Why don’t we see more colored walls in Austin?


In 2008 I read an article in Wildflower Magazine by Tucson designer Scott Calhoun in which he makes the case for colored walls in the garden. (Here’s my original post about it, in which I fantasize about adding colored walls to my own garden.) It was a light-bulb moment for me, but it took six more years of seeing the impact of colored walls in gardens in the Southwest and the Pacific Northwest to push me over the edge. A month ago I hired a mason here in Austin to build three low stucco walls for my own garden.


But I have to wonder: why don’t we see more colored walls here in Austin? We Austinites indulge a love affair with southwestern desert plants like agave, yucca, and prickly pear. We also have a yen for modern design. Colored stucco walls, as Calhoun reminds us, are perfect backdrops for showing off architectural plants and bringing all-year color into gray-green xeric gardens, and they fit beautifully into contemporary designs.


As this picture shows, they also make colorful, structural foils for naturalistic native-plant gardens. This chrome-yellow wall adds pow in the Steve Martino-designed Palo Christi Garden near Phoenix. The red wall with agaves pictured at top is part of the same garden.


You can get really creative with stucco walls too, adding curves or even sinuous waves, like this one in the Steve Martino-designed Quartz Mountain Garden.


Low walls make good bench seating or even pedestals for sculpture. This and the blue bench (2nd photo from top) are in the Tucson, Arizona, garden of Alan Richards.


They’re not just for desert gardeners either, as I saw in Portland during the Garden Bloggers Fling. At the Floramagoria Garden we saw walls used as colorful backdrops throughout the equally colorful garden.


Floramagoria’s blue wall


If you plan it right, you also get interesting shadow play against your garden walls. This is a scene at Civano Nursery in Tucson.


Bright colors jazz up childrens’ gardens, like this one at Tucson Botanical Gardens


…and add a hot punch of tropical color. This fuchsia wall matches a potted bougainvillea at Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix.


If hot colors don’t appeal, muted greens, I think, look just as good. I’m inspired to paint two of my own walls an earthy olive green, like this wall at Desert Botanical Garden.


Or this one at Floramagoria.

So what do you think? Why don’t more Austin gardens have stuccoed walls? Could you ever see a colored wall in your garden? What about painting a wooden fence instead?

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

Oxblood lily ribbon of red and ruellia reticence


The oxblood lilies (Rhodophiala bifida) atop the retaining wall in the back garden are in full, crimson bloom, and that red ribbon makes me so happy when I step out to view it in the warm afternoon light.


This cluster is growing amid the spiny arms of soap aloe (Aloe maculata). Hmm, these will be tricky to divide one day.


Actually most of these bulbs are growing alongside spiny, tough lovelies, like ‘Bright Edge’ yucca. I particularly like this pairing, with the yucca’s yellow stripes echoing the oxblood’s yellow eye.


Lots of lilies!


Though not native to Texas, they are Texas tough. This is one bulb every Southern garden should have. But just so you know, the deer love to eat the ones I’ve tried out front.


If only this praying mantis was big enough to catch a few deer. Hmm, but then it would be big enough to catch me. Nevermind! I’ll stick with the deer.

I have a question for you about the tall ruellia (Ruellia brittoniana) in which it’s hunting. I bought this plant last October and have it in a container on my shady front porch. It bloomed beautifully last fall, but this year, nada. Not one flower. It has pushed up plenty of new growth, so it seems happy enough, but I’m not. I’d love any suggestions you might have.

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

Mid-century house inspires Palm Springs-style garden in Austin


Charlotte Warren, a photographer and former co-chair of the local Garden Conservancy tour, inherited a steeply sloping, west-facing zoysia lawn when she moved into her home in the hills of West Austin. Aside from requiring lots of water and regular mowing, the lawn offered zero privacy for her front-yard swimming pool and did nothing to complement the mid-century lines of her 1957 Barton Riley-designed home.


Inspired by the Palm Springs, California-style architecture of her house, Charlotte hired landscape architect Curt Arnette of Sitio Design to create a garden in the modern, desert-oasis style for which Palm Springs is known. In the summer of 2013, the zoysia lawn was ripped out and the new garden installed. I visited just a couple months later, in October, to photograph it. Those photos appear in the first half of this post. But I have a treat! I was invited to visit again last week and took new photos, which make up the latter part of this post, offering you before-and-after views of the garden’s growth over one year.


Let’s take a tour, shall we? A small, emerald lawn still offers barefoot pleasure under the live oaks near the house and pool, a non-guilty pleasure considering the water thriftiness of the rest of the garden. Mod circles of crushed gravel act as stepping stones across the rubbly, native river rock that mulches the dry garden.


