Wildflower Center pulls plug on spring garden tour; fall tours land on same date

First the bad news for avid attendees of Austin garden tours: our city has lost one of its best-known and highly regarded garden tours, the annual springtime Gardens on Tour, which benefits the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. According to Director of Horticulture Andrea DeLong-Amaya, the tour, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last May, has folded for a couple of reasons: organizing it took too much time for a staff stretched thin, and it wasn’t bringing in enough money to make it worth the effort. The latter reason troubles me because I’ve always thought Austin to be very supportive of its gardening community, and I worry that this indicates a lack of interest. Could that really be the case in a city that keeps a number of top-notch independent nurseries in business, is the birthplace of the award-winning, long-running PBS TV show Central Texas Gardener, and has hatched more garden blogs than any other city in the world?

But now for the good news — sort of. Two well-known garden tours will be held in Austin this fall. Unfortunately they will be held on the exact same day, October 17. The doubling up means I’ll have to miss one of them because (drum roll) my own garden will be open that day on tour! The Travis County Master Gardeners Association invited me last fall to be on their Inside Austin Gardens Tour — “a tour for gardeners, by gardeners” — which is held every 18 months, varying between spring and fall. I was delighted to accept, and a bit nervous because I’ve never participated in a garden tour before. Wish me luck!

After a three-year hiatus, the Austin Open Days tour benefiting the Garden Conservancy will be back too, which is happy news for eager tour-goers, although I do wish it were scheduled for a different date. Open Days is Austin’s toniest garden tour, with an assortment of high-end designer gardens, and I’ll be sorry to miss it.

But enough whining. It’s wonderful to have two tours even happening. I’ve attended all three of these garden tours for nearly a decade, excited to visit some of the most interesting gardens in Austin, meet a tribe of fellow garden lovers, and learn much about design from each garden on tour. It’s truly a privilege to be invited into someone’s personal garden. It takes months of primping and fluffing to get a garden ready for tour, a willingness to open a personal space to the public, an acceptance that there may be critiques from opinionated visitors and, yes, bloggers, and, perhaps most important, a desire to share one’s creation with others. And then there’s all the work required by volunteer organizers and tour-day helpers! I know I’ve taken Austin’s many tours for granted over the years, but our loss of Gardens on Tour will, I hope, remind me to be especially grateful each time I buy a ticket and hop in the car on tour day.

After all, tours are an essential part of Austin’s vibrant gardening culture. They’re inspirational, showing what can be accomplished in a difficult gardening climate, perhaps with a high-end budget but also with just a lot of sweat equity and patience from the homeowner. They’re educational, teaching new gardeners what grows well here and giving experienced gardeners new ways of looking at familiar plants, not to mention a wealth of design ideas. Most of all, they give us glimpses of beauty, of someone’s personal eden, of well-designed and lovingly tended spaces that reflect the unique challenges of the site and tastes of the owner. For those who love plants and design, there’s nothing better than exploring a personality infused, beautiful garden. Neither books nor blogs can ever take the place of seeing a garden in person, walking its paths, touching its plants, and absorbing the complexity of the whole space.

And so as I mourn Austin’s loss of Gardens on Tour, I offer gratitude for the various tours we still have — and my thanks to all the hard-working people who make them happen. And if you’re interested in seeing my garden in real life I hope you’ll mark your calendar for Saturday, October 17, and attend the Inside Austin Gardens tour to see what one overscheduled but avid gardener has done with her little patch of Austin.

Photos are from various Austin tours. From top, Kathy Cove Garden; garden of Christine Ten Eyck; East Side Patch garden of Philip Leveridge; garden of Ann and Robin Matthews; garden of Carolyn and Michael Williams.

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

Leaf peeping and Living a Great Story at Lady Bird Lake

After sightseeing and shopping on vibrant South Congress Avenue on Sunday, yesterday my dad and stepmother joined me for a post-lunch, 3-mile walk around Lady Bird Lake. Rusty orange bald cypress, golden cedar elm, and fiery red crepe myrtles have set the shore ablaze. This is as good as it gets in Austin, folks, so if you can spare an hour or two, go! — don’t miss it.

Washed clean by a cold front that had slipped in overnight, the sky was a blue dome and the perfect backdrop to the hundreds of majestic bald cypresses lining the shore.

Barton Creek, where it flows into Lady Bird Lake, was looking a bit muddy — and very full — following the heavy rain on Saturday.

Turtles were sunbathing on fallen logs, as turtles do.

Native cedar elm (Ulmus crassifolia) is one of my favorite shade trees, partly for its beautiful and reliable fall color.

This year, right now, they are just spectacular.

Crepe myrtles, so ubiquitous in Austin that I almost don’t notice them in riotous bloom in the summer, are now on fire with red foliage, renewing my admiration.

