Christmas in Mexico at Lucinda Hutson’s home and garden

Lucinda Hutson‘s purple cottage in the Rosedale neighborhood of central Austin is a wonderland of Mexican folk art, colorful furnishings, and brightly painted walls. I had the pleasure of re-visiting last Friday, and brought along new friend Paula Panich, a Los Angeles writer and teacher of garden writing.

Lucinda’s Day of the Dead parties and decor are legendary, but her Christmas decorating is equally charming and rooted in Mexican culture.

Atop her dining table, a carved and painted Joseph leads a haloed (but surprisingly flat-stomached) Mary on a donkey, alongside a small, curlicued tree adorned with colorful glass ornaments…

…like this sombrero-wearing señora and pinata donkey…

…and sash-draped señor.

Even Lucinda’s lampshade is decorated with a cheeky assortment of ornaments: a golden tequila bottle, an angel-winged man clutching a bottle, a smiling red devil, the Virgin Mary, and, in back, a margarita glass.

On a sideboard stands a glazed-clay Our Lady of Guadalupe, surrounded by cherubs — one of Lucinda’s prize pieces.

A closer look reveals agave-painted glasses arrayed at her feet, along with evergreen branches and candles. Garden, tequila, and Mexican folk art — three of Lucinda’s interests in one lovely arrangement.

Our Lady appears in Lucinda’s garden as well. Here she’s a tile mosaic in an altar made from a blue-painted bathtub.

Echoes of Gustav Klimt?

Here, a carven Our Lady adorns a rustic writing cottage behind the house, seeming to bless all who enter.

In the tradition of Mexican folk gardens, other religious figures are given homemade altars as well, like this St. Anthony framed by an old wheelbarrow tray.

A tiled picture of St. Francis and his birds brightens the fence behind a raised bed of vegetables and edible flowers. A fork flower and half-buried dishes continue the edible theme.

In her Grotto Garden, instead of saints and madonnas Lucinda favors mermaids and sea creatures. A cast-iron mermaid poses against a turquoise-painted fence under an arbor draped with shells. Strands of blue and white capiz shells and strings of tiny mirrors add sea-like sparkle.

Here is Lucinda’s writing cottage, accessed via a large back deck that always looks party-ready.

A frilly, blue-painted chair and blue and orange glass lanterns add color and an invitation to linger.

Two art tiles — a dancing woman…

…and a hand with a heart — stand out against the dark wood siding.

Turning around you take in the full force of Lucinda’s fearless love of color. Rich purple paint turns what might have been the boring wall of a detached garage into a focal-point display space. A homemade buffet/altar of stacked benches covered in floral oilcloth gives Lucinda room to stage food, drinks, or her Day of the Dead decorations.

A wider view shows how Lucinda has adorned the eave of her house with a slatted awning of wood, giving it tropical flair.

Because our first hard freeze is running late this year, blue sky vine (Thunbergia grandiflora) still blooms with abandon on a peaked arbor. That’s Lucinda in black, talking with Paula.

Colorful peppers soak up the sunshine in the front garden.

Lucinda’s purple cottage reminds me of the house in American Gothic, but all loosened up and ready to party! Gold-flowering cosmos towers over the entry walk.

A visit to Lucinda’s wouldn’t be complete without stopping by her La Lucinda Cantina, a tequila bar under a cedar arbor at the very back of the garden.

Inside is where she keeps the good stuff, though, on an altar devoted to tequila, from its origins in the agave harvest to tequila-sipping cups.

Lucinda’s fascination with Mexico and its national liquor led her to write ¡Viva Tequila!: Cocktails, Cooking, and Other Agave Adventures. Published in 2013, it’s a gorgeous ode to tequila, filled with personal photos and stories from Lucinda’s 40 years of travel through Mexico, cooking and drink recipes, and tequila party-hosting ideas. Through her story-telling and photos, Lucinda opens a window onto Mexican culture, and she’ll have you thirsting to try her recipes. I think the book would make a great gift for the mixologist or tequila enthusiast on your list and anyone who loves the color and spice of Mexico. Lucinda mentioned that it also makes a fun and unique groomsman gift, especially if accompanied by a nice bottle of tequila and a couple of glasses. (I like how she thinks outside the box to market her book!) Spring wedding-planning, anyone?

