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.

Gardens on Tour 2007 . . . a teaser

Garden gate from Gardens on Tour 2007. Join me this week to take the tour with me.

On this Mother’s Day weekend, my mom joined me for Saturday’s tour of five private gardens and one commercially owned “green roof,” all of which showcase native Texas plants. Presented by the Wildflower Center, Gardens on Tour is meant to educate as well as inspire. Helpfully, lists of each homeowner’s native plants were being handed out by Wildflower Center docents.

The gardens’ designers—Scott Ogden, Judy Walther, Cathy Nordstrom, Curt Arnette, and David Mahler—were present as well, providing an opportunity to ask questions about the designs or specific plants. I met only two homeowners, however, including design professional Cathy Nordstrom, whose own garden was on tour.

I find it interesting that more homeowners weren’t on hand because this year Gardens on Tour got it right. That is, the five landscapes we toured were actually gardens. Professionally designed, yes (nothing wrong with garden designers, after all). Professionally maintained, yes, some of them. But also reflective of the owners’ personalities, plant-centered, quirky. The gardens were equal partners in the house-garden marriage, holding their own rather than being overshadowed by the houses they beautified.

I’ve heard from several readers here and at Garden Rant who’ve been admiring the photo of my favorite garden on last year’s tour. At one of the stops this weekend, I struck up a conversation with a docent named Jenny Stocker, who mentioned that her garden was on last year’s tour. As she described it I realized that hers was the sunny garden with gorgeous, stone-walled rooms and beautiful combinations of native plants that I’d so admired.

I was glad for the chance to tell her how much I’d enjoyed seeing her garden, and how often readers of Digging have said the same about my photo of it. She was intrigued by garden blogging, she said, and had been considering starting one of her own. Naturally, I encouraged her enthusiastically.

Just think, if she starts blogging, you’ll get to see her lovely garden much more frequently. Hmmm, and maybe she’d be interested in joining the next Austin garden-bloggers’ Ground Robin and let us visit it.