New sedge lawnette planted, dry stream spiffed up


While the death of a tree — or any plant, really — is disappointing, even angst inducing, there’s always an upside: the opportunity to redesign and replant! One of our live oaks (pictured front and center) succumbed to hypoxylon canker last December, and after its removal I was startled by the openness at the front of the house. I also worried for my shade-loving shrubs and Japanese maple along the foundation.


And then I put my worry aside (I’ll just have to wait and see about the shade lovers, which are still protected by the house to the south and by the remaining trees to the west) and looked on the bright side: an opportunity to rip out the last little bit of lawn on our property. I’d kept that tiny lawn for two reasons: oak sprouts — bristly, suckering stems coming up from the mother tree’s roots — grew thickly under that live oak, and it was easier to mow them along with the grass than to hand-prune them out of a garden bed, and I liked the green negative space that the semicircle of lawn provided.


After the tree came down, I had the stump ground out. I’m hopeful that will eliminate the oak sprouts. If not, I’ll prune them as needed (sigh).


I hired a landscaper to dig out the St. Augustine grass and spread several inches of Lightening Mix from Advanced Organic Materials in Buda — my new soil resource since The Natural Gardener closed its soil yard.


I also ripped out the old metal landscape edging that bordered the dry creek around the lawn — a budget-conscious choice that I knew I’d eventually replace — and brought in small limestone boulders to edge the new planting bed and keep soil out of the dry creek.


To keep the negative space (a serene, green groundcover) I enjoyed with the old lawn, I planted evergreen ‘Scott’s Turf’ sedge (Carex sp.) from Barton Springs Nursery. When it fills in, it’ll be a meadowy “lawn” that doesn’t require mowing, edging, or nearly as much water. Just off-center, I planted a toothless sotol (Dasylirion longissimum) from Vivero Growers. Eventually it’ll echo the one in the metal pipe on the other side of the front door (see picture below) — like a shimmery, long-leaved Koosh ball.


To protect it from bucks aching to rub their antlers on beautiful plants and smash them to smithereens, I encircled it with rolled wire, nearly invisible, which I’ll remove in the spring. Leftover Mexican beach pebbles around the base of the sotol help with drainage for this dry-loving plant (instead of moisture-holding wood mulch).


Everyone asks me if I had the new bed bermed up. No, the live oak was growing atop the berm, and I believe it’s part of the natural topography of our lot, as several other clusters of trees are growing on berms in our yard. My guess is the house was built around the trees back in the early ’70s.

Drainage problems have driven most of my design decisions here. When it rains, runoff flows down the circular drive back toward the house, and water used to pool in our front walk. We replaced the old walk with poured-in-place concrete strips surrounded by gravel that allows water to soak into the soil. Now, runoff from the driveway flows into the dry creek, and a sump pump in the gravel courtyard behind us pipes excess water into the creek as well.


Where the old steel edging once lined the dry creek, limestone boulders now provide a more natural look.


I had my landscaper dig a trench to set them at least one-third of their height into the soil.


Here’s the long view from the corner of the house. Soon the dormant river ferns in the foreground will be unfurling new fronds.


Here’s the other toothless sotol I have, growing in a steel pipe in the gravel courtyard. What a beauty this plant is! Red yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora) and ‘Alphonse Karr’ bamboo add to the linear combo.


I’m going to plant pink rain lily bulbs (Zephryanthes ‘Labuffarosea’) amid the sedge this spring and cross my fingers that the deer will leave them alone. No such luck with the oxblood lilies I tried a couple of years ago, but perhaps the rain lilies will prove less tasty.

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

2/25/17: Come to my talk at the Wildflower Center. I’ll be speaking at the day-long Native Plant Society of Texas Spring Symposium at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin. My talk is called “Local Heroes: Designing with Native Plants for Water-Saving Gardens,” and it’s about creating water-wise home gardens that don’t sacrifice beauty. The symposium is open to the public. Click here for registration. I’ll be offering signed copies of my books, The Water-Saving Garden and Lawn Gone!, after my talk ($20 each; tax is included). I hope to see you there!

