Palo verde paradise at Arizona State University Polytechnic campus


For all you snowbound readers up north or eager-beaver gardeners down south, you’ll find lots of floral sunshine in this post, which I’ve been holding onto since last spring. During my Phoenix visit last April, my friend Noelle, aka AZ Plant Lady, took me to some water-saving gardens around town, including the beautiful grounds at Arizona State University’s Polytechnic Campus in Mesa.


The campus, formerly an Air Force base, was originally a bleak expanse of hot paving and river rock. Austin’s own Christine Ten Eyck ripped up the paving (repurposing some of it as garden benches and paving-stone paths) to create a garden of flowering native plants that provide shade and feed pollinators, welcoming courtyards, vine-draped arbors, and creative water harvesting.


In 2012, the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) recognized the garden with an Honor Award. As Ten Eyck’s project narrative explains,

Our team reviewed the campus master plan which had a decidedly Ivy League approach to the campus design and developed a new master plan strategy for the project. We reinvented what a campus could be in the unique region of the Sonoran desert which only receives 7″ of rainfall a year.

7 inches of rain — that is not very much. Yet plants like aloes and palo blanco trees grow well here with minor supplemental watering.


The river rocks that once made inhospitable paving now fill courtyard-defining gabion walls, which also shade plant roots from summer’s heat.


Cooling shade, enclosure, and places to sit


Tall gabion walls echo interior walls, sheltering an outdoor dining or studying area, with eye-catching green seating.


Some of the buildings are enclosed by a metal scrim, presumably for shade and to support high-climbing vines, which shelter the buildings from the desert sun. Noelle identified the vine as grape ivy (Cissus trifoliata).


This large courtyard is paved with stabilized decomposed granite, which allows rainwater to percolate through. Clean-lined concrete benches invite relaxation.


A concrete cistern filled with river rock collects rainwater, when it comes, and spills it into a dry creek. I confess I’m not exactly sure how this sort of cistern works, since it’s raised above ground level. How does rainwater fill it? Maybe it’s pumped up from underground pipes?


Industrial-style Corten arbors line walkways for shade. Interesting shadows are a bonus.


Lady Banks roses climb the arbors, softening the steel with cascades of ruffled flowers.


But the showiest flowers were blooming in the bare branches of palo verde trees, which glowed like secondary suns all over campus, and indeed all across Phoenix during my early April visit.


I’m familiar with the charms of forsythia from my Carolina childhood. But this — forsythia times 100!


I could not get enough of it, those golden trees glowing against a cloudless, blue desert sky.


Yellow is the color of spring in Arizona, for along with the palo verdes I saw octopus agave (A. vilmoriniana) in towering bloom…


…and aloe vera (Aloe barbadensis), with its subtler spires.


More palo verdes shade a water-collecting basin and a long concrete bench.


Another high steel arbor shades an L-shaped banco, while more of those green dining sets invite socializing or studying.


This sunny courtyard near the parking lot was ablaze with California poppies and a palo verde, with a Cereus peruvianus (thanks for the tentative ID, Janis), barrel cactus, and purple prickly pear adding year-round structure.


A Spanish-style tiered fountain drips musically along a broad walkway. Ten Eyck, who is exceedingly water conscious with her designs, has told me she believes in using water sparingly but symbolically in dry climates to evoke an abundance that isn’t there, and to visually cool gardens.

It’s a shame that the City of Austin doesn’t agree and has banned the running of municipal and residential fountains for the past several years as a water-conservation measure. A small fountain is almost a spiritual gesture in a hot climate, and birds, insects, and other wildlife depend on artificial water sources when creeks run dry. But that’s a rant for another day.


Even desert plants need water to get established, and a simple trench effectively delivers runoff water to this young mesquite.


The entire garden is an inspiring example of how to make a hospitable garden with not a lot of water in a harsh climate. My thanks to Noelle for showing it to me!

If you’re interested in sustainable gardening in the desert, you might like to visit Underwood Family Sonoran Landscape Laboratory at the University of Arizona in Tucson. I didn’t visit that one this time but hope to one day. Also see my post about Scottsdale’s inspiring Xeriscape Garden. Both are, like the Polytechnic campus garden, designed by Ten Eyck Landscape Architects.

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

Spiny fingers for Foliage Follow-Up


Amid the crazy busyness of December, I’m opting for a quick and easy subject for my monthly Foliage Follow-Up post: a cute, orange-spined, somewhat profane-looking cactus in a goofy, skeleton-decorated Rick Van Dyke pot. Sometimes you just have to indulge the whimsy.

What kind of foliage is making you happy in your December 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 © 2006-2014 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

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.