Dry-garden lushness: Linda Peterson’s San Antonio garden

Rooftop view of the walled courtyard and front garden. Not a blade of lawn grass anywhere, nor is it missed.

Seeing one of my new favorite gardens requires an hour-and-a-half road trip to San Antonio, but it’s worth every trafficky mile. Linda Peterson, whose dreamy garden I visited last September, invited a few friends over for tea after the San Antonio Watersaver Tour, and I was delighted to be included. Seeing Linda and her beautiful garden again in a different season, plus sitting down to a delicious high tea served by her charming daughters? Yes, please!

Courtyard Garden

Linda’s gray-green stucco home wraps around a large courtyard garden thanks to walls painted the same color. Linda and her husband built their home toward the rear of the property in order to preserve several sprawling, magnificent live oaks. The walls provide back-yard-style enclosure and privacy, and a generous stone patio and curving paths create seating areas and lead you through the space.

Linda led us up to her home’s flat roof via a spiral staircase so we could take in a bird’s-eye view. The perspective allows full appreciation of Linda’s planting style: massed groundcovers and shrubs, carefully pruned to show off their architectural forms. For example, the soap aloes (Aloe maculata) blooming at lower left are kept tidy by pulling out pups (baby aloes) from around their spiny leaves, leaving star-shaped solitary plants massed in a winding “aloe river.”

Panning right, you see a table and chairs in front of a focal-point fireplace, with wood stacked in niches on each side.

Back at ground level by the front door, a pair of metal rhinos greets visitors. Against the green walls of the house, the coral flowers of the soap aloes stand out nicely. The chartreuse groundcover in front may be Mexican sedum.

Agave weberi and prickly pear add year-round structure around a pot-style fountain.

Turning around, here’s what you see as you enter the courtyard.

Real and faux cacti mingle in a bed along the wall.

Succulent wreath on the fireplace

The long view from the fireplace seating. Don’t you just want to lie in that hammock all day?

And now we’ve circled back around to the rhinos. The swoosh of gray river stones is a nice touch, don’t you think? It looks like a stream the animals are about to cross.

Another view of the soap aloes, plus a wavy-armed variegated American agave

Linda collects metal and stone animals to adorn her home and garden. I don’t remember seeing this little armadillo last time I visited.

Linda is disciplined with her color choices, sticking with soft gray-green, ivory, and lavender with occasional pops of yellow. This purplish pink bougainvillea was, perhaps, the brightest hue in her garden.

It grows atop the arbor, offering cheery welcome to visitors.

Front Garden, Right of Front Walk

Winding paths lead both left and right into the front garden from the main walk. Turning to the right, a flagstone path widens into a small patio with a simple wooden bench, perfect for stopping to take in the view. Feathery bamboo muhly (Muhlenbergia dumosa) hides the next-door driveway, and a low cluster of lantana blooms frothily.

Most lantanas have hot-colored flowers: orange, red, gold. These have white-and-pale-yellow flowers that fit nicely into Linda’s restrained color scheme.

Another view. Notice how the gray-green flagstone harmonizes with the house/wall color and the cool colors overall. Details like these give Linda’s garden cohesiveness.

A wider view from the end of the path reveals a mass planting of foxtail fern (Asparagus meyeri), whose foliage echoes the form of a nearby agave.

Three culvert-pipe planters along the foundation of the house elevate a collection of palms.

Front Garden, Left of Front Walk

Heading left from the front walk takes you past a large agave, flowering society garlic, and more foxtail fern.

Where the undulating arms of a live oak have been preserved via cut-outs in the stucco wall, a rustic picnic table provides a spot to pause and enjoy the scene.

Looking back toward the front walk and arbor, you see more soap aloes blooming. Linda has a lot of different plants, but she also repeats clusters of plants to great effect.

Continuing along the path, a silvery cassia (Senna phyllodinea) blooms in perhaps the sunniest part of Linda’s garden.

A closeup of the cassia flowers and flat, curled seedpods

And one more view of the silvery cassia, balanced with a large, architectural agave

Tucked among the plants, a stone crocodile planter filled with succulents grins like the cat who ate the canary.

A mystery plant with rich purple flowers. Anyone able to ID it? It’s cupflower, or Nierembergia scoparia ‘Purple Robe’. (Thanks, Gretchen, and Linda for confirming.)

One advantage of a gravel garden — Linda’s entire garden is mulched with tan pea gravel — is that it allows you to have open spaces, like the desert. Agaves and other dry-loving plants look very natural in a garden mulched with rock, and open space does too, allowing you to use fewer plants, if you wish. (In contrast, open spaces in a wood-mulched garden never look quite natural.)

Our native golden leadball (Leucaena retusa) displays its yellow pom-pom flowers alongside the driveway.

The flowers are eye-catching.

