Garden Designers Roundtable: Regional Diversity in Design

Gardening With a Sense of Place

Today I join 12 other garden designers across the U.S. in posting on the topic Regional Diversity in Design. The idea of creating gardens with a sense of place is dear to my heart. In A Garden That Says “Howdy” (May 2007), I wrote about falling in love with a more rugged and arid garden aesthetic after moving to central Texas from the Southeast. As I began making my own garden, I was inspired by the local landscape to imbue it with a sense of place.

That’s my former front-yard garden pictured at top. I took out the lawn and replaced it with a mix of native and well-adapted perennials, ornamental grasses, focal-point agaves, and small shrubs and trees. A limestone path invites visitors into the garden, while an open wood-and-wire fence provides an important sense of separation and privacy from the street without blocking views. My front yard went from being a cookie-cutter suburban lawn with sapling shade tree and foundation hedge from Anywhere, USA, to a colorful garden identifiable through plants, stone, and structure as belonging to central Texas.

Climate, geography, the natural lay of the land—if we garden with rather than against these forces, we gain so much: a connection with the natural beauty of our own region; diversity of flora (and fauna that depend on regional plant species); a garden that requires less work because it’s better adapted to local conditions; and less dependence on or, even better, a complete weaning from chemicals designed to sustain plants better suited to other regions.

Using native plants is one way to impart a sense of place to your garden. Natives can handle the vagaries of local weather and rainfall, and they offer an important source of food and shelter for certain species of wildlife. Aesthetically they marry your garden to the natural surroundings of your region.

But designing so that your garden looks like it belongs where you live doesn’t mean planting only native plants. For instance, evergreen azaleas and camellias are, to many, the essence of the South, even though they are well-adapted exotics from Asia. Likewise, in Austin we experiment with subtropicals from South Texas and central Mexico, and with succulents and cacti from the desert Southwest and northern Mexico. Many of these plants contribute to Austin’s unique look, and they add to the richness of our gardens.

Another way to give your garden a sense of place is in the hardscaping you use. In Austin natural limestone outcroppings show us that limestone paths and walls will generally work beautifully in our gardens. Granite is also readily available; hence decomposed-granite paths are a natural look for us too. Happily, local stone is generally less expensive and a “greener” option than stone trucked in from out-of-state.

Look too at the materials builders tend to work with. In Austin, in addition to traditional wood siding, you see a lot of limestone exteriors, cedar posts, and galvanized and corrugated metal, plus an industrial-Texas look characterized by COR-TEN steel and concrete. Using these materials in your garden can tie your landscape to your region’s design vernacular. Even the decor you choose can reflect the local scene, like this galvanized stock tank used as a planter.

Even within Texas, differing climates and local geography make each region quite distinct, from a gardening standpoint. Picture the pineywoods and azaleas of East Texas, the subtropical citrus groves of the Valley in South Texas, the high desert scrub and cacti of El Paso, and Austin’s own combination of rolling Blackland prairie and crumbly limestone hills. With deep clay soils on one side of town and thin caliche hills on the other, what fun Austin gardeners get to have as they mix it up!

How do you translate a regional look into a garden setting? First just pay attention to the landscape when you go for a walk in the woods or along a nature trail. In this wild Hill Country landscape, limestone outcroppings shelter toe-holds for xeric plants like sotols.

Brought into a wildscaped garden setting like this one at the Wildflower Center, the limestone outcroppings are translated into limestone terracing, and yuccas fill the gaps.

In a residential setting (my new back garden), this look is translated into limestone retaining walls and paths, with agave, roses, and yucca sharing space with perennials, grasses, and succulents. Does this look like central Texas to you? It sure does to me.

Every place offers its own unique look. And in a country increasingly populated by homogenized chain stores with nursery aisles offering the same plants everywhere, regional diversity is worth celebrating. Let’s truly bloom where we’re planted by making gardens with a strong sense of place—a sense of belonging to the wider landscape.

