Drive-By Gardens: A new lawn-gone garden in my neighborhood

Bravo to my neighbors, who’ve ripped out their front lawn and replaced it with native groundcovers woolly stemodia (Stemodia lanata) and sedge (probably Carex texensis), accented with xeric specimen plants like Agave parryi var. truncata, gopher plant (Euphorbia rigida), Wheeler sotol (Dasylirion wheeleri), squid agave (Agave bracteosa), and ‘Color Guard’ yucca.

For comparison, a “before” image from Google Maps. It looked so much smaller with just lawn! Now there’s an abundance of interesting plants to catch your eye, and the new flagstone walk invites you to meander, not rush, to the front door.

Their front garden faces east, and they went with xeric (dry-loving) plants on the sunny side of the yard, mulching these with decomposed granite. The woolly stemodia should fill in quickly, covering the DG with a silvery green carpet that sparkles with lavender flowers in late summer. The accent plants should do well too, although if we have a cold, wet winter the variegated ‘Arizona Star’ agave at the back may suffer.

On the shady side, under a large oak (red oak, I think), sedges will eventually fill in to make a low, grassy groundcover. Shredded wood mulch suppresses weeds, and it looks more natural under trees than gravel. This should look very pretty in a few years. They only thing I would have done differently, being impatient, is to plant the sedges more thickly. A dense initial planting also gives opportunistic weeds less of a chance to sneak in. Along the edge of the yard, bamboo muhly (Muhlenbergia dumosa) makes a feathery, chartreuse screen.

Along the foundation, under a limbed-up crepe myrtle and Texas mountain laurel, variegated flax lily (Dianella tasmanica ‘Variegata’), bicolor iris (Dietes bicolor), and a few flowering perennials are planted on either side of a paver path leading from the driveway to the front door. The handsome paver driveway and path are a nice upgrade from concrete, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they had French drains installed to move runoff away from the garage.

Unlike my house, theirs has a sidewalk, and they planted the hell strip too. I see blackfoot daisy (Melampodium leucanthum), red yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora), and Mexican feathergrass (Nassella tenuissima), good choices all. Again, I would have planted more densely, and they’ll need to be vigilant about weeding this section because there’s no woolly stemodia to fill in and outcompete opportunistic weeds. In my experience, Bermudagrass, nutgrass, and mats of spurge love to colonize open stretches of DG. But they can be defeated with constant vigilance.

Also, I would have added 10-foot sections of paver or flagstone paving on each side of the driveway, for visitors who park at the curb. Car landings allow visitors to get in and out of their cars without trampling your plants or getting poked in the shins.

Our neighborhood’s regular visitors have already stopped by to check out the new garden, with hoof prints left as evidence. Deer are a constant presence in my northwest Austin neighborhood, and everything one plants must be highly deer resistant. Even so, they’ll sample many of those when they’re newly planted, sometimes pulling them out of the ground in the process, and at this of year agaves, yuccas, and young trees can be damaged by bucks rubbing their antlers against them.

It takes determination to garden under such circumstances, but I love to see my neighbors going for it and making their yards more beautiful and inviting to birds, bees, butterflies, and other creatures (but hopefully not the deer, not if they want to have a garden). I can’t wait to see how this garden evolves, and I know it will bring them — and their neighbors — a lot of pleasure every day.

All material © 2006-2015 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Blowsy autumn beauty at Rollingwood Waterwise Garden

Last Saturday, a drizzly, cool day, I returned to the West Austin neighborhood of Rollingwood to see how the waterwise garden at city hall had fared over the summer. Designed by Scott Ogden and Lauren Springer Ogden, the garden was installed two years ago. Following an initial harsh winter and now an unusually wet year, it’s really filling in. Ornamental grasses like Muhlenbergia ‘Pink Flamingos’ and Gulf muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris) are showy in the rain garden, a shallow basin designed to hold runoff and give it time to soak into the soil.

For a fun comparison, here’s the same view in April of this year. Before the grasses grew tall, you can see the contours of the rain garden.

