something more dramatic and interesting since visitors pass this bed on the way to the front door. It’s also our view from the front door and what we see each time we pull into the driveway. Moreover, I desired screening from the street, and taller plants on the crest of the berm provide that.

I planted this garden bed in March 2010. Subsequent years of drought and blisteringly hot, dry summers slowed its growth but couldn’t thwart it, and deer-resistant plant choices have kept the antlered pests’ depredations to a minimum, although the four-nerve daisies in front proved tasty and had to be relocated to the fenced hillside garden. (We’ve also changed our house color since then, painting the cream siding a warm gray.)

The recent cold winter hardly nipped the island bed, and this year it’s really taking shape. Don’t you love it when reality finally catches up to the vision in your mind’s eye?

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

Inspired landscape architecture at Cavalliere Park in Scottsdale

While touring low-water gardens in Phoenix and nearby Scottsdale, Arizona, in early April with my friend Noelle Johnson, aka AZ Plant Lady, we stopped at Cavalliere Park. Constructed in 2012, the park is a model of sustainability and is a 3-star SITES-certified project.

Aside from all that, I really liked the look of the place. The angular roof of a long shade structure, which shelters restrooms and a playground, is tilted up and down to mirror the jagged mountains in the distance.

Rusty steel on the roof and rock-filled gabion walls echo the colors of the surrounding rugged landscape. Native plants were chosen for their ability to survive on their own in harsh desert conditions. A play lawn that’s part of the playscape area is artificial turf, which never needs watering. All of the materials were chosen with the goal of requiring less maintenance, thereby reducing long-term costs. You can read more about that on the Sustainable Sites Initiative website.

Two existing mesquite trees in the parking area were saved with the help of a steel-edged island that preserves the original grade around their root zones. This circular island bed is the beautiful focal point of the parking lot.

Native saguaro cactus, yuccas, and flowering perennials fill the understory.

Gabion retaining walls line stormwater retention ponds, and concrete benches with modern lines are positioned for views of the basketball courts and distant mountains. A trio of steel plates with cut-out windows caught my eye. How I wish I’d walked over to see what view is framed when you look through all three at once.

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