Gorgeous gravel garden outshines former lawn in Lakewood garden

Whenever landscape architect Curt Arnette of Sitio Design invites me to see one of his gardens, I say, “I’ll be right there!” Last Saturday we toured a 1-year-old garden in the Lakewood neighborhood of West Austin that he designed and that his cousin John Gibson (of Gibson Landscape in Georgetown, Texas) installed. This is the street view — shazam!

I was lucky to catch at peak bloom the Gulf muhly grasses that run ribbon-like through the front garden. Sculptural succulents and woody lilies like Opuntia and Yucca rostrata anchor the garden when the muhly is not in bloom. Dense native groundcovers like frogfruit (Phyla nodiflora) and wooly stemodia (Stemodia lanata) keep it feeling lush despite the obvious drought tolerance of this well-drained gravel garden.

A green-trunked, thorny, native retama tree (Parkinsonia aculeata) adds height and chrome-yellow flowers in the spring. A wide view shows the winding layout of the front garden, which occupies a large corner lot.

BEFORE: This image from Google Maps gives you a sense of how much Curt changed with the new design. How boring is this huge, flat expanse of thirsty lawn, with a smattering of crepe myrtles and pines (in Austin!) along the circular drive? Curt kept some of the pines, which add height and texture and put me in mind of Bastrop’s pineywoods in the sandy soils to the east of Austin. He also specified a regrading of the lot (see photo above), creating large, bermed planting beds mulched in chunky granite gravel, with wide, curving paths of packed decomposed granite running through the garden.

Limestone boulders are placed artfully along the edges of the path. Notice how the boulders are buried halfway in the soil, giving them a natural look. Curt’s plant palette mixes native shrubs, perennials, and grasses with subtropical palms and flowering shrubs (like Tecoma ‘Orange Jubilee’) and desert plants like yuccas and agaves. The result is hybrid style that’s uniquely Austin.

Flowering aloe, with bamboo muhly (Muhlenbergia dumosa) and Gulf muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris) in the background.

Chartreuse clouds of bamboo muhly frame a vase-shaped palm, red yuccas (Hesperaloe parviflora), and a ‘Whale’s Tongue’ agave (A. ovatifolia).

Another wide view, with silver ponyfoot (Dichondra argentea) carpeting the bermed bed at right. It’s beautiful now, but keep in mind that this is only a year-old garden, and the agaves will fill in to 4 or 5 feet across in the next few years. The palms will fill out as well, adding to the lushness.

Mexican olive (Cordia boissieri) in flower. I usually see these pruned up as trees, but I like the shrubby look too. (A sustained hard freeze can damage this beautiful South Texas native, so if you covet one it should be sited with care.)

The naturalistic style of the front garden gives way to a linear, more contemporary design as you reach a fenced courtyard garden that leads to the home’s entry. Curt designed the rust-colored, steel-mesh panels and arbor, which provide security, deer-proofing, and a sense of privacy without obstructing views or breezes. He also designed the raised steel container with a concrete pond inserted in the middle. Recirculating water flows from the pond into a raised, concrete rill that runs through a cut-out in the fence…

…leading the eye into the courtyard garden and toward a large, circular pond. A path of poured-concrete strips, both aggregate and smooth-surfaced, leads you into the garden, but not too quickly. You are encouraged to linger over the plants that grow in crevices along the path and soften the geometry of the hardscaping. The freckled, fleshy leaves of ‘Macho Mocha’ mangave spill over the path’s edge at right.

I love this evergreen combination of bamboo muhly, firecracker fern (Russelia equisetiformis), and some variety of palm, with Yucca rostrata anchoring the corner.

The rill pours neatly into the sunken pool…

…home to a couple of water lilies and a school of colorful fish. Observant readers may remember a similar pond in Curt’s own garden, which he described as a trial run for this one.

To the right, a shoestring acacia (A. stenophylla) with a graceful weeping form anchors the small garden by the fence. Native to Australia, this small tree is said to be hardy to 20 F. (Austinites, plant with care, giving it a protected location and a southern exposure.)