Where the zoysia lawn once crisped in the afternoon sun, now an inviting, steel-edged, crushed-gravel path sidewinds through the sloping lot, with steel-riser steps leading down and back up to the house.


Desert plants like Yucca rostrata, agave, and golden barrel cactus and drought-tolerant natives like Texas mountain laurel, Wheeler sotol, blackfoot daisy, prickly pear, Mexican feathergrass, and frogfruit create a buffer between house and street, hold the slope (no retaining walls were added), and lushly mingle to create a Cal-Tex oasis.


The pool is situated in front of the house behind turquoise railing, overlooked by the front windows for a year-round poolside view.


These steps lead down the slope, where the gravel path continues back toward the driveway. Enormous, rounded granite boulders, which look as pillowy as rising bread dough, edge the steps and are placed as accents throughout the garden. Along the property line, Arizona cypress creates an evergreen screen.


Graceful steps entice you to keep exploring.


On any sloping lot, water runoff is a design challenge. Terracing is one answer, but it’s expensive. In this unterraced garden, boulders help slow water flow as do the plants, and a channel filled with riprap collects remaining runoff, ducks under a metal bridge in the gravel path, and moves it downhill off the property.


Xeric plants like ‘Macho Mocha’ mangave and Mexican feathergrass are given room to grow and spread.


Blackfoot daisy spills over and softens a cluster of boulders.


Looking up from the street. The white-flowering tree at right is Mexican olive (Cordia boissieri). Because it’s native to South Texas and can be damaged in hard freezes, this is one tree I’d plant in spring rather than fall.


It is quite pretty.


At street-level, Mexican feathergrass mixes with agave, mangave, sotol, leatherstem (Jatropha dioica), and blackfoot daisy.


The golden eye of blackfoot daisy finds a color echo in golden barrel cactus.

One year later: August 28, 2014


That was then. This is now, one year later, on a sunny, 100-degree summer afternoon. Despite the heat, a breeze kept me comfortable, and the winding path is as enticing as ever.


The groundcovers and grasses have put on the most growth over the past year. The native shrubs and small trees have also noticeably grown. Other plants have been replaced, as is typical in any garden. A shrub along the top path, for instance, has been replaced with the cleaner lines of an ocotillo, a desert plant I don’t see in Austin very often.


The switchback. Architectural Yucca rostrata serves as a focal point at the turn.


The Texas mountain laurels have grown a foot or two, and will eventually screen the left side of the pool.


Yucca rostrata shadow play (“Look at me! I’m a sun!”) on a puddle of silver ponyfoot.


A new perspective, looking down the steps. Notice that much of the gravel mulch is now hidden under a layer of creeping groundcovers, softening the look of the garden.


The steel bridge and riprap channel. I imagine this becomes a torrent during a typical Texas thunderstorm.


Looking back at those pillowy boulders and shimmery Yucca rostrata.


One more view, with the bridge. Blue-greens and silvery blues visually cool the garden, plus those plants tend to be most drought-tolerant.


Powder-blue Wheeler sotol dances uphill on either side of the riprap channel.


Yucca rostrata should always be planted where it can cast a shadow.


‘Green Goblet’ agave sits atop granite boulders, with golden barrel cactus below.


The garden continues in a curving band on the other side of the driveway. It makes for a continuous garden view at the juncture of strolling path and driveway.


Water runoff along the driveway is handled with another channel and heavy stone that won’t wash downhill.


At streetside, groundcovering Mexican feathergrass and frogfruit have filled in nicely, and the feathergrass has gone tawny for summer. The structural agaves grow more slowly, but in a few years they will dominate this scene.


On the right side of the drive, silver ponyfoot cascades around boulders and plants like a living waterfall.


Up near the house, a trio of large steel-pipe pieces act as planters for silver and bronze dyckias.


A silvery-green, textural composition of ‘Whale’s Tongue’ agave (A. ovatifolia), purple prickly pear (‘Santa Rita’ opuntia, perhaps?), and silver ponyfoot (Dichondra argentea).

My thanks to Charlotte for inviting me back to see how her garden has grown. It’s heartening to see a garden that looks just as happy after weeks of triple-digit heat and no rain as it does in fall or spring. Charlotte told me she waters once a week via a drip system that delivers water directly to each plant. I imagine by next year, the dry garden could easily go two weeks between waterings in summer and look just as fantastic, and of course it wouldn’t need to be watered at all in cooler, wetter times of the year.

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