‘Pink Flamingos’ muhly on the left, and Muhlenbergia capillaris ‘White Cloud’ on the right

Planted high on gravelly berms, golden barrel cactus and other dry-loving plants look happy. ‘Strawberry Fields’ gomphrena adds dots of fiery color.

In the hell strip (a term coined by the designer, Lauren Springer Ogden), flame acanthus (Anisacanthus quadrifidus var. wrightii) wends around a spineless prickly pear and a pretty yucca with white-edged leaves. I didn’t see a plant tag nearby; anyone know the ID?

Whale’s Tongue agave, low grasses, and a cheery groundcover of four-nerve daisy (Tetraneuris scaposa)

A gravelly berm near the city hall entrance is smothered in more four-nerve daisies.

Aloes cluster, starfish-like, around a boulder.

I really love this spiraling council ring of limestone blocks, with stacked limestone pieces to fill in the gaps. ‘Green Gem’ boxwood topiaries enhance the circular theme and add evergreen color.

Located under the shade of live oaks, this part of the garden is, I believe, known as Council Oaks.

A wider view

Looking in the other direction across the garden

‘Green Goblet’ agave (I think), one of my favorites

That dusty, blue-green coloring at its base is lovely.

A rugged limestone stair leads up a slope at one end of the garden. A unique mix of agaves, columbines, ferns, tradescantia, sedum, salvia, grasses, lantana, and yucca grow here. Pacific chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum pacificum) flowers at the base of the slope.

Looking across the rain garden, in all its feathery fall glory

White-blooming autumn sage (Salvia greggii) brightens the hell strip. Pink autumn sage and bamboo muhly are visible in the background.

This is eye-catching: ‘San Carlos’ firecracker fern (Russelia coccinea ‘San Carlos’). Shazam!

Rollingwood’s residents were far-sighted in bringing this sustainable garden to fruition, and (even smarter) budgeting for its continuing care by a design team that fearlessly experiments with tough yet beautiful native and adapted plants. It’ll be fun to watch this garden continue to evolve. I imagine it will inspire many other lawn-gone gardens around the neighborhood.

I do wish, however, that the garden had its own website, or at least a dedicated webpage on the City of Rollingwood’s site. I can find very little information about the garden online, except from outside sources like the Statesman, Central Texas Gardener, neighborhood resident Deb at Austin Agrodolce, and my own post about the garden last spring. I’d love to be able to read about the garden’s origin (how the idea arose, and how funds were raised, which will be useful for other groups looking to do something similar); how the design was developed (from the designers’ perspective, including special challenges that were overcome); a detailed and updated plant list organized by section of the garden, or by sun/shade conditions; and a monthly update on maintenance (to provide real-life info about what a garden like this requires and what to do at certain times of the year). Such information would extend the reach of this garden, which is hidden deep within the winding roads of Rollingwood, and turn it into a teaching garden for the whole city, region, and even the world.

All material © 2006-2015 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Evening photo shoot at The Huntington Gardens: GWA Pasadena

The Huntington gardens near Los Angeles have, for years, been on my wish list of botanical gardens to visit. So I was thrilled to see an afternoon visit and after-hours photoshoot offered on the itinerary of the Garden Writers Association symposium on September 20.

Unfortunately, it was surface-of-the-sun hot that day, 103 F (39.4 C). By my mid-afternoon arrival, I realized, to my dismay, that I was completely uninterested in touring the much-anticipated Huntington under the glare of an unforgiving Death Star. Chagrined, I hid out in the gift shop for an hour. Lest you think this a travesty, I assure you that the Huntington’s is the most incredible garden gift shop I’ve ever been in. How I wish I’d taken photos to show you. But I simply browsed in A/C-contented bliss.

As the sun dipped toward the horizon, however, I realized that I needed to suck it up and get out there. I mean, this was the Huntington! And so as the early-bird GWAers were straggling back, sweat-stained and flushed, to the gift shop and an after-hours bar (courtesy of the good folks at the Huntington), I finally ventured forth, prepared to melt for the beauty of the gardens.