A trio of Yucca rostrata of varied heights, with their shimmering Koosh-ball heads, stand sentinel by a side entrance.

A wider view shows a change in elevation to the left of the pond, which gives the courtyard even more of a sense of enclosure.

A side view. The home’s double front doors are visible at right. Notice the circular strip of aggregate concrete running around the pond, emphasizing its shape, adding a sense of movement, and leading the eye.

Steel edges steps and a raised bed behind the garage, with a stacked-antler sculpture adding a focal point that plays off the yuccas’ spiky forms. Silver ponyfoot cascades over the steel edging.

A closer look

Behind the garage, a metal mesh gate opens up a stuccoed wall and offers a view of the front garden.

Here’s the other side, if you’re curious. Curt designed all the metalwork in the garden as well.

‘Whale’s Tongue’ agave (A. ovatifolia) mingling with Gregg’s mistflower (Conoclinium greggii)

Leaving the courtyard, you step up into the back garden — a large side garden, really, as the back of the house overlooks a canyon leading down to Bull Creek. Casual decomposed-granite paths lead through a shady space with a naturalistic yet uncluttered style.

Agave and a possumhaw holly, or maybe yaupon holly, laden with berries

Philippine violet (Barleria cristata) in full purple bloom

The back garden is laid out in a similar fashion to the front garden, only with smaller bermed and graveled beds, and with shade-tolerant plants instead of sun-loving. Winding paths of decomposed granite invite you to explore. This is the view looking back toward the courtyard entry garden.

Notice that no edging separates paths from planting beds, although a chunkier gravel is used to mulch the plants than is used on the paths. In the narrow strip along the back of the house, a swimming pool with a raised edge and surrounding patio offers a place to entertain or lounge, and it overlooks a scenic view of Bull Creek.

The view from the pool patio is slightly more tropical, with clusters of palmetto, sago palm, philodendron, and lily-of-the-Nile or amaryllis.

The stucco wall that encloses the back garden is shorter behind the pool, where it’s topped with mesh fencing panels that allow light and views. That’s Bull Creek below, and a view of the surrounding hills.

Behind the master bedroom, a small patio offers an inviting spot for morning coffee.

The soft-yellow bloom spikes of forsythia sage (Salvia madrensis)

We exited the garden the same way we entered, through the entry courtyard. One last look…

Back out front, I had to admire the Gulf muhly again, and a wavy prickly pear.

Not to mention the overall scene

Even the mailbox is cool, done up in board-formed concrete. (The rill in the courtyard is constructed of board-formed concrete too. Scroll up for a photo.)

The garden tour wouldn’t be complete without a photo of the talented people who brought this garden to life: Curt Arnette, the designer, and John Gibson, the installer. And my thanks to the owners for allowing me to share their gorgeous, water-saving garden!



Both events are free, and I’ll be selling and signing copies of Lawn Gone! I’d love to see your friendly faces!

All material © 2006-2013 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Drive-By Gardens: A red-carpet welcome of oxblood lilies

I spotted this cheery welcome in central Austin today: oodles of oxblood lilies (Rhodophiala bifida), a fall-blooming, naturalizing bulb for central Texas, in bloom against a white picket fence.

Happy Friday, y’all!

All material © 2006-2013 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Support Your Independent Nursery Month: A visit to Vivero Growers

Support your local nurseries, y’all!

October is Support Your Independent Nursery month — or so I’ve declared for the past several years. Every October I write a post or even a series about some of Austin’s locally owned nurseries, and I encourage other bloggers to do the same.

Even better, let’s support our locally owned garden centers by shopping there! Here in central Texas, it’s prime planting time. Shrubs and trees, in particular, are best planted in the fall so they can establish a strong root system before the heat and drought of summer return. If it’s getting too late in the season to buy plants where you live, consider shopping for a pot, garden decor, or gift items for the upcoming holidays.

