Glass art and cacti galore at Living Desert Ranch


The weird and wonderful, from plants to garden art, can be found at Living Desert Ranch in Spicewood, Texas, about 30 miles northwest of Austin. Part cactus and succulent nursery and part art gallery, Living Desert is the creation of Darrell Dunten, who ran the business for 30 years out of a shop in Bee Caves (see my 2009 post about it). About five years ago, as development in Bee Caves exploded, Darrell moved his plants and art out to rural Spicewood, where his tin ornaments spin in the breeze under tree limbs and chunks of colorful slag glass (not as easy to get as it used to be, he says) sparkle in the parking lot.


Darrell has expanded the business since moving to Spicewood. He and his wife DeAnna also run a B&B and offer brunch (an entirely plant-based menu) every Thursday through Sunday.


The slag-glass art is what I remember best about the original Living Desert, and lots of Darrell’s pieces are displayed in his greenhouse, alongside his plants.


These garden stakes topped with glass chunks look like wizard staffs.


Beautiful cacti are neatly arrayed on nursery tables.


Many were in bloom during my visit a couple of weeks ago, when I stopped on the way to my Hill Country wildflower photo safari.


Hello there!


Even cylindrical snake plant (Sansevieria cylindrica) was blooming, which I’d never seen.


Glazed ceramic cones stamped with floral patterns make pretty wall planters for cactus and succulents.


There were rectangular hanging pots too.


Molded faces dangle eerily here and there.


I liked this metal heart with a glass heart glowing inside it.


Donkey ears kalanchoe (I think) in towering bloom


Frankenstein’s monster? This is a grafted creation, with two different species turned into one plant.


Personally, I prefer them the way they naturally grow.


In Darrell’s hands, anything makes a good planter.


But some of his treasures are not for sale, like this beauty. I’ve no idea what it is, but wow, isn’t it gorgeous?


Living Desert Ranch is definitely worth a visit if you enjoy cactus and succulents and unique yard art. And unique Texas characters too.

Note: Living Desert Ranch is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. And according to its website, it will be closed every day next week until Easter brunch.

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

Mark your calendar for the Inside Austin Gardens Tour on May 6, sponsored by Travis County Master Gardeners. This fun garden tour occurs every 18 months and features a mix of homegrown gardens “for gardeners, by gardeners,” as their tagline says.

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. Talks are limited-attendance events and generally sell out within just a few days, so join the Garden Spark email list for early notifications. Simply click this link and ask to be added.

Roses, butterflies & garden goodness at Antique Rose Emporium


On Saturday my mom and I drove out to Brenham, Texas, for the Antique Rose Emporium‘s Fall Festival of Roses, where I was one of the day’s speakers. A gray sky spit rain on us during the 2-hour drive, but it held off as we strolled around the nursery before my talk.


ARE’s 11-acre display gardens bloom with abandon in autumn, Texas’s second spring.


Lush bouquets of roses picked from the gardens adorned the nursery’s help desk.


First-time visitors may be surprised to see the gardens are not just beds of roses.


I love the gardens precisely because they’re not just roses, although of course the roses are lovely. I dislike the apartheid of traditional rose gardens, in which roses are grown separately from other plants. Mingling roses with other flowering plants and grasses creates a sense of fullness and an opportunity for pleasing color echoes, and bare, thorny stems are more easily disguised.


The gardens were alive with butterflies, especially queens.


They were particularly attracted to flowering amaranth celosia (Celosia spicata).


I also spotted a white-striped longtail…


…and a beautiful Julia butterfly enjoying lantana.


A lily pond, glimpsed through trees…


…was in full bloom too, despite the cooler temps of autumn.


I think this is a tropical waterlily, as the flowers stand tall above the pond’s surface and the leaves have toothy edges.


A charming sculpture of a boy flying a toy airplane stands nearby.


Wandering on, along a pathway edged with Philippine violet (Barleria cristata)…


…to one of several homestead-style buildings in the gardens. This building and others used to be filled with garden gift items, but on this visit they were mostly empty. The Antique Rose Emporium property — display gardens and event spaces — have been for sale for more than a year (and I’m already mourning its loss unless someone buys it to keep operating it as a nursery), and perhaps that has something to do with the scaling back.


An old log structure — the Corn Crib


Some of the many roses for sale


For wow power, check out this awesome braided-pot arbor. There are two such arbors at ARE, one at each parking lot entrance. (The other is pictured at the top of this post.)


How many pots went into the making of this, do you think? The sky vine-draped arbor in the background is striking too.


Pink roses fronting a picturesque stone house, another former gift shop now mostly empty


Leaning in for a sniff


Such nice framing of views through doorways and arbors


Along one wall, a face fountain partially obscured by fig ivy (Ficus pumila) spouts water into a small pool.


