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.

Mosaic wall artfully, joyfully shares a neighborhood’s history

Have you ever stopped to look — really look — at a public work of art that you’ve passed dozens of times with only a passing glance or quickly forgotten curiosity? I did last week, and it was a magical experience to discover the beauty and positive community spirit of the Wall of Welcome in the Crestview/Brentwood neighborhood of central Austin.

Artist and neighborhood resident Jean Graham dreamed up, in 2003, the idea to make a community art project out of an existing, 120-foot-long wall at Crestview Shopping Center along Woodrow Avenue. She presented the idea to the neighborhood residents, who enthusiastically responded by throwing an annual fundraising festival and creating a nonprofit organization to support the project.

For the next 5 years, Jean created mosaic scenes to illustrate 50 years of the neighborhood’s history: its treeless, cotton-field beginnings, modest ranch homes with new-planted trees, neighborhood schools and iconic local businesses, and the people who’ve populated the neighborhood over the past half-century.

It’s an incredible work of art. Driving by you get a colorful flash of it — the wall is a block long, after all. But you must walk along the wall to really appreciate its beauty and meaning.

You want to run your hands across it to feel its depth and texture.

Here’s a section featuring neighborhood businesses, including an old drive-in theater, long gone; Top Notch drive-in hamburger joint, featured in Dazed and Confused and still open today; and the original Threadgill’s, a gas station-turned-restaurant with live music, where Janis Joplin got her start.


The detail in each scene is extraordinary, like the oater playing at the drive-in theater.

Brentwood Elementary School

A juggler on a unicycle pedals past a sycamore tree in which a flock of green parrots roosts. This scene reminds me of the day in Brentwood Park, years ago, when a parrot flock soared right over my head, an improbable flash of emerald green that momentarily transported me to a tropical rain forest. (Decades ago, pet monk parakeets escaped captivity and have naturalized in large colonies throughout Austin.)

Domino the Pig, a petting zoo escapee that once roamed neighborhood arroyos, is commemorated here wearing a crown of trees and houses representing the community.

Community participation was instrumental in creating the wall. Long-time residents shared photographs from the neighborhood’s early years, and Jean duplicated a number of those images in the mosaic. (Read more about the making of the Wall of Welcome here.)

Moon-like circles engraved with snippets of neighborhood history appear along the length of the wall, making it educational as well as celebratory and beautiful.

Floating in a lilac ribbon across Jean’s mosaic is a representation of the “violet crown,” the poetic name given by settlers to the soft haze on Austin’s western hills at sunset. (Austin is still known as the City of the Violet Crown.) The treeless former fields of Crestview and Brentwood afforded views of the hills and that famed violet crown — at least until the newly planted trees grew up.

Closer inspection reveals that the wall’s violet crown is composed of suns, flowers, animals, and ribbons, many etched with the names of residents and even brief quotes about the neighborhood. “Hollis Ponder is how I found out my dog likes beer!” reads one (I’d love to know the story behind this). “It’s like a little town in the middle of a big city!” reads another.

Running in a band across the top of the wall and clustered at the left end are square tiles made by neighborhood residents, and these are just as intriguing as the main design. Jean held workshops to teach neighbors how to make personalized tiles of their own designs. For a $25 donation, which helped fund the wall, residents could make their own tiles and see them become part of the neighborhood history memorialized on the wall.

They are snapshots of memory that convey a sense of place, showing gardens…


…children and dogs playing…

…roots growing deep…

…and gardeners tending plants and wildlife.

Beloved local businesses are represented too.

We ate here last night — yum!

I’ve bought many cans of paint at Arrow Paint.

My daughter likes that Bud, the family dog, got a spot on this tile, forever enjoying a ride in the car.

I like this one, a parade scene from Austin’s very 1st First Night celebration in 2005, because my family was part of that parade. We were one of the bread throwers at the back of the procession who tossed loaves of handmade bread into the crowd. Our invitation to join the parade came with a loaf of bread that mysteriously appeared on our doorstep one morning in December, and which we later learned was left for us by a friend in the neighborhood. The point of the bread is all still a bit mystifying, but we had a blast.

I’m also deeply curious about the tile at right. It looks like a killer armadillo taking down a cat in a Randall’s grocery parking lot. Have the police been called to break it up? If someone knows the story behind this tile, please share!

I’ve shown only a tiny sampling of the neighbor-made tiles, and each one is worthy of inspection as they weave a dynamic story of the neighborhood. I think you could walk the wall many times and see something new on each visit.

The residents of Crestview and Brentwood must surely love their Wall of Welcome. Imagine if each neighborhood in Austin had its own story commemorated through art. How wonderful that would be.

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