Gardens on Tour 2007: Corum Cove

A twisted live oak frames a sweeping lawn of ‘Palisades’ zoysia and a potting shed in this estate-sized garden.

Our next stop on the garden tour led us to a luxurious home in a West Austin neighborhood. Surrounded by the open, palatial St. Augustine lawns of the neighbors, this homeowner had relegated the lawn to a supporting role, created a shade garden under the canopy of oaks surrounding the house, and carved out a sunny vegetable and fruit-tree garden from the cedar brake out back.

The tidy, xeric garden at the street is attractive, although it doesn’t convey the magnitude of the landscape that awaited us in the back yard.

Another look. For hot, sunny problem areas, this is a lovely, low-maintenance solution. A dry creek of river rock flows through islands of drought-tolerant plants like sotol, Mexican feathergrass, ‘Indigo Spires’ salvia, and muhly grass. I believe the flowering tree is a chitalpa (a cross between a catalpa and a desert willow), but I’m not sure. Did anyone else get a good look?

I temporarily forgot I had a camera as I entered the back yard, partly because I was watching my step as I negotiated a rough, limestone path surrounding the pool; partly because I was then awed by the naturalistic swimming pool, which was inspired, according to the tour brochure, by spring-fed swimming hole Jacob’s Well in nearby Wimberley, Texas; and partly because I ran into gardener Jenny Stocker and then Curt Arnette, an old friend, former neighbor, and the talented landscape architect who designed the pool. What with all the talking, admiring, and boring my mom to bits by yapping too long instead of looking at gardens, I plain forgot to take any photos of the pool. Darn it, because I’d really like to show it to you. The best I can do is point you to Curt’s website, which has a few photos of the pool and the patio garden surrounding it, which he also designed. (When you go to his site, click on “projects,” then “private,” and then “07” to see the pool.)

Somehow resisting the urge to dip our toes into the pool on this hot day, Mom and I meandered around the rest of the very large garden. Naturalistically planted with a mix of natives and hardy tropicals, the garden was a gorgeous tapestry of green and bronze foliage, feathery grasses, tall clumps of bamboo, native dwarf palmettos, and scattered flowering perennials.

St. John’s wort

Sun and shade, green and bronze, native and tropical combine beautifully.

A large agave, shrub rose, and sotol share space on an island bed.

We followed a wide, lawn path that curved around the planting beds and led us past a children’s play area and a charming potting shed, and delivered us to the sunny vegetable-and-rose garden pictured above. This area looked newly planted and freshly carved out of the cedar woods behind the house. Tomatoes and roses shared pride of place in the raised beds.

A lovely pieced-limestone path, tightly fitted but unmortared, led away from this formal garden, down a slope, and into a sunny, cedar-mulch path—created, no doubt, from trees shredded on site.

Along the path, white cosmos billowed in front of what looks like our native twist-leaf yucca.

At the rear of the property, nature took over, though a dainty, scrolled bench held its ground under a shaggy, sheltering juniper. Following the path back uphill toward the main garden, we passed an enormous fig and several other fruit trees.

The food plants, the reduction of lawn, the beautiful native gardens in shade and sun, and even the potting shed all indicate that this is a gardener’s garden. Oh, to be a gardener with that kind of a budget. But I’m grateful that he or she was willing to share it with the rest of us.

Tune in tomorrow for a tour of the Skyline Drive garden.

Gardens on Tour 2007: Maury Hollow

The second stop on our tour included two gardens on a cul-de-sac in the hills of northwest Austin, one belonging to Cathy Nordstrom, owner of San Souci Gardens, the second belonging to her client and next-door neighbor. We visited the designer’s garden first.

Native bee balm and winecups soften a stand of tall yucca.

Cathy’s small, L-shaped garden is a native-plant jewel box. A narrow side yard in front, packed with a thick scrim of shrubs and perennials, leads to the front entry and around the house to the back garden. Absolutely packed with plants, the scene offered much to look at, but my main impressions were of native wildflowers mixed with yuccas . . .

. . . small sitting areas tucked into shady alcoves . . .

. . . and a lush, green screen of shrubs (no fence) around the perimeter of the compact space.

Gravel hardscaping tied it all together, from a crushed gravel path to gravel mulch to a gravel-and-river-rock dry streambed along the rear of the garden.

Wildflowers stole the show in the sunny section. Pictured here are Pringle’s bee balm (Monarda pringeliei ) and winecup (Callirhoe involucrata ), along with a native sedge.