Get on the mailing list for Garden Spark Talks. Inspired by the idea of house concerts — performances in private homes, which support musicians and give a small audience an up-close and personal musical experience — I’m hosting a series of garden talks by design speakers out of my home. The upcoming talk with James deGrey David has sold out, but join the Garden Spark email list for speaker announcements delivered to your inbox; simply click this link and ask to be added. Subscribers get advance notification when tickets go on sale for these limited-attendance events.

All material © 2006-2017 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Install low-voltage outdoor lighting and create a welcoming glow


It’s only taken us 8 years to install outdoor lighting along the foundation of our house, and now that it’s done I’m wondering why on earth we waited so long. I love the warm, welcoming glow that a few wall-washing low-voltage lights creates.


What a change from before, as seen here. Two boxy, contemporary sconces (our replacement for too-small, traditional porch lights that we inherited) on either side of the porch nicely illuminate the doorway. But without additional lighting, the porch appears to float in pitch darkness — not very welcoming.


When we lost a tree this winter and I tore out the last patch of turf where it had stood, I decided it was now or never.


We bought 4 LED low-voltage flood lights from Hampton Bay at a local Home Depot. I considered wall wash lights, but I’d used floods at our previous house and thought they had a little more flexibility. We like that the fixtures are metal, not plastic, and we wanted LEDs to save energy and avoid the regular bulb changing required for traditional incandescent fixtures. LED lights are more expensive, but we hope it’ll pay off in the long run.

We also bought low-voltage cable to hook up the lights. Confusingly, there were two sizes of cable for sale, and the Hampton Bay box didn’t specify which size I needed. So I asked a Home Depot employee for help, and they looked up the lighting specs online and told me which size I needed.


Lay out your lights to decide how you want to position them.


Our ranch home’s facade is asymmetrical, and we decided one light would be enough on the left side.


We opted to highlight a sotol in a steel planter for nighttime drama, but we soon found it needed to be lit from the side, not head-on. Otherwise we had a big, pipe-shaped shadow on the front of the house.


The right side of our house is longer, so we placed two lights over there, one washing across the Chinese mahonias in the center of the foundation bed (between the windows) and the other highlighting the Japanese maple at the corner of the house. We added another light along the side-yard fence to highlight a piece of garden art and brighten a side path.

Run the low-voltage cable from the outlet where you’ll plug in your transformer to each light, leaving a little slack at each light so you can move it around if needed.


We already owned a transformer from our previous home’s lighting, so we didn’t need to buy one. Your transformer must be able to handle the wattage of lights you’re installing, so add up the wattage for all your lights and buy a transformer that can handle at least that amount. You may end up adding more lights (that’s easy to do), so it doesn’t hurt to buy a bigger transformer than you currently need. Of course LEDs use less wattage, allowing you to use a smaller transformer than if you choose incandescent lights.

Hook up the cable to the transformer by using wire strippers to remove about a half-inch of insulation from the two strands of wire at one end of the cable. Follow the instructions that come with your transformer to hook up one wire to the “A” terminal and the other wire to the “B” terminal.

Plug the transformer into a nearby outdoor electrical outlet and mount the transformer box on the wall. To hang it, screw a couple of screws to the wall, aligning them with pre-drilled holes on the back plate of the transformer box. If you don’t have an outdoor electrical outlet in the right spot, hire an electrician to run a line from your house to the spot where you need it, and have an outdoor GFCI outlet box mounted on a post that’s tall enough to support the transformer too. Make sure it’s situated where it won’t be an eyesore in your landscaping, but convenient to your lights.

A transformer with a timer allows you to set it to come on at dark every day and turn off at dawn, or in the wee hours if you prefer.


The lights have pinch-clips that bite into the cable. Once you’re sure about where you want your lights to be, unplug the transformer and simply clip each light onto the cable. The low voltage means it’s easy and safe to work with. When all your lights are hooked up and you’ve tested that they work by plugging in the transformer and turning them on, finish up by burying the cable a few inches deep, preferably along the house foundation or line of edging where you won’t be likely to dig in the future. If you ever do accidentally cut the cable, you can repair it by stripping the wires of both cut pieces and reconnecting them with wire nuts and electrical tape.


Press each light into the soil, being careful not to apply pressure to the head of the fixture, as that could damage the rotating joint that allows you to adjust the upward angle of the light.


