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.
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