Flowery border of canna, Celosia spicata, and salvia


More annual amaranth celosia (Celosia spicata), beloved by butterflies


Looking out the back door of the little stone house at an herb circle and greenhouse


And at the herb circle, looking back


A purple greenhouse with fish-scale shingles adds cottage charm.


More roses for sale, with ARE’s iconic vine-smothered windmill standing tall


White rose


The central area of the display gardens has sassy signage…


…and dry-loving agaves, yuccas, and other succulents in interesting displays, like this tiered potted arrangement.


Children and children-at-heart enjoy the Beatrix Potter Garden, a playful space framed by a low, purple picket fence…


…populated by pot people with spiky agave hairdos…


…taking baths in galvanized tubs.


A squirrel finial on the fence offers a friendly welcome.


There’s a bit of Wizard of Oz mixed in here too. I remember seeing Toto last time I was here. This time I noticed a witch just past a stand of Philippine violet — or maybe she’s leftover from Halloween?


A wavy-pruned hedge and mint-green table and chairs create an inviting scene.


Another view, with shade-loving purple oxalis (Oxalis triangularis) in the foreground


Yellow firecracker fern (Russelia equisetiformis ‘Lutea’) cascades from an old well.


Purple path


No Southern garden is complete without a bottle tree.


Moving toward an open lawn you see some of ARE’s event spaces — rose arbors, a gazebo, and a tin-roofed house — rentable for weddings and other events.


Another sky vine (Thunbergia grandiflora) in full bloom clambers along a trellis near the house.


This tropical-looking Asian vine is a showstopper in the fall.


Stopping to admire what I think is a white-flowering variety of Philippine violet (can anyone confirm?), I spotted a fuzzy bee hard at work.


Across the lawn, a picturesque red chapel adds its own fall hue to an autumnal border of cigar plant (Cuphea ‘David Verity’), ornamental grasses, white mistflower (Ageratina havanensis), and red roses.


This is where the speaking events are held.


Blazing orange cosmos adds more color around back.


Ask not for whom the bell tolls.


More fall loveliness


Here’s my mom helping me out at the book-selling table. It was so nice to meet everyone who stopped by to chat or buy a book. If you were there, thanks so much for coming!


And thanks also to Mike Shoup of the Antique Rose Emporium for having me back out to speak! If you’d like to get a signed copy of The Water-Saving Garden, I left a few with Mike to sell in the gift shop, so stop by soon.

And if you’d like to read more about ARE’s gardens — with lots more photos! — click here for my post (the first of 3) from the Fall Festival in 2013.

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

What’s hot in garden design — or about to be? I interviewed designers and retailers across the U.S. to find out! Natural dye gardens, hyperlocalism, dwarf shrubs, haute houseplants, sustainability tech, color blocking, and more — check out my 2017 Trends article for Garden Design and see if anything surprises you.

Do you review? Have you read my new book, The Water-Saving Garden? If you found it helpful or inspirational, please consider leaving a review — even just a sentence or two — on Amazon, Goodreads, or other sites. Online reviews are crucial in getting a book noticed. I really appreciate your help!

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

Farewell visit to James David’s Austin garden, part 2


A grand limestone staircase bisected by a rill leads from the back of the house to a large pond in the lower garden.

Yesterday I showed you around the upper level of James David’s magnificent garden, which I visited in late March and which is currently for sale as the owners prepare to relocate to Santa Fe. Today let’s take the paths that lead down into the ravine behind the house and back up to the detached studio.


Behind the house a large cistern collects rainwater from the roof and seems to spill surplus water into a stone trough. In actuality, I think this must be an illusion because otherwise the water would soon run dry — even though our current rainy spring might suggest otherwise. I’d guess the rainwater is actually stored for use on Gary’s vegetable garden, visible in the background. This running faucet must be plumbed via a hidden pipe, creating the illusion that the cistern is the source of a long water passage through the back garden.


The water reappears a few steps below, spilling from a hidden stone channel into a small, stone-edged pool.


A wider view shows glossy holly ferns (Cyrtomium falcatum) doing a good air plant impression by sprouting from gaps in the wall.


A collection of fossils and pretty stones adorns a corner of the wall.


From the pool, water flows below ground into a simple metal pipe, which spills into a stone trough that’s been repaired with board-formed concrete. A second, smaller trough accepts an overflow stream. These troughs, with their musical splashing, sit next to the dining patio shown yesterday.


Underground the water goes again, and then it reappears at the top of the most dramatic feature of the garden: a grand limestone staircase bisected by a rill that runs a trickle of water all the way to the rectangular pond at the bottom of the stair. Behind the pond, an off-center stone stair leads up to a lap pool. Another path leads to a large greenhouse.