Thanks, Lucinda, for sharing your colorful home and garden with me again! Readers, if you’d like to see more of Lucinda’s garden, here are my other posts about it:

Lucinda Hutson’s purple cottage, cantina garden, and Viva Tequila!, April 2013
Lucinda Hutson’s Easter-egg colorful garden, April 2012
Enchanted evening in Lucinda Hutson’s cantina garden, April 2011
El Jardin Encantador: Lucinda Hutson’s garden, October 2009
Lucinda Hutson’s enchanting garden, April 2008

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

Evening photo shoot at The Huntington Gardens: GWA Pasadena

The Huntington gardens near Los Angeles have, for years, been on my wish list of botanical gardens to visit. So I was thrilled to see an afternoon visit and after-hours photoshoot offered on the itinerary of the Garden Writers Association symposium on September 20.

Unfortunately, it was surface-of-the-sun hot that day, 103 F (39.4 C). By my mid-afternoon arrival, I realized, to my dismay, that I was completely uninterested in touring the much-anticipated Huntington under the glare of an unforgiving Death Star. Chagrined, I hid out in the gift shop for an hour. Lest you think this a travesty, I assure you that the Huntington’s is the most incredible garden gift shop I’ve ever been in. How I wish I’d taken photos to show you. But I simply browsed in A/C-contented bliss.

As the sun dipped toward the horizon, however, I realized that I needed to suck it up and get out there. I mean, this was the Huntington! And so as the early-bird GWAers were straggling back, sweat-stained and flushed, to the gift shop and an after-hours bar (courtesy of the good folks at the Huntington), I finally ventured forth, prepared to melt for the beauty of the gardens.

And beautiful they are. As described by GWA, the Huntington was “[o]riginally the private estate of railroad magnate Henry Huntington (1850-1927), with a grand Beaux Arts mansion as its centerpiece….[T]he research and cultural institution houses world-class collections, including Gainsborough’s famous portrait of The Blue Boy, a Gutenberg Bible, and a 15th-century illuminated manuscript of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Surrounding the estate are 120 acres of breathtaking grounds that showcase more than 15,000 different kinds of plants in a dozen specialized gardens.”

I did not see any of the indoor masterpieces. The garden was my sole focus. As it closed to regular visitors at 4:30 pm, those of us with GWA badges were allowed to stay on until 7 pm, giving the photographers among us a chance to shoot the garden in the kinder light of late afternoon and early evening.

Palm and Desert Gardens

I headed straight for the famous Desert Garden, figuring the afternoon light would be good filtering through spiny plants, and passing through the dramatic Palm Garden along the way.

The sun was still intense when I reached the Desert Garden, but as I’d hoped, it was incandescing the cactus.

As with the Lotusland cactus garden, it was like visiting a strange planet. At 10 acres and with 2,000 species of succulents and cactus, the Desert Garden is worthy of hours of poking around (pun intended). But amid the rocky beds and asphalt paving, the heat was like standing next to an open oven, and I ended up spending only about 45 minutes here.

Still, I saw many beautiful plants, like these blue echeverias creeping among black lava rock.

And aeoniums so black they looked scorched by the heat.

Otherworldly tree aloe

And barrel cactus in brilliant flower

High in this floss silk tree’s branches, a flock of green parrots chattered amiably.

Nearby, golden barrel cactus clustered in extravagant masses.

I’d never seen so many barrels, not even at Desert Botanical Garden.

I didn’t even know they grew this way, clustered one upon another in great, spiny mounds.

They littered the path edges like beach balls after a pool party, and each wore a golden halo in the afternoon light.

Lily Ponds

Seeking shade, I happened next upon the Lily Ponds garden. I could hardly imagine a more different experience from the radiating heat and dynamic plant arrangements in the Desert Garden.

Here, the mood was serene, green, and cool, thanks to a tranquil pond and stands of rustling bamboo.

I rested there a while before heading into the sun again, crossing a large lawn with a temple-like folly. What a mood shift, from one garden to the next!