Another cluster of soap aloes, along with a nicely pruned prickly pear

Variegated American agaves catch shafts of light and seem to glow.

Rear & Side Garden

Alongside the driveway, a potted Arabian lilac (Vitex trifolia ‘Purpurea’) flashes leaves that are gray-green on top and lavender underneath. Potted drought-tolerant plants are a smart choice for a difficult spot with rocky or tree-rooty soil.

A back deck transitions between the house and the rear garden. I love Linda’s treatment of the deck skirting: sturdy wire (the same as on the trellis above) cloaked with fig ivy, which closely follows the wire’s grid pattern. At ground level, a swath of variegated flax lily (Dianella tasmanica ‘Variegata’) makes an easy-care groundcover that lights up the shade.

Here’s the view from the deck: a perforated metal lantern hanging from a tree, and a triangular faux-bois birdbath below. A Texas redbud effectively screens neighboring houses from view. Linda also strategically hangs pots of asparagus fern from the wire trellis to block undesirable views.

Back at ground level, a pruned-up hedge of variegated pittosporum turns these sometimes unwieldy shrubs into graceful small trees. Linda treats a number of her shrubs and woody perennials this way, including Texas sage (Leucophyllum frutescens) and rosemary, to great effect. It allows for air movement and visual openness, she explains. Foxtail fern adds feathery texture below.

An umbrella-shaded pair of rockers offers a pleasant spot to sit. Clumping bamboo softens the wooden privacy fence and provides extra privacy from neighboring houses.

The screen of bamboo continues, planted atop a curving berm that softens the back corner. More foxtail fern adds evergreen, fringey texture.

Even a work area at the back of the house is brightened with special touches, like green bottles upended on bamboo poles stuck in pots of ferns and (I think) agapanthus Neomarica caerulea ‘Regina’ (see lcp’s comment below).

On a back terrace, succulents are displayed in pots glazed blue and brown.

Thank you, Linda — and daughters Demi and Sam — for a very special afternoon! Click here to read about my visit to Linda’s garden last September, and here for Rock Rose’s post about the garden and tea party.

I welcome your comments. If you’re reading this in an email, click here to visit Digging and find the comment link at the end of each post.

Digging Deeper: News and Upcoming Events

Come see me at Festival of Flowers in San Antonio, May 28, time TBA. Learn more about water-saving gardening during my talk at San Antonio’s 19th annual Festival of Flowers. Get a signed copy of my book after the talk. Tickets to the all-day festival, which includes a plant sale and exchange, speakers, and a flower show, are available at the door: $6 adults; children under 10 free. Free parking.

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

Bottle trees, a Southern tradition that brightens the garden

Writer and teacher Paula Panich visited my garden a few weeks ago, and if I hadn’t already known she was from California by way of Connecticut — i.e., not a Southerner — she gave it away when she asked what was the story with the blue bottles displayed on rebar stakes.

“The bottle tree?” I asked, then launched into the history of this Southern tradition: how African slaves brought the practice to the South (a tradition that goes back even further, to ancient Egypt, according to Southern garden-culture expert Felder Rushing); how blue bottles were believed to trap evil spirits and keep them out of the house; how bottle trees as folk art spread throughout the South and beyond.

Today bottle trees in all their glorious variations are ubiquitous in Southern gardens, especially those with cottage-garden flair, being an easy way to add affordable sculpture and color. Blue bottles are most commonly used, but I see plenty of green, amber, and clear glass too. They jut from dead tree trunks, perch on nails hammered into branches, cap rebar or plastic stakes poked into the dirt, bristle from raw or painted wooden posts, and brighten metal “trees” purchased from garden shops.

Southerners today still call a certain shade of blue “haint blue” (“haint” comes from the word “haunt,” an evil spirit). Paula rightly pointed out that in the desert Southwest, in cities like Santa Fe and Taos, people paint window frames and doors blue for the same reason: a folkloric superstition that it keeps out bad spirits.

To banish any winter dreariness — at least for my Northern Hemisphere readers — let’s revisit some of my favorite bottle trees found in gardens in Texas and beyond (click the links for more pictures from each garden), starting with the multicolored bottle tree pictured above. It’s one of many charming ornaments in the display gardens at Antique Rose Emporium in Brenham, Texas.

This flower-shaped bottle tree makes a colorful focal point in the Hutto garden of Donna and Mike Fowler.

Carriage screws support an assortment of blue bottles on an arching mesquite branch in Lori Daul’s Austin garden.

A bottle tree in Vicki Blachman’s garden in Pflugerville holds insect hotels and Lucky Buddha beer bottles.

This bottle tree was part of a temporary folk art exhibit at the Wildflower Center in 2010.

Lucinda Hutson’s cantina garden in central Austin celebrates all things tequila, as evidenced by her tequila-bottle tree mulched with corks.