Crossing the lake on the Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge, we enjoyed views of the trees and new condos popping up like mushrooms north of the river. I realize I’ve called this body of water both a lake and a river, but that’s what it is and how Austinites talk about it. The Colorado River was dammed decades ago for flood control, and the resulting constant-level lake, which still looks like a river and has a current, was called Town Lake until 2007, when it was renamed in honor of Lady Bird Johnson. We use it as a point of reference — is something north or south of the river? — and longtime residents often still call it Town Lake. Lady Bird Lake (and nearby Barton Springs, which feeds into the lake) is the heart of Austin.

A flock of the state bird of Texas is visible downtown (the crane — haha). Graffiti artists have been busy on the railroad trestle.

Exiting the Pfluger Bridge via the spiral ramp, you see a native-plant garden designed by Christine Ten Eyck (click for a tour of Ten Eyck’s personal garden). I like how she expanded the concrete sidewalk with a circle of decomposed granite surrounded by limestone-block benches. On a smaller scale, this would be a great treatment for a residential front walk.

Heading back now on the north side of the lake…

…I spotted the historic Lamar Boulevard Bridge through the trees.

More beautiful leaves

Arbor-shaded views beckoned us to stop and just look.

To our right, a duck was preparing for a swim. That water’s got to be getting chilly!

In a berry-laden possumhaw holly (Ilex decidua), a mockingbird — our true state bird — was feasting on them as if they were popcorn at the movies.

I hope all these healthy runners were appreciating the foliage and the views as much as we were on our leisurely stroll.

Native bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) lines the banks like cathedral columns.

Inspired by natural bald cypress allees, Austinite Tom Spencer planted a double line of bald cypress in his former garden. It was lovely.

Novice scullers were being coached on how to row. Look at that dog at the front of the coach’s boat — he appears very attentive, doesn’t he?

Other visitors were keeping the benches warm.

What a lovely spot for a chat.

Bald cypress and dwarf palmetto (Sabal minor). Though called dwarf, these native palmettos can still reach 10 feet tall. They are very slow growing, however.

Crossing the lake one last time under MoPac Expressway, I stopped to admire a gold, orange, and green tapestry — very 1970s, now I think about it.

Downtown buildings peek up behind the trees.

A swan and egret were enjoying this spot too.

Turning to face west, away from the city, I watched a paddleboarder work his way upstream. This is where I photographed slackliners balancing high above the water on another beautiful autumn day.

Days like this make you happy to be alive, living your own great story.

All material © 2006-2014 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Drive-By Gardens: South Congress Avenue in Austin

This drive-by is really a walk-by. I was on South Congress Avenue on Sunday afternoon, the center of the funky-hip Austin universe, enjoying a blue-sky, 80-degree day with my family. Fall, winter, and spring days like this are what sustain me through Austin’s broiling summers.

When my face was not tipped up to the mellow sunshine, I was simply trying to take in all the action on the street, which included picture-perfect views of the state capitol, a string band playing on the street corner, throngs of people strolling along the street, unique shops with doors flung open…

…and even a couple guys riding horses down the busy street. Where in the world did they ride in from? They tied up their horses at Doc’s and went in for a drink and later rode back up the street.

Lots of businesses along the street have containers full of agaves and other architectural plants, but some have enough space for actual gardens, like this eye-catching combo outside TOMS, a shoe store/coffee shop. A silver agave holds court with full-skirted Berkeley sedge cascading down the slope around it. Turk’s cap and a silver-white cenizo add height along the top of the slope. I don’t recognize the plant on the right, but is that basil at the bottom?

Across the street, at the minimalist-Zen Hotel San Jose, a hip boutique hotel…

…the surrounding gardens wow, especially as they are tucked into slivers of planting space along the sidewalk and parking area. Here giant hesperaloe’s sword-like leaves create drama above a waterfall of silver ponyfoot.

Streetside, mottled crepe myrtle trunks rise from grassy beds of Aztec grass and rain lily in bloom after Saturday’s downpour. I saw so much more on S. Congress and wish I’d taken more pictures…

…but I want to jump to nearby South Lamar for a moment and show you a new outdoor garden area at Mockingbird Domestics. Mockingbird has always carried a few pots and succulents, but now they’ve dedicated an outdoor patio to the garden, with furniture, mod steel chimineas, steel planters (tempting!), concrete pots…

…and a metal jackalope, which I fell in love with a little bit. This garden patio could be really awesome if they spruce it up and do the same enticing merchandising that they do inside. Maybe they’ll take some inspiration from my favorite L.A. garden shop, Potted, but with a Texas twist.

Back to South Congress, and this eye-catching mural on the side of TOMS’s shop. I want to give thanks to you, dear reader, for being here — for reading and commenting and making up this virtual gardening club that I’m so happy to be a part of. Happy Thanksgiving, y’all!

All material © 2006-2014 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.