Subtropical and Australian Gardens

Glancing at the map I decided to see the Australian Garden next, and I passed the Subtropical Garden along a path facing directly into the ferocious setting sun. This made for great lighting effects on plants like white-flowering sea squill (Drimia maritima) growing under live oaks…

…and bottlebrush, as I neared the Australian Garden.

But by the time I got there, I was cooked, and the garden didn’t look particularly shady, so I just kept trudging toward a towering wall of bamboo that promised coolness and relief.

Japanese Garden

Ahh, a leafy green wall tall enough to block the sun! The narrow entry from this direction might be easy to miss, were it not for the foo dogs (stone lions) guarding the path.


I entered the Japanese Garden through a mysterious bamboo forest of swaying culms and rustling leaves.

Climbing steadily uphill, I came to a paved courtyard with a collection of bonsai displayed on wooden stands.

Montezuma cypress in miniature

And olive

Next I strolled through a meditative Zen courtyard, with raked white gravel, boulder islands, and cloud-pruned trees.

A grand stair, zigzagging along one side, exits the Zen garden, and from here I entered the main garden.

Completed in 1912, the tranquil Japanese Garden includes a tall, arching moon bridge and reflecting pond. It was growing lovelier by the minute as the hateful sun sank behind the trees.

Intimate vignettes, like this tsukubai fountain…

…and carved figure near a tumbling stream, made for delightful discoveries along the winding hillside path.

Chinese Garden

As the terrain leveled out, I came upon the Chinese Garden, enclosed along one side by an undulating, tile-roofed white wall.

Known as Liu Fang Yuan, the Garden of Flowing Fragrance, the Chinese Garden opened to the public in 2008 — a century after the Japanese Garden.

Having twice visited the Lan Su Chinese Garden in Portland, I knew to expect covered walkways leading to a series of paved courtyards with intricate details.

What I didn’t anticipate was being completely alone with the garden. It was all mine.

The light was soft as dusk came on.

A beautiful detail

Pebble mosaic courtyard — and banana trees by the moon gate?

The teahouse was closed for the day, but I admired the woodwork…

…and rested on its terrace, which overlooks a picturesque lake. The building that resembles a boat, at center, is part of a phase two addition to the garden, currently under construction.

Along the opposite side of the lake, a pavilion known as Terrace of the Jade Mirror shelters amid weeping willows.

Moon gates invite you through it.

Another pebble mosaic path and a carved stone bridge lead on. Note the limestone rocks arrayed along the edges — similar to the holey limestone we have here in central Texas.

Pavilion of the Three Friends comes into view here, with a fine view of the San Gabriel Mountains in the distance.

And the three friends? According to Chinese tradition, bamboo, pine, and plum are considered the three friends of winter for the pine and bamboo’s evergreen foliage and the plum’s early spring flowers. Together, explains the Huntington’s website, they symbolize fortitude, integrity, and resilience.

One last look. The Chinese Garden surprised me by turning out to be my favorite part of the Huntington gardens, in part, no doubt, due to the perfect golden hour during which I visited.

North Vista and Camellia Garden

The light was still sweet as I made my way through the Camellia Garden via the North Vista, a vast lawn anchored at one end by this baroque fountain adorned with carved fish and shells. The website explains, “The Italian fountain had been brought to England in the early 18th century and remained there until it was purchased by Henry Huntington in 1915. It was shipped from New York in 48 boxes that filled an entire railway car. Oddly enough, the fountain arrived without assembly instructions and with a few extra pieces. It eventually was installed five years after the completion of the main house (ca. 1916).”

The lawn is lined with 18th-century sculpted figures, camellias, and palms, and at the opposite end sits the former home of Henry and Arabella Huntington, which today houses part of their art collection.

I’m sure this garden sees most of its traffic in winter, when the camellias bloom, but it’s lovely in its summer greens too — although that lawn no doubt requires a lot of water to remain so green. The tall, skinny palms lend a distinctly California vibe to all the classicism.

California and Celebration Gardens

As the sun set and the staff prepared to close up, I straggled back, blissed out, toward the entrance, passing through the Mediterranean-style Celebration Garden, which is part of the water-wise California Garden. A shallow rill descends along a series of terraces formally planted with lavender, grasses, kangaroo paws, and other dry-adapted plants.

Red kangaroo paws looks especially pretty against cool-blue yuccas.