Special thanks to Scott Hokunson, who coordinated this post as part of an ongoing conversation about garden design at Garden Designers Roundtable. For more designers’ perspectives on regional diversity in design, visit the following blogs:

Jocelyn Chilvers (Wheat Ridge, CO)
The Art Garden

Susan Cohan/Susan Cohan Gardens (Chatham, NJ)
Miss Rumphius’ Rules

Michelle Derviss/Michelle Derviss Landscape Design (Novato, CA)
Garden Porn

Tara Dillard (Stone Mountain, GA)
Landscape Design Decorating Styling

Dan Eskelson/Clearwater Landscapes (Priest River, ID)
Clearwater Landscapes Garden Journal

Scott Hokunson/Blue Heron Landscape Design (Granby, CT)
Blue Heron Landscapes

Susan Morrison/Creative Exteriors Landscape Design (East Bay, CA)
Blue Planet Garden Blog

Laura Schaub/Schaub Designs (San Jose, CA)

Susan Schlenger/Susan Schlenger Landscape Design (Charlottesville, VA)
Landscape Design Advice

Genevieve Schmidt (Arcata, CA)
North Coast Gardening

Ivette Soler (Los Angeles, CA)
The Germinatrix

Rebecca Sweet/Harmony in the Garden (Los Altos, CA)
Gossip in the Garden

All material © 2006-2010 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Bloggers’ Celebration of Our National Parks: A wrap-up

Aspens, Rocky Mountain National Park, September 2006

Garden bloggers love the great outdoors and are an adventurous bunch. That’s what I learned this week while reading about visits we’ve made to national parks, national monuments, and other special places that have been set aside for the enjoyment of future generations. And what a wealth of natural beauty our country (and others) has to offer!

Thanks so much to everyone who joined in the bloggers’ celebration of national parks. You really inspired me. Listed below, in alphabetical order by park (U.S. followed by non-U.S.) are the posts of those who sent me their links. If I missed yours, please let me know and I’ll add it to the list. I, for one, will be consulting these wonderful posts for future vacation ideas!

Appalachian National Scenic Trail, Maine to Georgia
Frances of Fairegarden hikes a portion of the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina.

Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland and Virginia
Rose of Ramble on Rose makes a winter visit to windswept Assateague Island, home of the wild ponies made famous in the children’s book Misty of Chincoteague.

Big Bend National Park, Texas
Jenny of Rock Rose hikes the rugged trails of Big Bend and sees spring wildflowers.

Caroline of The Shovel-Ready Garden hikes Big Bend, takes stunning photos of the scenery, and proclaims it her favorite national park.

Pam of Digging posts photos of “Giant” country taken by her friends who visited the park. Later she visits Big Bend herself.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado
Jenny of Rock Rose takes a strenuous hike to the bottom and back up at Black Canyon.

Linda of Patchwork Garden shows dizzying and beautiful views of Black Canyon.

Joseph of A Round Rock Garden visits Black Canyon and proposes to his fiancee along the way; he also stops to admire the Colorado wildflowers.

Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Kathy of Gardening for Nature sees Canyonlands as Mother Nature’s rock garden.

Cape Hatteras National Seashore, North Carolina
Carol of May Dreams Gardens visits the Outer Banks on a hot summer day and sees the Cape Hatteras lighthouse being moved.

Cherokee National Forest, Tennessee
Frances of Fairegarden explores Bald River Falls in Cherokee National Forest.

Death Valley National Park, California and Nevada
MSS of Words Into Bytes (and Zanthan Gardens) experiences the stark landscape of Death Valley.

Devils Postpile National Monument, California
Ryan of DryStoneGarden shows us the fascinating rock formations at Devils Postpile and the wildflowers at Agnew Meadows.

Everglades National Park, Florida
Pam of Digging explores the mysterious waterworld that is the Everglades.

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Pam of Digging rides a mule to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

Jenny of Rock Rose rafts the rapids of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

MSS of Words into Bytes (and Zanthan Gardens) travels the Colorado River by dory for two weeks.