In the garden of Ann and Robin Matthews in southwest Austin, a blue bottle tree wrapped in colored lights anchors a circle-shaped vegetable garden.

Their next-door neighbor, Donnis Doyle, put a similar bottle tree out front to greet her guests.

At the Asheville, North Carolina, Garden Bloggers Fling, I visited Christopher Mello’s garden and saw a bottle tree that upped the ante with blue paint, bottles, and lights.

Occasionally I’ll encounter a bottle tree outside the South, like this version at Bella Madrona garden in Portland, Oregon. Chunks of cobalt glass emerge from the folds of a massive tree trunk — like the pig’s teeth in the wych elm of E. M. Forster’s Howards End.

In my own garden (and in my former garden as well), I’ve made a stylized bottle tree from a cedar post and regularly spaced lag screws. It reminded me of an agave bloom spike.

Photo by Lori Daul of The Gardener of Good and Evil

Not long ago, however, I was ready for a change and commissioned a rebar “ocotillo tree” from local metalworker Bob Pool. Looking out my office window, I enjoy it most in the afternoons, when the bottles glow with captured light.

So how about you? Have you ever seen a bottle tree, or do you have one of your own? I’d love to hear your bottle tree stories!


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Upcoming Events and News

Hold the Hose! Join me for my kick-off garden talk for my new book, The Water-Saving Garden, on February 27, at 10 am, at The Natural Gardener nursery in southwest Austin. My talk is called “Hold the Hose! How to Make Your Garden Water Thrifty and Beautiful,” and it’s free to the public. Afterward I’ll have books available for purchase and will be glad to autograph one for you! Dress for the weather, as the talk will be held in the big tent outside.

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

Public plaza at San Antonio’s Pearl, an urban re-use neighborhood

Pearl mixed-use development

The old Pearl Brewery in San Antonio might have been razed, once its brewing days were over. Instead its century-old manufacturing buildings have been transformed into restaurants and even a boutique hotel and embraced by walkable streets lined with shops and apartment buildings. Public green spaces throughout the development invite one to sit and people-watch.

We visited Pearl one afternoon just before Christmas, after reading about it on Rock-Oak-Deer blog, and enjoyed a delicious dinner at Southerleigh. (Afterward we strolled the River Walk to see the holiday lights.) Pearl was lively with shoppers and diners and utterly charming with its restored old buildings, recycled industrial materials, and lush South Texas-style landscaping.

The main plaza, which sits in the shadow of the old brewery, feels European with cafe seating on a gravel “floor,” under a grid of new-planted trees that will one day provide welcome shade. Until then, umbrellas and an industrial-mesh arbor do the trick.

Notice that the plaza trees are not ghettoed off into circular beds of mulch but are planted cleanly in the floor of the plaza itself. I love this look. Board-formed concrete planters filled with agaves, palmettos, and bamboo muhly grass soften the expanse of gravel and lightly screen seating areas from each other.

Under the arbor, vines climb each metal post, trained on long sections of encircling rebar. Unlike the trees, they are set off in circular beds, probably because their more delicate stems require protection from people stepping on them.

I adore this industrial-chic arbor, which sparkles with twinkle lights in the evening. Hanging can lights provide additional illumination…

…and two Big Ass fans cool the space in warmer seasons.

Industrial relics from the old brewery are incorporated into the plaza, as well as throughout the development.

A closer view

I wonder what these used to be?

Designed by Austin’s own Christine Ten Eyck, Pearl’s landscaping is lush with dwarf palmettos, grasses, and other mostly native Texas plants. Drought- and heat-tolerant exotics like purple heart aren’t shunned either.

Bougainvillea, its flower-like bracts still colorful a few days before Christmas, climbs an industrial-mesh screen.

Pearl’s irrigation, I read, uses only wastewater from the buildings’ cooling towers, and the landscaping needs just one-fifth the water a typical commercial landscape would require. Rain gardens like this one keep runoff out of the city’s wastewater system and use plants to filter pollutants.

This sunken patio offers outdoor seating for diners at one of the restaurants.

An aqueduct runs from an old silo (now used for water storage?) across one side of the plaza and empties — when the water’s running; it was off during our visit — down a chain into a tiered fountain. I enjoyed the clever re-use of industrial materials to create a new version of a traditional Spanish courtyard fountain.

It must be pleasant to sit here on warmer days, with the fountain playing its cooling music.

The Culinary Institute of America is located here, but even so it was a surprise to see lettuces growing in old brewery tanks placed like window boxes along the campus building.

Pearl is located on the north end of the River Walk Hike & Bike Path. A 3-mile stroll along the San Antonio River takes you to the main River Walk downtown, or you can grab a water taxi and just enjoy the ride. Or maybe you won’t leave Pearl at all, but just sit in the plaza and enjoy the scene.

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