I would imitate this in a heartbeat if kangaroo paws tolerated Austin’s humid summer climate.

The grasses looked great too.

I love this combo, although I recognize only the yellow-flowering yarrow. Anyone know what the purple flowers are (update: looks like Scaevola aemula; thanks, Lara!), and is that a euphorbia at lower right?

Closer to the entrance, the garden loses its formality with casually inviting seating areas tucked amid billowing grasses.

The Huntington truly is an amazing collection of plants beautifully designed. I’m so glad I had a chance to explore it after-hours, and I hope you’ve enjoyed this very long recap.

Gift Shop

Part of my hideout time in the gift shop was spent autographing copies of my book Lawn Gone!, which I spotted prominently displayed as soon as I walked in the door.

How exciting! My thanks to the Huntington for carrying it and for treating us at GWA to a very special after-hours visit.

That wraps up my series of Los Angeles-area garden tours. Click through for a look back at the beautiful Volk Garden, which has a borrowed view of the Huntington. You’ll find links back to my other L.A. garden posts at the end of each post you follow.

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

Formal axes, xeric plants in the Barrett Garden: GWA Pasadena

The second private garden I toured during the Garden Writers Association symposium in Pasadena, California, last month turned out to be my favorite. Owned by Ann and Olin Barrett, the garden’s formal layout with cross axes and focal points is made California friendly and contemporary with bold, xeric plants.

The largest portion of the garden contains a lap pool set in a (surprisingly green) lawn. The pool leads the eye to an arched grape arbor behind a lattice-style fence. Palms and other trees create a lush, green “borrowed view.”

Along the fence, a deep bed of bold, dry-loving plants like sotol, agave, and aloe make an eye-catching border that requires little water.

Sotol was in bloom.

A Dr. Seussian tree aloe (Aloe barberae) is underplanted with wine-colored aeoniums, if I’ve IDd them correctly.

Looking through the doorway of the lattice fence and the grape arbor, your eye is drawn to a lion’s-head tiered fountain.

The spacious, grape-shaded arbor shelters a table and chairs, and the fountain adds a welcome feeling of coolness.

White oleander offers visual cooling as well.

Handsome brick columns, which support the arbor, are wrapped in lathe painted to match the fence.

Turning around and looking across the length of the lap pool, you see a couple of chaise longues under a feathery tree, an open-air pool house, and a long, narrow pond aligned on a cross axis with the pool.

Here’s another view of the formal pond, as seen from the garden entrance. Planted with water lilies, canna, papyrus, and reeds, it runs perpendicular to, and crosses, the lap pool.

A stone sculpture anchors the far end of the pond. A mirrored “doorway” creates the illusion that the garden continues beyond the wall.

Square parterres with topiary shrubs add to the formal structure. Pale gravel floors this garden room.

The same view as seen from the paver-and-grass patio at the end of the lap pool. White brugmansia blossoms hang overhead.

The brugmansia nestles romantically alongside the open-air pool house. High arched doorways and comfortable seating create an inviting destination.

A comically drooping aloe jazzes up a classic scene of ivied brick and a spherical finial.

Nearby, a jade-green pot elevates a matching fan aloe (Kumara plicatilis).

A nearly secluded path leads around the house to another part of the garden, which feels like tropical Mexico thanks to banana trees and palms.

A collection of terracotta faces adorns the stucco wall.

Through the gate…

…a tiered lion’s-head fountain like the one under the grape arbor splashes softly.

Now you enter a small garden room whose focal point is a multi-level brick-and-tile spa framed by evergreen shrubs and a pergola of brick columns and wooden arches.

The rear windows of the house look out on this view. It all feels completely secluded.

A small lawn is formally shaped and edged with brick and a stained-concrete walk.

A collection of terracotta pots along the back steps display a variety of dry-loving plants.

A small glazed dinosaur with his hands in the air (like he don’t care?) was the only whimsical detail I noticed in the entire garden.

An elegant roofed terrace offers a beautiful place to lounge the day away. Surrounded by lush greenery and tropical plants, it reminds me of outdoor salas in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

Up next: The hedged garden rooms of the Volk Garden. For a look back at the tropical-flowery Conlon Garden, click here.

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