Janet of The Queen of Seaford shows a dramatic view of the Grand Canyon.

Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Pam of Digging admires the majestic mountains of Grand Teton.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina
Christopher of Outside Clyde visits Cataloochee in the Smokies and muses about the ghosts of gardeners past, two houses of early settlers, a Cataloochee church and school, and wild Cataloochee.

Carol of May Dreams Gardens gets lost and finds a vegetable garden in the Smokies.

Inyo National Forest, California
MSS of Words into Bytes (and Zanthan Gardens) shows us the otherworldly beauty of Mono Lake.

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
Pam of Digging visits Mesa Verde (added 2016): Cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park

Meredith of Great Stems explores the ancient cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde.

Linda of Patchwork Garden visits Mesa Verde through the years.

Mount Rainier National Park, Washington
Brad of Rooted in California backpacks in Mt. Rainier in the rain.

Pam of Digging sees beautiful views of Mt. Rainier on a clear summer day.

Olympic National Park, Washington
Tatyana of My Secret Garden marvels over the mossy forests and misty shores of Olympic National Park.

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Pam of Digging hikes to mountain lakes in the Rockies.

Susie of Poppy and Sage leaf-peeps and hears bugling elk in a fall visit to the Rockies.

Les of A Tidewater Gardener takes in the scenic views of Never Summer Ranch; drives to the top of the world on Trail Ridge Road; and hikes the Ute Trail.

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming and Montana
Pam of Digging goes on safari in the American West in Yellowstone.

Jane of Mulchmaid shows the beautiful wildflowers of Yellowstone.

Jenny of Rock Rose compares a past visit to a more recent one and shows the wonders of the park.

Yorktown Battlefield, part of Colonial National Historical Park, Virginia
Janet of The Queen of Seaford enjoys a quiet Sunday afternoon with swans and admires the Yorktown onions (alliums).

Yosemite National Park, California
Pam of Digging raves about the beauty of Yosemite.

Ryan of DryStoneGarden climbs vertically at Tenaya Lake.

MSS of Words into Bytes (and Zanthan Gardens) makes the stunning and strenuous Half Dome hike.

Town Mouse of Town Mouse and Country Mouse examines Yosemite’s freeloader plants, admires wildflowers, hikes among redwoods, explores Hetch Hetchy, and celebrates her anniversary.

Multiple park visits
Cheryl of Conscious Gardening takes a western road trip and sees Mesa Verde, Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon, Zion, Joshua Tree, and Saguaro National Parks, plus White Sands and Natural Bridges National Monuments.

Linda of Patchwork Garden takes a vintage tour of national parks and monuments across the west, including Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Great Sand Dunes, and Petrified Forest.

Jocelyn of The Art Garden visits a slew of national parks, including Yellowstone, Death Valley, Rocky Mountain, and her all-time favorite, Mesa Verde.

Annie of The Transplantable Rose take a time-machine journey to numerous national parks, including Mammoth Cave, Smoky Mountains, Badlands, Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Mt. Rainier, Olympic, and Hawaii Volcanoes, plus Devils Tower, Dinosaur, and Mount St. Helens National Monuments.

Vertie of Vert takes a Christmastime road trip west with her dog and visits Joshua Tree, Grand Canyon, and Carlsbad Caverns National Parks, as well as Montezuma Castle National Monument.

Katina of Gardening in Austin recalls dutifully visiting national parks “on the way to someplace else” during her childhood. But in the last four years, she and her husband have made numerous destination visits to various parks around the country.

Chobe National Park, Botswana, Africa
Jean of Dig, Grow, Compost, Blog goes on safari in Chobe National Park.

Groot Winterhoek Wilderness Area, South Africa
Elephant’s Eye admires the disa flowers in Groot Winterhoek.

Namaqua National Park, South Africa
Elephant’s Eye shows the blazing wildflowers of Namaqua.