Here’s the view from behind the pond, looking back at the grand staircase and the house. ‘Will Fleming’ yaupon hollies once lined each side of the stair, creating a vertical screen, but these days it’s edged with boxwood.


Detouring to the right, let’s follow a path that leads up the side of the garden, past a low retaining wall beautifully made of various materials, including urbanite (broken concrete) on top.


Variegated agaves behind the wall


And a chicken coop!


Turning around, let’s head back down to the lower garden. Ahead is the large pond, and beyond that are pollarded Mexican sycamores.


Hardscape in this garden is masterfully crafted and enticing. You want to explore every curving stair, cross every bridge, investigate every long path framed by arbors and shrubs. But there’s also an element of danger to many of the walks, which universally lack handrails. They imply, you will be mindful of where you put your feet. I find it delightfully adventurous. But you definitely don’t want to get so distracted by the plants or the views that you fall backwards off a wall.


Now we’ve found the swimming pool, which sits well above the pond. Flowering shrubs and trees screen one side…


…while the other is open and offers a lovely view of the pond garden.


I was smitten by this flowering tree at the end of the pool: jack tree (Sinojackia xylocarpa), which James said he got from Forestfarm online nursery. They don’t seem to have it in stock now, but I see that it’s also grown by Texas grower Greenleaf.


The flowers dangle like white parachutes, reminiscent of those on white potato vine.


Stone stairs by the greenhouse are used to display potted agaves and other succulents.


Beautiful, but mind your ankles.


They are such camera hogs. They know they look good from every angle.


Potted cacti line a long limestone shelf along the front of the greenhouse.


A few tropicals, like this clivia, add colorful flowers to the mix.


Looking back toward the house you see the grand staircase and, closer, a wooden bridge that crosses a dry stream and wet-weather garden. The Mexican sycamores (Platanus mexicana) are planted in a grid, their pollarded canopies creating an umbrella effect.


Crossing the bridge, which is lined on one side with more potted plants, you get another view of the sycamores and their white and green mottled trunks.


A stone stair by the greenhouse descends to the dry creek.


I’m sure the dry creek has seen a lot of action this spring.


On the left, another view of the pond


Pulling back a little, you can appreciate the lushness of the garden, with purple flowers of Texas mountain laurel (Sophora secundiflora) in the foreground. Now imagine that we’ve crossed the wooden bridge again, walked behind the greenhouse, and followed a decomposed-granite path that leads to the right…


…and to the newest section of the garden: a semi-wild meadow garden behind the award-winning concrete studio. A ruler-straight path leads the eye and foot between stone pedestals topped with cornucopia-like urns, across a metal bridge, and up some steps to a concrete wall that supports a contemporary pond (shown below). Notice the concrete balcony jutting out from the topmost window? I’ll share a picture from that vantage point in a moment.


A topiaried oak. James told me he’s not afraid to try topiary on any kind of plant.


Looking back, I find this view through the columns very romantic.


I liked this grassy, white-flowered plant, whose fleshy leaves reminded me of bulbine, but I can’t remember the name. Update: It’s St. Bernard’s lily (Anthericum liliago). Thanks, Diana, for the ID! Update 4/16: It’s actually Asphodelus fistulosus (see discussion in comments, below).


Asphodelus fistulosus, or onionweed


Native red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) was blooming too.


As you climb the stairs up to the studio, you come to an asymmetrical, concrete-edged pond. Here’s an overhead view from the studio balcony. What looks like a metal bridge from this angle…


…is actually a gabion wall that supports a metal pipe spilling water into the pond. A dry garden planted with Argentine saguaro and other xeric plants offers a contrast between wet and dry.


Koi live in the pond and came running swimming when Gary pulled out the fish food.


The view across the gabion wall and pond to the cornucopia urns and meadow garden


To the left of the pond, the dry garden continues, with Yucca rostrata and a pruned-up Chinese photinia (Photinia serrulata), if I recall correctly. James is a big fan of this photinia, though not of the overused red-tip variety.


More steps lead up to the studio. This is the view from the walk connecting studio and house.


The studio


A porch at the studio door holds a trio of potted plants. I like the circle motif of the tabletops and rear pot.


Ice plant in vivid bloom


James and Gary’s dog Alice made herself comfortable on the porch’s wooden bench.


I somehow neglected to take a photo of James while he was showing me around. But I’m grateful to him and to Gary for inviting me into their beautiful home and garden again. Visiting their garden has always been the highlight of the Open Days tour, and I’ll miss it. But who knows — maybe it’ll be on tour again one day with new owners at the helm. I hope so, and I’m sure James and Gary do too. Until then, I wish them bon voyage and happy garden-making in their new home.

For a look back at part 1 of my garden visit, click here.

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

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