Visit to Quinta Mazatlan, birding, and Planta Nativa Festival


Texas is a big state, and living in the center of it means that whichever direction you travel, it’s a long drive to the state line. Last weekend, that meant a 5-hour drive to the Rio Grande Valley, where Texas shares a border with Mexico. My destination? Quinta Mazatlan, a city-owned nature and birding center on the grounds of a 1930s Spanish Revival-style estate, where I’d been invited to give the keynote presentation at the 2nd annual Planta Nativa Festival on October 22.


My husband and I drove down on Friday and arrived in time for an early-evening stroll around the grounds. I’d never been to the Valley before (which is not actually a valley but a flat river delta), and I imagined a lusher, rainier climate than Austin’s, with citrus orchards as far as the eye could see. However, while temps are nearly tropical (zone 9b), McAllen is surprisingly dry, with 22 inches of annual rainfall — 11 fewer inches than Austin receives.


The gardens at Quinta bristle with rustling palm leaves, including native Texas palmetto (Sabal mexicana) and imported L.A.-style Mexican fan palms (Washington robusta).


Cacti mingle easily with the palms and other xeric plants.


A dozen or so bronze animal sculptures appear throughout the gardens, including this bird-osaurus sort of creature on a twiggy rebar stand.


The actual birds we encountered were exotic to our eyes, with exotic-sounding names as well, like the chachalaca, a chicken-sized bird that darted around at ground level like a roadrunner, occasionally fluttering into low trees.


Tame and seemingly ready for a handout, the chachalaca may be the center’s mascot.


In an hour’s stroll, we saw many other species as well, including a beautiful yellow-bellied bird called the great kiskadee and circling flocks of whistling ducks, whose whistle-like cries could be heard overhead.


We sat for a while in this boulder-seat amphitheater facing a shallow pond, where birds came to drink as the sun went down.


We didn’t see any of these critters during our stroll, but we kept an eye out, just in case.


I’d love to see a horny toad one day, the state reptile of Texas.


Heron sculpture at a pond


Around back of the main house, we found a charming dance space under the outstretched limbs of a large tree. A wooden stage stands ready for the band, with string lights overhead to illuminate the sandy dance floor.


Entering a gated arch, with tall palms adding Hollywood glamor overhead…


…we found ourselves in a walled courtyard with pergola-shaded seating.


Cantera stone columns support a tile-and-beam ceiling. An in-ground water feature bisects part of the courtyard. This space would be filled with festival guests the following evening.


Bougainvillea clambering along a wall


Another gated arch led to a lawn set up with chairs for my talk. The next day, a big LED screen and stage were set up.


These Spanish-style gates are so inviting.


At the front of the house, an old stone fountain has been converted into a planter filled with succulents and bird of paradise, the latter appropriate for a center that’s a magnet for bird watchers during the big spring and fall migrations.


The Valley is on the migratory flight path for many species, making it a birder’s paradise at certain times of the year. Inside, a board shows what species are currently visiting the grounds.


I was also delighted to see several lovely displays of my books set up in the gift shop!


How nice!


Lots of wonderful gift items were displayed throughout the shop, and we didn’t leave empty handed.


Exploring the mansion, we found South Texas native plants lining the main hall, ready for the next day’s plant sale.


An agave tapestry


The next evening, I headed back to Quinta Mazatlan for a pre-talk book signing while festival attendees shopped for plants, bid on art…


…and enjoyed food and drinks under softly glowing strings lights in the courtyard.


Just before 8 pm, drummers moved out to the stage and began tapping a booty-moving rhythm.


It worked like a charm. People followed the music and took their seats. Some couldn’t resist the beat and were soon dancing in front of the stage.


It was the most festive group I’d ever spoken to, with a velvety sky overhead, an occasional bat swooping silently on the hunt, and a happy crowd interested in new ideas for gardening with less water, more native plants, more wildlife, and more beauty!


I met many interesting people passionate about the native ecology of South Texas while I was there, not least these women who organized Planta Nativa: Carol Goolsby, Environment Education Supervisor at Quinta; Colleen Hook, manager of Quinta Mazatlan; and Betty Perez, owner of Perez Ranch Nursery. (I neglected to get a photo during the festival, but I have this one from a speaking event in San Antonio last spring, which they attended.) Huge thanks to them and other members of the board for hosting me.


I came home with memories of a new and interesting place, new connections made, and even some beautiful homegrown limes — evidence of those citrus orchards I expected! — given to me by a lovely woman named Chris. Thanks to all who came!

Up next: Sightseeing along the Rio Grande, where a hand-pulled ferry still operates today.