Adjust the angle of the light as necessary to “wash” the wall or highlight a structurally interesting plant.


Avoid “hot spot” glare — where you see the bulb — by pointing lights away from pathways, doors, and windows.


It’s better to have too little light than too much. A prison-yard ambience is not what you’re after but rather a soft glow pulling certain features into focus.


Try it along your foundation to create your own welcoming glow.

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

2/25/17: Come to my talk at the Wildflower Center. I’ll be speaking at the day-long Native Plant Society of Texas Spring Symposium at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin. My talk is called “Local Heroes: Designing with Native Plants for Water-Saving Gardens,” and it’s about creating water-wise home gardens that don’t sacrifice beauty. The symposium is open to the public. Click here for registration. I’ll be offering signed copies of my books, The Water-Saving Garden and Lawn Gone!, after my talk ($20 each; tax is included). I hope to see you there!

Get on the mailing list for Garden Spark Talks. Inspired by the idea of house concerts — performances in private homes, which support musicians and give a small audience an up-close and personal musical experience — I’m hosting a series of garden talks by design speakers out of my home. The first talk with Scott Ogden has sold out, but join the Garden Spark email list for speaker announcements delivered to your inbox; simply click this link and ask to be added. Subscribers get 24-hour advance notification when tickets go on sale for these limited-attendance events.

All material © 2006-2017 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Maple and mangave for Foliage Follow-Up


I’ve been celebrating a belated fall here at Digging and on Instagram this week, as our Japanese maple flamed into orange and then red. Although it’s a little odd to see brilliant fall color at Christmastime, we deprived Texas gardeners happily take it whenever we can get it.

My garden hasn’t gotten a freeze yet, which is why the river ferns under the maple still look fresh and green. They’ll turn brown and shrivel this Saturday, when we’re expecting a hard freeze. Other good foliage plants here include variegated flax lily (Dianella tasmanica ‘Variegata’), Chinese mahonia (Mahonia fortunei), holly fern (Cyrtomium falcatum), ‘Soft Caress’ mahonia (Mahonia eurybracteata ‘Soft Caress’), and ‘Everillo’ sedge (Carex oshimensis ‘Everillo’).

Of course lawn is a foliage plant too, and this one semicircular patch of St. Augustine is all that remains of the large lawn we inherited with the house. It’s both decorative and functional, as we have tons of live oak sprouts that come up in this spot, and it’s easier to mow them than to weed them out of a garden bed.


Here’s one of my rarer plants, ‘Espresso’ mangave, a white-edged version of well-known ‘Macho Mocha’ mangave. Austin designer and author Scott Ogden gave me a pup a few years ago, and it’s grown very slowly and produced a few sparing pups of its own, one of which I returned to Scott after agave snout-nosed weevils got his original plant.


This is my December post for Foliage Follow-Up. Fellow bloggers, what leafy loveliness is happening in your garden this month? Please join me in giving foliage its due on the day after Bloom Day. Leave a link to your post in a comment below. I’d appreciate it if you’ll also link to my post in your own — sharing link love! If you can’t post so soon after Bloom Day, no worries. Just leave your link when you get to it. I look forward to seeing your foliage faves.

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

Need a holiday gift for the gardener, new homeowner, or environmentalist on your list?
Please consider giving one (or both!) of my books. They’re packed with plenty of how-to info for newbies as well as lots of inspirational photos and design ideas for more experienced gardeners! Order today from Amazon (Water-Saving Garden / Lawn Gone!) or other online booksellers (Water-Saving Garden / Lawn Gone!), or find them anywhere books are sold.

“In an era of drought and unpredictable weather patterns, The Water-Saving Garden could not come at a better time. With striking photographs and a designer’s eye, Penick shows us just how gorgeous a water-wise garden can be. This is the must-have garden book of the year!”
Amy Stewart, author of The Drunken Botanist and Wicked Plants

“This thoughtful, inviting, and thoroughly useful book should be required for every new homeowner at closing. It has the power to transform residential landscapes from coast to coast and change the world we all share.”
Lauren Springer Ogden, author of The Undaunted Garden and coauthor of Waterwise Plants for Sustainable Gardens

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

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