All of this is just a way for us gardeners to show our appreciation for our independent nurseries — for their plant expertise, knowledge of local gardening conditions, inspiring displays and gardens, useful gardening talks, and, most important, a great selection of plants.

This year I’m kicking off SYINM with a tour of locally owned Vivero Growers, a retail and wholesale nursery and mom-and-pop business located in southwest Austin on Highway 290 West.

As you walk in from the parking lot, this pretty, quintessentially central Texas scene greets you: red salvia and a blue yucca, with a fence made of cedar, limestone, and wire fencing.

Shazam! I love this combo.

Notice the good-luck horseshoe on the post — and all those enticing plants.

Vivero doesn’t have room for a lot of display gardens, but this charming shade garden at the entry sets a beautiful tone for your visit.

I absolutely covet this pot arrangement for shade or morning sun: foxtail fern (Asparagus densiflorus ‘Myers’), variegated flax lily (Dianella tasmanica ‘Variegata’), ajuga, and Mexican petunia (Ruellia brittoniana).

At its feet, yellow-flowering Wedelia trilobata and grassy variegated liriope or Aztec grass adds evergreen texture. (Be aware that both the wedelia and the Mexican petunia are aggressive and can become invasive in Texas. Plant with care and consider containing them in planters.)

Just past the shade garden is the sales building — not really a gift shop, but it does have some pretty jewelry and a few garden ornaments for sale. But it’s not what’s inside that catches your eye. It’s the beautifully arranged containers on the front porch, backed by vibrant orange doors.

I love these scalloped yellow pots filled with succulents.

On the other side, a silvery bronze dyckia shines against a cascade of silver ponyfoot. I wonder why St. Francis is turned aside? Maybe he’s admiring the hibiscus.

Just look at this ruffled hibiscus flower.

Speaking of ruffled flowers, I fell in love with this white rose of Sharon framed by deep-green, Koosh-ball pine needles. This is one thing I noticed about the plant aisles at Vivero. The plants are not just plunked down in boring rows. There seems to have been some thought in placing each plant next to something complementary. It makes you want to buy the whole row.

‘Amistad’ salvia is a new introduction, and I haven’t heard whether it’s reliably root hardy here. It sure is pretty. I saw it for the first time this summer at Sunset’s headquarters in the Bay Area.

Gotta love big ‘Whale’s Tongue’ agaves, although they’re so fast growing I’d plant smaller ones and enjoy them longer before they bloom and die. Since Vivero caters to designers buying wholesale, they do carry a lot of mature-size plants, rather than just the smaller (and less expensive) 4-inch, 1-gallons, and 3-gallons typical of retail nurseries. But you’ll still find some plants available in smaller sizes, if that’s what interests you.

Larger plants may be more expensive, but I will say that Vivero’s stock is superbly healthy and well cared for. The plants are temptingly bushy and full.

Ooh la la — I love this combo of olive tree and Korean grass (Zoysia japonica) in a giant terracotta pot.

Dinner plate Opuntia — I’d like a serving of this in my garden.

Let’s take a peek in the greenhouses while we’re here.

Succulent goodness

Bigger succulents, of the spiny variety, are tempting as well.

Stock-tank planters are perfect for succulent displays…

…and for water gardens.

You know I love spiny plants. Here’s variegated American agave.

Narrowleaf Yucca rostrata

Arizona’s iconic saguaro cactus won’t grow here in Austin, but we can grow the similar Argentine saguaro.

Fire barrel cactus

The fabulous golden barrel cactus

Vivero focuses on plants, so you won’t find a big selection of garden furniture or accessories. This enticing seating area was the only one I saw, and I’m not even sure whether it was for sale. But you can bet that bowl planter on the table is up for grabs.

Katherine Cain, who owns and operates Vivero with her husband, has a great eye for container arrangements and sells her creations at the nursery. She also writes a blog called Vivero’s Garden, so be sure to check it out for fun pictures of hummingbirds, blooming plants, and other activity at the nursery.

All material © 2006-2013 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.