I welcome your comments; please scroll to the end of this post to leave one. If you’re reading this in a subscription email, click here to visit Digging and find the comment box at the end of each post.
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Digging Deeper: News and Upcoming Events

I’ll be speaking at the Antique Rose Emporium Fall Festival 2016 in Brenham, Texas, on Saturday, November 5th, 1:30-2:30 pm. Come on out to the Antique Rose Emporium’s beautiful gardens for a day of speakers and fun! My talk, with plenty of eye-candy photos, is called “Hold the Hose! How to Design a Water-Saving Garden that Wows.” Meet me afterward at the book-signing table!

Do you review? Have you read my new book, The Water-Saving Garden? If you found it helpful or inspirational, please consider leaving a review — even just a sentence or two — on Amazon, Goodreads, or other sites. Online reviews are crucial in getting a book noticed. I really appreciate your help!

All material © 2006-2016 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Urban meadow and security landscaping at Austin forensics center and police station


How many police stations have landscaping like this? I spotted this raised meadow while driving through East Austin recently and slammed on the brakes to get a better look.


From the street — 812 Springdale Road, in the Govalle neighborhood — you see this along one side of the property: rolling berms with a rusty steel edge resembling rounded waves.


To the left of the berms is the raised meadow, laid out in a contemporary pattern that radiates outward in concentric arcs.


When you walk into the space, it becomes more maze-like, with paths that turn back on themselves as you search for the center.


You have to work your way there…


…where you find built-in benches…


…overlooking what must once have been an intentional water feature but is now just a stagnant, icky pool that’s probably breeding mosquitoes. Maintenance is always crucial to a garden’s survival, and this one seems to be getting just a mow-and-blow treatment these days.


But still, it’s a cool design. I was intrigued!


What’s this unique landscaping doing outside a police substation and forensics center? I went online to find out and learned that the facility was constructed in 2004 with a friendly face for the surrounding neighborhood (you’d never know there was a blood-spatter analysis room and a firing range inside), replacing an older police station surrounded by a blight of security fencing.


Instead of ugly fencing, security from vehicular attack (car bombs? ramming?) is now achieved through defensive landscaping — the rolling berms and elevated, steel-edged meadow.

As TAG International, the design team, explains:

“Security was a major design priority, with the goal of achieving a high level of threat resistance without projecting an unwelcoming image. Many passive security strategies were utilized to deliver heightened security without diminishing the center’s friendly presence in the neighborhood….Landscape features were also designed to protect the facility through the utilization of berms as further vehicle impediments.”


As it happens, this is more than just an updated version of a moated castle.


The landscaping is also a public arts project — and the elevated meadow of native plants is arranged in a fingerprint design as a tribute to the investigative work performed at the police station and forensics center. Cool, huh?

According to the public art directory at NowPlayingAustin, the project is titled “Elevated Prairie”:

“To complement the function of the facility, this earthwork consists of a simple labyrinth in the shape of a fingerprint, composed of low, steel-walled planters landscaped with native Texas grasses. At the center of the ‘fingerprint’ is a small fountain, surrounded by a seating area. Beyond the central planters is an area of low, rolling berms, which echo the fingerprint pattern and radiate across the remaining common lawn areas of the site. Medium: Steel planters, fountain, earth berms, and native landscaping”


Here’s another look at the street view — definitely eye-catching!


The native-plant meadow, while degraded through lack of real gardening attention, is still attractive thanks to the strong bones of the design and regular mowing. Although the planters are overrun with weeds, some of the original native plants are still blooming, like mealy blue sage, attracting butterflies and bees.


Native plants also make up the more traditionally designed foundation plantings around the facility, including bur oak, American beautyberry, and dwarf yaupon. While a bit overclipped, these are holding up well, proving that native shrubs and trees — just like non-native shrubs and trees — are easier to maintain than more gardener-needy perennials, annuals, and ornamental grasses, wonderful as those are.

Do you know of any other defensive landscaping efforts in your city? I’m intrigued by this, and it’s so much more attractive than concrete bollards, a row of boulders, and other typical security landscaping measures.

I welcome your comments; please scroll to the end of this post to leave one. If you’re reading this in a subscription email, click here to visit Digging and find the comment box at the end of each post.
_______________________

Digging Deeper: News and Upcoming Events

I’ll be speaking at the Antique Rose Emporium Fall Festival 2016 in Brenham, Texas, on Saturday, November 5th, 1:30-2:30 pm. Come on out to the Antique Rose Emporium’s beautiful gardens for a day of speakers and fun! My talk, with plenty of eye-candy photos, is called “Hold the Hose! How to Design a Water-Saving Garden that Wows.” Meet me afterward at the book-signing table!

