Visit to Quinta Mazatlan, birding, and Planta Nativa Festival


Texas is a big state, and living in the center of it means that whichever direction you travel, it’s a long drive to the state line. Last weekend, that meant a 5-hour drive to the Rio Grande Valley, where Texas shares a border with Mexico. My destination? Quinta Mazatlan, a city-owned nature and birding center on the grounds of a 1930s Spanish Revival-style estate, where I’d been invited to give the keynote presentation at the 2nd annual Planta Nativa Festival on October 22.


My husband and I drove down on Friday and arrived in time for an early-evening stroll around the grounds. I’d never been to the Valley before (which is not actually a valley but a flat river delta), and I imagined a lusher, rainier climate than Austin’s, with citrus orchards as far as the eye could see. However, while temps are nearly tropical (zone 9b), McAllen is surprisingly dry, with 22 inches of annual rainfall — 11 fewer inches than Austin receives.


The gardens at Quinta bristle with rustling palm leaves, including native Texas palmetto (Sabal mexicana) and imported L.A.-style Mexican fan palms (Washington robusta).


Cacti mingle easily with the palms and other xeric plants.


A dozen or so bronze animal sculptures appear throughout the gardens, including this bird-osaurus sort of creature on a twiggy rebar stand.


The actual birds we encountered were exotic to our eyes, with exotic-sounding names as well, like the chachalaca, a chicken-sized bird that darted around at ground level like a roadrunner, occasionally fluttering into low trees.


Tame and seemingly ready for a handout, the chachalaca may be the center’s mascot.


In an hour’s stroll, we saw many other species as well, including a beautiful yellow-bellied bird called the great kiskadee and circling flocks of whistling ducks, whose whistle-like cries could be heard overhead.


We sat for a while in this boulder-seat amphitheater facing a shallow pond, where birds came to drink as the sun went down.


We didn’t see any of these critters during our stroll, but we kept an eye out, just in case.


I’d love to see a horny toad one day, the state reptile of Texas.


Heron sculpture at a pond


Around back of the main house, we found a charming dance space under the outstretched limbs of a large tree. A wooden stage stands ready for the band, with string lights overhead to illuminate the sandy dance floor.


Entering a gated arch, with tall palms adding Hollywood glamor overhead…


…we found ourselves in a walled courtyard with pergola-shaded seating.


Cantera stone columns support a tile-and-beam ceiling. An in-ground water feature bisects part of the courtyard. This space would be filled with festival guests the following evening.


Bougainvillea clambering along a wall


Another gated arch led to a lawn set up with chairs for my talk. The next day, a big LED screen and stage were set up.


These Spanish-style gates are so inviting.


At the front of the house, an old stone fountain has been converted into a planter filled with succulents and bird of paradise, the latter appropriate for a center that’s a magnet for bird watchers during the big spring and fall migrations.


The Valley is on the migratory flight path for many species, making it a birder’s paradise at certain times of the year. Inside, a board shows what species are currently visiting the grounds.


I was also delighted to see several lovely displays of my books set up in the gift shop!


How nice!


Lots of wonderful gift items were displayed throughout the shop, and we didn’t leave empty handed.


Exploring the mansion, we found South Texas native plants lining the main hall, ready for the next day’s plant sale.


An agave tapestry


The next evening, I headed back to Quinta Mazatlan for a pre-talk book signing while festival attendees shopped for plants, bid on art…


…and enjoyed food and drinks under softly glowing strings lights in the courtyard.


Just before 8 pm, drummers moved out to the stage and began tapping a booty-moving rhythm.


It worked like a charm. People followed the music and took their seats. Some couldn’t resist the beat and were soon dancing in front of the stage.


It was the most festive group I’d ever spoken to, with a velvety sky overhead, an occasional bat swooping silently on the hunt, and a happy crowd interested in new ideas for gardening with less water, more native plants, more wildlife, and more beauty!


I met many interesting people passionate about the native ecology of South Texas while I was there, not least these women who organized Planta Nativa: Carol Goolsby, Environment Education Supervisor at Quinta; Colleen Hook, manager of Quinta Mazatlan; and Betty Perez, owner of Perez Ranch Nursery. (I neglected to get a photo during the festival, but I have this one from a speaking event in San Antonio last spring, which they attended.) Huge thanks to them and other members of the board for hosting me.


I came home with memories of a new and interesting place, new connections made, and even some beautiful homegrown limes — evidence of those citrus orchards I expected! — given to me by a lovely woman named Chris. Thanks to all who came!

Up next: Sightseeing along the Rio Grande, where a hand-pulled ferry still operates today.