And beautiful they are. As described by GWA, the Huntington was “[o]riginally the private estate of railroad magnate Henry Huntington (1850-1927), with a grand Beaux Arts mansion as its centerpiece….[T]he research and cultural institution houses world-class collections, including Gainsborough’s famous portrait of The Blue Boy, a Gutenberg Bible, and a 15th-century illuminated manuscript of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Surrounding the estate are 120 acres of breathtaking grounds that showcase more than 15,000 different kinds of plants in a dozen specialized gardens.”

I did not see any of the indoor masterpieces. The garden was my sole focus. As it closed to regular visitors at 4:30 pm, those of us with GWA badges were allowed to stay on until 7 pm, giving the photographers among us a chance to shoot the garden in the kinder light of late afternoon and early evening.

Palm and Desert Gardens

I headed straight for the famous Desert Garden, figuring the afternoon light would be good filtering through spiny plants, and passing through the dramatic Palm Garden along the way.

The sun was still intense when I reached the Desert Garden, but as I’d hoped, it was incandescing the cactus.

As with the Lotusland cactus garden, it was like visiting a strange planet. At 10 acres and with 2,000 species of succulents and cactus, the Desert Garden is worthy of hours of poking around (pun intended). But amid the rocky beds and asphalt paving, the heat was like standing next to an open oven, and I ended up spending only about 45 minutes here.

Still, I saw many beautiful plants, like these blue echeverias creeping among black lava rock.

And aeoniums so black they looked scorched by the heat.

Otherworldly tree aloe

And barrel cactus in brilliant flower

High in this floss silk tree’s branches, a flock of green parrots chattered amiably.

Nearby, golden barrel cactus clustered in extravagant masses.

I’d never seen so many barrels, not even at Desert Botanical Garden.

I didn’t even know they grew this way, clustered one upon another in great, spiny mounds.

They littered the path edges like beach balls after a pool party, and each wore a golden halo in the afternoon light.

Lily Ponds

Seeking shade, I happened next upon the Lily Ponds garden. I could hardly imagine a more different experience from the radiating heat and dynamic plant arrangements in the Desert Garden.

Here, the mood was serene, green, and cool, thanks to a tranquil pond and stands of rustling bamboo.

I rested there a while before heading into the sun again, crossing a large lawn with a temple-like folly. What a mood shift, from one garden to the next!

Subtropical and Australian Gardens

Glancing at the map I decided to see the Australian Garden next, and I passed the Subtropical Garden along a path facing directly into the ferocious setting sun. This made for great lighting effects on plants like white-flowering sea squill (Drimia maritima) growing under live oaks…

…and bottlebrush, as I neared the Australian Garden.

But by the time I got there, I was cooked, and the garden didn’t look particularly shady, so I just kept trudging toward a towering wall of bamboo that promised coolness and relief.

Japanese Garden

Ahh, a leafy green wall tall enough to block the sun! The narrow entry from this direction might be easy to miss, were it not for the foo dogs (stone lions) guarding the path.


I entered the Japanese Garden through a mysterious bamboo forest of swaying culms and rustling leaves.

Climbing steadily uphill, I came to a paved courtyard with a collection of bonsai displayed on wooden stands.

Montezuma cypress in miniature

And olive

Next I strolled through a meditative Zen courtyard, with raked white gravel, boulder islands, and cloud-pruned trees.

A grand stair, zigzagging along one side, exits the Zen garden, and from here I entered the main garden.

Completed in 1912, the tranquil Japanese Garden includes a tall, arching moon bridge and reflecting pond. It was growing lovelier by the minute as the hateful sun sank behind the trees.

Intimate vignettes, like this tsukubai fountain…

…and carved figure near a tumbling stream, made for delightful discoveries along the winding hillside path.