Yucca flower

This sculptural desert plant caught my eye right away as I entered the garden, though I wasn’t sure if it was alive or dead. Having traveled through Arizona, I should have recognized it as ocotillo, but I had to ask Cathy for the name before I remembered where I’d seen it before. I was struck by its sculptural quality and thought it worthy of garden space even if it had croaked due to adventurous placement, far from its natural range.

Curious to know more, I emailed Cathy about the ocotillo and got the story on it.

I bought it last fall (quite expensive) and planted it with good drainage, as advised. I keep checking on it to see if it’s alive, and it is! Consensus comments from tour visitors is that it is waiting for the right conditions, much as it does at Big Bend. Usually the “condition” it’s waiting for is rain, so I’m worried that maybe it’s just not going to do well [as we’ve had a good deal of rain this spring]. Soon I will take it up and replant in a mound to give it even more drainage. Some people commented to me that they heard visitors wonder “why she would have a dead plant” in such an important place in the garden!!!! Indeed! I agree that it has a sculptural quality even when it’s doing well, but now it almost looks as if it is wrought iron! Taking this story a little further, my more “pure” native landscaping friends chided me for having an Ocotillo at all! True enough . . .

Another attention-grabber, these red flowers from a coralbean (Erythrina herbacea ) soared to eye level in the rear of the garden. Like the ocotillo, this legume is an exotic from several states away (in this case, the deep Southeast), but it apparently grows well in partial shade here in Austin, though it freezes to the ground in winter.

Another textural composition: spiny, bold-leaved yuccas; soft, wavy grasses; and reflective, glassy water.

Leaving Cathy’s garden, we strolled next door for a quick look at her neighbor’s garden, which Cathy also designed. It was similarly lushly planted with a token bit of grass in the front and none in the back. The homeowner was on hand and graciously answered visitors’ questions on her shady back deck.

Screening shrubs lined the fence, and Hill Country plants played king-of-the-hill on a gravelly berm in the back garden. I’m sure this naturalistic garden attracts a great number of birds and butterflies looking for safety, shade, and native fruits, seeds, and nectar.

Tune in tomorrow for a tour of the Corum Cove garden.

Gardens on Tour 2007: Stonecliff Circle

Buffalograss (Buchloe dactyloides) stands in for a traditional but thirsty St. Augustine lawn in this NW Austin garden.

Surrounded by typical suburban yards, this garden shows how to use drought-tolerant natives in a fairly traditional way. While it didn’t bowl me over with an unusual design or eclectic plants choices or a remarkable site, its value on a tour such as this shouldn’t be underestimated. Though it won’t wow the gardener who already knows and uses lots of native plants, it offers a nice example to people who don’t know natives and want ideas on how to incorporate them into a traditional landscape.

A lovely, tufty buffalograss lawn in the front yard enticed me to run my fingers through it, though my mother thought it looked too prairie-like. She’s a lawn traditionalist, it seems, but I adore the way buffalograss looks, especially in spring. Near the front door, a small courtyard contained Turk’s cap and other shade lovers, though it was a little sparse and in-between seasons.

In the narrow back garden, the buffalograss lawn shrank to one small oval surrounded by muhly grasses and a mix of groundcovers and shrubs.

Around front again, the decomposed-granite path seen above leads from the driveway to the shady courtyard and front door, bypassing an island bed with the most interesting feature in the garden: an old, bent and twisted tree propped on a pole. I neglected to ask the garden designer what it was, but it was certainly eye-catching and intriguing.

The designer is Judy Walther, president of Environmental Survey Consulting, and it turns out that she’s a neighbor of mine from a couple of blocks away. Who knew? (She and David Mahler, also of ESC, designed a more extravagant garden on the tour as well, at Skyline Drive.) Checking out the company online, I noticed that ESC designed one of my favorite features at the Wildflower Center—the Erma Lowe Hill Country Stream. It was a pleasure to meet Judy, and I hope to run into her in the neighborhood one of these days.

According to the tour brochure, this garden is maintained without the use of an irrigation system and with a heavy deer population. It’s a pleasant landscape that fits in with its traditional neighbors—and perhaps will persuade a few to convert their thirsty lawn grasses to low-maintenance native grasses when they notice that their neighbors never have to mow, fertilize, or water the lawn.

Tune in tomorrow for a tour of the two Maury Hollow gardens.