Do you review? Have you read my new book, The Water-Saving Garden? If you found it helpful or inspirational, please consider leaving a review — even just a sentence or two — on Amazon, Goodreads, or other sites. Online reviews are crucial in getting a book noticed. I really appreciate your help!

All material © 2006-2016 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

High desert in bloom at Santa Fe Botanical Garden


Two weeks ago today we drove west on a spontaneously planned, cutting-it-close-with-the-first-day-of-school, two-week road trip through West Texas, northern New Mexico, and western Colorado. One of our early stops was Santa Fe, New Mexico, a beautiful old city we once regularly visited but hadn’t seen in 16 years. One of its newest attractions, opened in 2013, is the Santa Fe Botanical Garden.

Sited close to town on Museum Hill, the garden — still in its infancy, with only Phase 1 open at this time — makes for a pleasant hour-long meander under china-blue desert skies, with the rugged folds of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains visible in the distance.


Although the terrain is high desert (Santa Fe’s elevation is 7,199 feet), the sun-washed garden appears surprisingly lush with roses, lavender, switchgrass, agastache, and mullein.


Sparingly used as accents, cacti like eye-catching ‘Snow Leopard’ cholla (Cylindropuntia whipplei ‘Snow Leopard’) stand out beautifully, especially against the wine-colored blossoms of Mojave sage (Salvia pachyphylla) and reddish-pink sandstone walls.


I love that peachy-pink color echo!


Low walls create small garden rooms furnished with benches.


My daughter tries one out next to a stunning Mojave sage.


Any chance this can tolerate the Gulf of Mexico humidity and drenching rains of Austin? I wish! (See High Country Gardens for its listing, which suggests annual rainfall of 10-20 inches.)


Sometimes you have to get low to get a shot of a cool plant.


Here’s her quarry: a little prickly pear with valentine-like pads.


Warm-hued paths of decomposed granite edged with sandstone lead in straight lines through the main garden. Stone blocks add extra seating and natural accents.


Mullein and switchgrass


Agastache


Straight-line gravel and flagstone paths divide the main garden into a grid, with an orchard of fruit trees and an eco-lawn of native turf grasses anchoring the center.


Peach tree


In long borders on each side, shrub roses and lavender add color and fragrance.


Bees were working the lavender.


Roses and lavender, a treat for the nose


Another view of the orchard and lawn


Geranium ‘Rozanne’…


…and hardy plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides) seem right at home here too.


Bluestem ephedra (Ephedra equisetina) caught my eye with its slender, upright, blue stems that are reminiscent of horsetail. Although dry loving, it’s clearly a spreader.


Several contemporary sculptures were on temporary display during our visit, including this one by Bill Barrett.


A wider view, with boulder-like sculptures by Candyce Garrett, part of the garden’s permanent collection


‘Radiant’ crabapple (Malus × ‘Radiant’), laden with rosy fruit against green and gold leaves (turning already?)


One more


We just missed by a couple of months the opening of Phase 2 of the garden, Ojos y Manos: Eyes and Hands, “a place to explore ethnobotany – the shared history of humans and plants in northern New Mexico – through hands-on experiences and observation.” Just across the red bridge — the 100-year-old Kearny’s Gap Bridge, relocated from Las Vegas, NM — workers were busily moving soil and stone and preparing planting beds for the projected October opening.


Back at the entrance, we rested in the shade of a tall-backed stucco banco, next to a trickling wall fountain.


Across the patio, a stylized ramada of rusty steel poles and bundled sticks crisscrosses over benches, offering little shade but creating interesting shadows.

Landscape architect W. Gary Smith, who designed the family garden at Austin’s own Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, designed Santa Fe Botanical Garden “to demonstrate environmentally sustainable gardening.” I’m sure it must already be inspiring locals to plant many of the beautiful plants on display here. I look forward to visiting SFBG again one day to see how it has matured.

Up next: Sightseeing in Santa Fe.

I welcome your comments; please scroll to the end of this post to leave one. If you’re reading this in a subscription email, click here to visit Digging and find the comment box at the end of each post.
_______________________

Digging Deeper: News and Upcoming Events

Do you review? Have you read my new book, The Water-Saving Garden? If you found it helpful or inspirational, please consider leaving a review — even just a sentence or two — on Amazon, Goodreads, or other sites. Online reviews are crucial in getting a book noticed. I really appreciate your help!

All material © 2006-2016 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

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