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

I’ll be speaking at the Antique Rose Emporium Fall Festival 2016 in Brenham, Texas, on Saturday, November 5th, 1:30-2:30 pm. Come on out to the Antique Rose Emporium’s beautiful gardens for a day of speakers and fun! My talk, with plenty of eye-candy photos, is called “Hold the Hose! How to Design a Water-Saving Garden that Wows.” Meet me afterward at the book-signing table!

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.

Read This: The Bold Dry Garden


Our gardens tell our stories. The plants we choose, the features we create, the very layout is an autobiography of our passions, fancies, and personality. That’s why the most inspiring gardens spring from impassioned and artistic minds. The Ruth Bancroft Garden near San Francisco is a perfect example and the focus of a new book, The Bold Dry Garden: Lessons from The Ruth Bancroft Garden by Johanna Silver, garden editor at Sunset Magazine.


Photo of Ruth Bancroft by Marion Brenner

Ruth Bancroft, a would-be architect (her studies foiled by the stock-market crash that set off the Great Depression), farm wife, and mother of three, has always been, according to Silver, deeply curious about the world around her. In her younger years — today she’s a remarkable 108 years old and no longer able to actively garden, although she did participate in the recent book launch event at the garden — she collected many things but truly obsessed over, studied, and cataloged seashells and plants, specifically succulents and cactus, which she admired for their strangely beautiful forms, including vicious spines and thorns. “For Ruth,” writes Silver, “to collect is to know — to study, record, and preserve….[S]he built one of the most impressive collections of dry-adapted plants on the planet, all for the sake of knowing and marveling at the natural world.”


Photo by Marion Brenner

The Bold Dry Garden is simultaneously a tribute to that collection, with plant-caressing photographs by Marion Brenner; a lesson in how to grow a less water-dependent garden, at least in mild-winter California; and a biography of the garden’s creator. Silver tells the story of how Ruth started her now world-famous garden at age 63, planting a greenhouse-overflowing collection of succulents on three acres of overworked farmland that her husband offered to her on condition that they dig no new wells or tap into city water to keep her new garden watered. A rare freeze carried off most of the plants that first winter, which Ruth dispassionately cataloged. And then she started over, replanting with greenhouse cuttings and plants sourced from vendors and fellow collectors within driving distance, it being well before the days of internet searches and online ordering, and before succulents were anything more than a rare novelty in most nurseries.


Photo by Marion Brenner

While Ruth’s primary interest was not in design but in collecting — she liked to plant multiple varieties of particular species together for comparison purposes, Silver writes — her fascination with plants with bold forms gave rise to a garden that was eye-catching as well as a collector’s showcase. Agave, yucca, nolina, palm, prickly pear and other cactus — these spiky beauties combined with California natives in a rich tapestry of dry-garden drama, and eventually attracted the notice of fellow collectors, horticulturists, and landscape architects in the region, who came to learn from the garden.

One such visitor was Frank Cabot from New York, who, after visiting Ruth’s garden and wondering what would become of it after she could no longer care for it, established The Garden Conservancy in 1989 and made Ruth’s garden its first preservation project. In 1992 the garden was opened to the public for tours.


Photo by Marion Brenner

I visited The Ruth Bancroft Garden on a 100-degree day in 2013, during the San Francisco Garden Bloggers Fling. Despite the oppressive heat, the garden was a wonderland of spiky columns, starburst agaves and yuccas, spiny spheres, and Mickey Mouse-eared paddles. If you love dry-loving plants, you must make a pilgrimage to see it. If you think you don’t like cactus and succulent gardens (too empty and rocky?), its lushly planted aesthetic may well change your mind.

Whether you’re already a fan of Ruth’s garden or simply interested in dry-garden plants or intrigued by other people’s obsessions, you’ll enjoy The Bold Dry Garden. Perhaps it’ll kick off your own obsession with waterwise plants. At the very least, Ruth’s example will make you realize it’s never too late to dive deep into whatever inspires you and see where it takes you.

Photographs taken from The Bold Dry Garden © Copyright 2016 by Johanna Silver and The Ruth Bancroft Garden. All rights reserved. Published by Timber Press, Portland, OR. Used by permission of the publisher. Disclosure: Timber Press sent me a copy of The Bold Dry Garden for review. I reviewed it at my own discretion and without any compensation. This post, as with everything at Digging, is my own personal opinion.

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

Austinites and native-plant shoppers, I’ll be at the member’s day Fall Plant Sale at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center on Friday, October 14. I’ll be signing books from 1 to 3 pm in the Wild Ideas gift shop. Even if you’re not a member, of course you can still come on out and see the gardens and stop in at Wild Ideas. I hope to see you there!

