Looking Up at Laguna Gloria and Austin City Hall

Last Saturday, a chilly, blustery day under a brilliant cobalt-blue sky, my dad and I attended two docent-led tours about the landscape architecture at cultural sites in Austin: one at Laguna Gloria, the other at Austin City Hall. Led by landscape architects who’ve restored or designed these public spaces, the tours were hosted by the Cultural Landscape Foundation for its November 21-22 What’s Out There Weekend Austin. A total of 27 such tours were offered, free of charge, at sites all over the city, and they were so educational I wish I could have attended more.

I’ve been to both Laguna Gloria and City Hall many times, but it was interesting to hear the landscape architects involved with these projects talk about their design decisions and the history of each site. I didn’t take pictures during the tours, but I snapped a few beforehand. This giant, silver man, who looks like he’s made of aluminum foil, is a sculpture by Tom Friedman called Looking Up.

Molded out of styrofoam and pressed aluminum turkey-roasting pans, and then converted into stainless steel, Looking Up stands 33 feet tall…

…vying with nearby palm trees for vertical dominance on the lawn in front of the historic Driscoll House. Here it is with Dad, for scale.

The Driscoll House — the 1916 Italianate home of philanthropist Clara Driscoll, “Savior of the Alamo” — is today part of The Contemporary Austin (an art museum) and is the location of The Art School, which offers classes year-round in studios located on the lakeside grounds.

While the Italian-style gardens of Laguna Gloria emphasize vertical lines, like these palms…

…the contemporary design of Austin City Hall emphasizes horizontal lines. Carolyn Kelley and Eleanor McKinney, the landscape architects who designed the plaza and green-roof gardens of City Hall, led the tour, sharing that the building’s angled horizontal planes represent the ancient Balcones Fault that divides Austin’s natural landscape between blackland prairie to the east and rocky hills to the west.

The plant choices riff on this theme too, with Hill Country plants on the west side of the building, post oak savannah plants on the east, and prairie plants on the north. This raised bed, which faces south, is planted with Gulf muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris) and golden thryallis (Galphimia gracilis).

Austin’s an interesting city, and I enjoy learning more about it through tours like these. Fellow Austinites, did you partake of any of the Cultural Landscape Foundation tours last weekend? You can also read about cultural sites here and in other cities on the What’s Out There webpage.

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

Modern courtyard garden at South Congress Hotel

Last weekend I met a friend for drinks at the beautiful new South Congress Hotel bar. (A word of advice: never, ever order the Pink Flamingo, which tasted exactly like a burning tire. After a few grimace-inducing sips, I deemed it undrinkable — my friend agreed — and asked the server to take it away. He merely said, accusingly, “I told you the mezcal was smoky.” Right you are, sir.)

While waiting for my friend to arrive, I poked around behind the hotel and discovered an intimate courtyard that would look right at home in the garden of many a contemporary Austin home. Designed by Christine Ten Eyck, the narrow space is kept from feeling like a shoebox thanks to a zigzag design of board-formed concrete retaining walls that create planting beds and conversation nooks with built-in benches. Lighting beneath the benches softly illuminates the board-form details, a ribbon of river rock, and scored-concrete paving.

The planting beds already look lush, even though they can’t be more than two months old. Virginia creeper climbs a gray-painted wall, and Turk’s cap’s crimson flowers (Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii) stand out even at dusk. I think those are possumhaw hollies (Ilex decidua) in front, which will add height, winter color, and, eventually, a little shade.

I don’t know the groundcover with ruffly leaves, but I found it charming. Anyone know it? It’s bigfoot water clover (Marsilea macropoda), a wetland Texas native. In the distance, a grove of copper-leaved bald cypress surrounds a waterfall dripping from a high wall — a modern interpretation of a Hill Country grotto? My pictures of that area didn’t turn out because it was getting dark, but it’s quite nice. Next time I’m on South Congress I’ll stop by for another look.

For a few pictures of the hotel’s street-side landscaping — also very cool — click here and scroll about halfway down.

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

Blowsy autumn beauty at Rollingwood Waterwise Garden

Last Saturday, a drizzly, cool day, I returned to the West Austin neighborhood of Rollingwood to see how the waterwise garden at city hall had fared over the summer. Designed by Scott Ogden and Lauren Springer Ogden, the garden was installed two years ago. Following an initial harsh winter and now an unusually wet year, it’s really filling in. Ornamental grasses like Muhlenbergia ‘Pink Flamingos’ and Gulf muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris) are showy in the rain garden, a shallow basin designed to hold runoff and give it time to soak into the soil.

For a fun comparison, here’s the same view in April of this year. Before the grasses grew tall, you can see the contours of the rain garden.

‘Pink Flamingos’ muhly on the left, and Muhlenbergia capillaris ‘White Cloud’ on the right

Planted high on gravelly berms, golden barrel cactus and other dry-loving plants look happy. ‘Strawberry Fields’ gomphrena adds dots of fiery color.

In the hell strip (a term coined by the designer, Lauren Springer Ogden), flame acanthus (Anisacanthus quadrifidus var. wrightii) wends around a spineless prickly pear and a pretty yucca with white-edged leaves. I didn’t see a plant tag nearby; anyone know the ID?

Whale’s Tongue agave, low grasses, and a cheery groundcover of four-nerve daisy (Tetraneuris scaposa)

A gravelly berm near the city hall entrance is smothered in more four-nerve daisies.

Aloes cluster, starfish-like, around a boulder.

I really love this spiraling council ring of limestone blocks, with stacked limestone pieces to fill in the gaps. ‘Green Gem’ boxwood topiaries enhance the circular theme and add evergreen color.

Located under the shade of live oaks, this part of the garden is, I believe, known as Council Oaks.

A wider view

Looking in the other direction across the garden

‘Green Goblet’ agave (I think), one of my favorites

That dusty, blue-green coloring at its base is lovely.

A rugged limestone stair leads up a slope at one end of the garden. A unique mix of agaves, columbines, ferns, tradescantia, sedum, salvia, grasses, lantana, and yucca grow here. Pacific chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum pacificum) flowers at the base of the slope.

Looking across the rain garden, in all its feathery fall glory

White-blooming autumn sage (Salvia greggii) brightens the hell strip. Pink autumn sage and bamboo muhly are visible in the background.

This is eye-catching: ‘San Carlos’ firecracker fern (Russelia coccinea ‘San Carlos’). Shazam!

Rollingwood’s residents were far-sighted in bringing this sustainable garden to fruition, and (even smarter) budgeting for its continuing care by a design team that fearlessly experiments with tough yet beautiful native and adapted plants. It’ll be fun to watch this garden continue to evolve. I imagine it will inspire many other lawn-gone gardens around the neighborhood.

I do wish, however, that the garden had its own website, or at least a dedicated webpage on the City of Rollingwood’s site. I can find very little information about the garden online, except from outside sources like the Statesman, Central Texas Gardener, neighborhood resident Deb at Austin Agrodolce, and my own post about the garden last spring. I’d love to be able to read about the garden’s origin (how the idea arose, and how funds were raised, which will be useful for other groups looking to do something similar); how the design was developed (from the designers’ perspective, including special challenges that were overcome); a detailed and updated plant list organized by section of the garden, or by sun/shade conditions; and a monthly update on maintenance (to provide real-life info about what a garden like this requires and what to do at certain times of the year). Such information would extend the reach of this garden, which is hidden deep within the winding roads of Rollingwood, and turn it into a teaching garden for the whole city, region, and even the world.

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