Serengeti National Park, Tanzania, Africa
Pam of Digging gives a photo safari tour of the animals of Serengeti National Park, Tarangire National Park, Lake Manyara National Park, and Ngorongoro Crater; she also posts about the people she met on safari and the plants, wild and cultivated, she saw.

All material © 2006-2009 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Using stock tanks in the garden

Lately an unassuming container made for ranch life has been appearing in creative and stylish urban gardens: the stock tank, or cattle trough. It’s Old Texas meets New Texas, and boy howdy, it works.

Warehoused among poultry feed, hog fencing, and deer corn at farm-supply stores like Callahan’s, stock tanks of all sizes can easily be converted into planters that shine in the landscape. Literally shine—they’re silver. Freeze-proof and rust-resistant, these sturdy, galvanized-steel containers make attractive, affordable substitutes for perishable terracotta and cast-iron vessels.

Their simple, sleek lines complement many styles of gardens, from cottage to rustic to modern minimalist. They mix particularly well with the rusty steel edging, corrugated siding, concrete flooring, and recycled-glass mulch that define the Texas contemporary look, increasingly popular among local builders and garden designers.

But it’s not just a Texas look. If garden photos in national magazines are any indication, stock tanks are enjoying creative reuse all over the country. Even the New York Times recently featured a San Francisco rooftop vegetable garden entirely planted in a grid of stock tanks—an idea easily adapted by Austin gardeners hampered by thin, rocky soil. Rather than jack-hammering through rock or building raised beds, make a kitchen garden out of stock tanks by setting them in the yard and filling them with soil. As an extra benefit, their height makes weeding and harvesting less of a strain on the back.

Stock tanks are ideally suited for ornamental plantings too. Hot summer days can cook plants in small pots, particularly porous terracotta, and require watering once or even twice a day. A bigger container needs less-frequent watering. Filled with tough, drought-tolerant, deer-resistant plants like salvia, nolina, opuntia, and artemisia, for example, an established cattle-trough planter won’t need watering more than once a week in summer. To allow drainage, be sure to remove the metal plug and add a few extra drainage holes with a metal drill bit at the base of the tank before planting.

Galvanized stock tanks also make easy water features, resisting rust and holding water for many years. Before filling, rinse out any dust or dirt, and securely tighten the drain plug at the base to prevent leaks. Take the time to spread a 4-inch base of decomposed granite or coarse builder’s sand in order to make the tank perfectly level; an uneven tank, when filled, will be obvious because of the off-kilter water line. Once the base is level, roll the tank into place and fill it up from the hose. Let it sit for a few days so that the chlorine in the water evaporates and the water temperature equalizes with the air temperature.

Now comes the fun part—choosing pond plants. If your tank is at least two feet deep and situated in full sun, you can grow a water lily; a dwarf variety like ‘Helvola’ works best unless your tank is very large. Be sure to add some submerged plants like anacharis to help keep the water clear of algae. A couple of goldfish or gambusia fish add color and life, plus they eat mosquito larvae, preventing your tank from becoming a breeding ground (or you can use mosquito dunks). Add a bubbler pump if you wish, and you’ve got a beautiful container pond with no digging required.

Other ideas abound. Sink a stock tank into the ground to create a small reflecting pool or to contain bamboo or other “running” plants. Use a shallow tank to elevate and showcase a dramatic plant like an agave.

Create a living screen to hide the garbage bins by inserting a trellis into a long, oval tank and planting an evergreen vine on it. Or make a welcoming entry by placing a tank on either side of a pathway, connecting the two containers with an arched metal trellis, and growing a climbing vine on each side. A few more perennials and a potato vine or silver ponyfoot spilling over the edge of the tanks completes the look.

Gardeners have long appropriated old stone troughs from Europe as planters, recognizing the beauty of honest, workaday containers. Now the humble ranch trough of the American southwest has found its place in the garden as well.

Plant them until the cows come home.

This article first appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, August 16, 2008. —Pam

All material © 2006-2008 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.