South Texans, come see me at the 2nd annual Planta Nativa festival in McAllen, Texas, on Saturday, October 22. I’ll be delivering the keynote talk, “Local Heroes: Designing with Native Plants for Water-Saving Gardens,” that evening. Tickets are on sale at Quinta Mazatlan. I hope to see you there!

I’ll be speaking at the Antique Rose Emporium Fall Festival 2016 in Brenham, Texas, on Saturday, November 5th, 1:30-2:30 pm. Come on out to the Antique Rose Emporium’s beautiful gardens for a day of speakers and fun! My talk, with plenty of eye-candy photos, is called “Hold the Hose! How to Design a Water-Saving Garden that Wows.” Meet me afterward at the book-signing table!

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.

Bugs and butterflies at the Wildflower Center, part 2


Continuing our garden stroll through Austin’s Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center (here’s part 1 of my visit), let’s enter the Family Garden, where paving by the restrooms and shade pavilion is softened with rain gardens planted with water-appreciating native plants.


A rain garden, Texas-style, planted with mistflower, giant coneflower, dwarf palmetto, and bald cypress in front of the shade pavilion


A galvanized metal cistern collects water off the pavilion’s roof.


American beautyberry, Turk’s cap, and inland sea oats make a nice combo for shade or part-shade.


Dry-loving plants occupy sunnier beds, where steely blue agaves color-echo Arizona cypresses.


Along a decomposed-granite path, Arizona cypress makes a silvery blue and aromatic screen, with blue wheeler’s sotol, tawny Mexican feathergrass, and pink-flowering autumn sage in front.


Water is for play here too. After all, what kid doesn’t like to splash in or pour water from a bucket? Eight holey limestone boulders sit at “headwaters” of little creeks that merge into a larger stream. A hand pump stands nearby with a stack of plastic buckets that kids can fill with water and pour over rocks, or into the stream, or over their heads if they’re fast enough, before mom or dad can stop them.


Looking downstream


The stream flows toward a rock wall, over which a waterfall dramatically spills. Behind the waterfall is a cave you can explore, with an opening that invites views through the scrim of water.


A spiral wall, perfect for balancing on, is decorated with tile mosaics of the Fibonacci number sequence and native plants with spirals…


…like Turk’s cap.


Liatris leans against it. That’s probably Gulf muhly grass next to it.


Every plant I looked at closely seemed to have a buggy visitor enjoying it also, like this praying mantis.


And this grasshopper…


…which was hanging out in the Turk’s cap.


A wider view shows, in the background, a child-sized tunnel that leads to the waterfall.


Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), another native plant suitable for rain gardens, has fascinating spherical flowers.


Honeybees were enjoying them.


Check out that full pollen basket on her leg!


Nearby, a golden leadball tree (Leucaena retusa) sports spherical flowers of mustard yellow.


A maze with hedged walls of native plants has been slow to fill in. Dwarf yaupon hollies, for example, are notoriously slow growers.


For a “before” picture, here’s how it looked, newly planted, two years ago. Since then, some of the native hedge shrubs have been replaced with different, faster-growing options. The inner circle of cenizo is now planted with Carolina jessamine vine (I think) trained on sandwiched trellises of wire fencing. Scroll back up one picture for another look.


A hedge of dwarf Barbados cherry has filled out nicely!


Squatting at the center of the maze, a fun frog sculpture with glassy eyes…


…offers an opportunity for a reflected selfie.


The big Habiturf play lawn was empty except for a coyote sculpture on this cloudy morning.


Looking across a mass of goldenrod, here’s the view from the other side.


Mistflower in full bloom is clearly irresistible to queen butterflies.


Lovely even with a tattered wing


That’s all for now. For a look back at Part 1 of my visit, click here.

By the way, I’ll be at the Wildflower Center’s member’s day Fall Plant Sale on Friday, October 14. I’ll be signing books from 1 to 3 pm in the Wild Ideas gift shop. Even if you’re not a member, of course you can still come on out and see the gardens and stop in at Wild Ideas. I hope to see you there!

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.
_______________________

Digging Deeper: News and Upcoming Events

South Texans, come see me at the 2nd annual Planta Nativa festival in McAllen, Texas, on Saturday, October 22. I’ll be delivering the keynote talk, “Local Heroes: Designing with Native Plants for Water-Saving Gardens,” that evening. Tickets are on sale at Quinta Mazatlan. I hope to see you there!

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.

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