Chinese Garden

As the terrain leveled out, I came upon the Chinese Garden, enclosed along one side by an undulating, tile-roofed white wall.

Known as Liu Fang Yuan, the Garden of Flowing Fragrance, the Chinese Garden opened to the public in 2008 — a century after the Japanese Garden.

Having twice visited the Lan Su Chinese Garden in Portland, I knew to expect covered walkways leading to a series of paved courtyards with intricate details.

What I didn’t anticipate was being completely alone with the garden. It was all mine.

The light was soft as dusk came on.

A beautiful detail

Pebble mosaic courtyard — and banana trees by the moon gate?

The teahouse was closed for the day, but I admired the woodwork…

…and rested on its terrace, which overlooks a picturesque lake. The building that resembles a boat, at center, is part of a phase two addition to the garden, currently under construction.

Along the opposite side of the lake, a pavilion known as Terrace of the Jade Mirror shelters amid weeping willows.

Moon gates invite you through it.

Another pebble mosaic path and a carved stone bridge lead on. Note the limestone rocks arrayed along the edges — similar to the holey limestone we have here in central Texas.

Pavilion of the Three Friends comes into view here, with a fine view of the San Gabriel Mountains in the distance.

And the three friends? According to Chinese tradition, bamboo, pine, and plum are considered the three friends of winter for the pine and bamboo’s evergreen foliage and the plum’s early spring flowers. Together, explains the Huntington’s website, they symbolize fortitude, integrity, and resilience.

One last look. The Chinese Garden surprised me by turning out to be my favorite part of the Huntington gardens, in part, no doubt, due to the perfect golden hour during which I visited.

North Vista and Camellia Garden

The light was still sweet as I made my way through the Camellia Garden via the North Vista, a vast lawn anchored at one end by this baroque fountain adorned with carved fish and shells. The website explains, “The Italian fountain had been brought to England in the early 18th century and remained there until it was purchased by Henry Huntington in 1915. It was shipped from New York in 48 boxes that filled an entire railway car. Oddly enough, the fountain arrived without assembly instructions and with a few extra pieces. It eventually was installed five years after the completion of the main house (ca. 1916).”

The lawn is lined with 18th-century sculpted figures, camellias, and palms, and at the opposite end sits the former home of Henry and Arabella Huntington, which today houses part of their art collection.

I’m sure this garden sees most of its traffic in winter, when the camellias bloom, but it’s lovely in its summer greens too — although that lawn no doubt requires a lot of water to remain so green. The tall, skinny palms lend a distinctly California vibe to all the classicism.

California and Celebration Gardens

As the sun set and the staff prepared to close up, I straggled back, blissed out, toward the entrance, passing through the Mediterranean-style Celebration Garden, which is part of the water-wise California Garden. A shallow rill descends along a series of terraces formally planted with lavender, grasses, kangaroo paws, and other dry-adapted plants.

Red kangaroo paws looks especially pretty against cool-blue yuccas.

I would imitate this in a heartbeat if kangaroo paws tolerated Austin’s humid summer climate.

The grasses looked great too.

I love this combo, although I recognize only the yellow-flowering yarrow. Anyone know what the purple flowers are (update: looks like Scaevola aemula; thanks, Lara!), and is that a euphorbia at lower right?

Closer to the entrance, the garden loses its formality with casually inviting seating areas tucked amid billowing grasses.

The Huntington truly is an amazing collection of plants beautifully designed. I’m so glad I had a chance to explore it after-hours, and I hope you’ve enjoyed this very long recap.

Gift Shop

Part of my hideout time in the gift shop was spent autographing copies of my book Lawn Gone!, which I spotted prominently displayed as soon as I walked in the door.

How exciting! My thanks to the Huntington for carrying it and for treating us at GWA to a very special after-hours visit.

That wraps up my series of Los Angeles-area garden tours. Click through for a look back at the beautiful Volk Garden, which has a borrowed view of the Huntington. You’ll find links back to my other L.A. garden posts at the end of each post you follow.

All material © 2006-2015 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.