Zilker Botanical Garden Conservancy created to revitalize Austin’s botanical garden


For 23 years I’ve been a regular visitor at Zilker Botanical Garden, strolling its paths, picking my way across the Japanese garden’s moon bridge, watching the prehistoric garden grow into maturity. My children had a blast exploring its trails when they were younger, and I’ve enjoyed witnessing the garden’s seasonal changes.

One thing I haven’t enjoyed, though, is seeing Zilker Garden decline due to understaffing and budget cuts by the City of Austin, which operates the garden through its parks department.


In recent years I’ve noticed that limestone paths are crumbling, streams have run dry and ponds have sprung leaks, and planting beds seem a little forlorn (with the exception of the always impeccable Hartman Prehistoric Garden). Despite the best efforts of volunteers who help with garden maintenance and garden club members who work hard to fundraise for the garden, Zilker Botanical Garden has lost its shine.

It’s painful to say this about a place that I love, but Zilker Garden is not so much a botanical garden as an urban park with some pretty plants and a great deal of history that’s worth preserving (especially the Taniguchi Japanese Garden). And that’s a huge shame since Zilker Garden, located in Zilker Park with a view of downtown, has so much potential to wow visitors and give residents a place to delight in a truly beautiful garden in the urban heart of Austin.


Cat Newlands, executive director of Zilker Botanical Garden Conservancy. Photo courtesy of Cat Newlands.

Happily, that transformation is now underway thanks to the efforts of Zilker Botanical Garden Conservancy, which was established in 2015 to improve ZBG through fundraising, physical improvements, program development, and transitioning day-to-day operations from Austin Parks and Recreation Department to the conservancy. Nine months ago, Austinite Cat Newlands was hired to head the conservancy. I sat down with her a few weeks ago to talk about the conservancy’s plans for Zilker Garden and how they’ll get there. Here is our interview, edited for brevity and style.

Pam Penick: What is Zilker Botanical Garden Conservancy working on right now?

Cat Newlands: Raising money and visibility for the garden is our top priority. The conservancy has a new website to manage donations. We’ll begin taking control of tasks currently being run by Austin Area Garden Council (AAGC) or City of Austin Parks and Rec. So we’ll begin absorbing the gift shop and garden festival from AAGC and then gate and admissions and event scheduling from Parks and Rec. Later we’ll take on full management of the grounds. We’re planning for a robust public-private partnership with the city, where we’ll lease the land for something like 30 years with two 30-year extensions, similar to the Waller Creek Conservancy. Over time all the garden will be under the conservancy’s management.

PP: What is the Austin Area Garden Council (AAGC), and how does it fit with the conservancy’s efforts?

CN: AAGC is a council of 32 garden clubs, which was formed in 1955. They’ve always had fundraising to develop the garden, like the annual Zilker Garden Festival, and they built the Zilker Garden clubhouse in partnership with the city. They run the gift shop. We’ll keep them operating as a nonprofit, and hopefully their focus can shift to advocacy for the garden clubs and growing their membership base, which has declined. The conservancy was born in partnership with AAGC people who were dedicated to seeing the garden come back to life and with city parks staff who say, “We have this gem, and we just can’t keep up.”

Zilker is still a very serene and green place in the heart of the city, but it can be so much more.

PP: Is there any resistance at the AAGC to the conservancy taking over fundraising and management of the garden?

CN: In theory, everybody’s on board. To be fair, the 1,000 to 1,500 members of the AAGC clubs are a little nervous about what they might be seeing next and what their role will be, and what kind of changes this will mean for them. But most are really open to it. And they were very supportive with an end-of-year campaign. They showed up at about 7 times our goal.

PP: What will the master plan for ZBG look like?

CN: We’d like to see an expansion of the children’s and edible gardens. We’d like more mixed plantings and themed areas rather than single-plant display beds. We might move some of the smaller beds and gardens — the daylily garden and iris garden — but mostly we’ll extend into the undeveloped areas of the garden. We’ll do request-for-proposals to have a design firm develop the first phase of our master plan. The city is supporting that expense in part.

We should have a completed master plan within the next 3 years. We’re going to focus significantly more on the hardscape than on what goes in each garden — for example, making sure we have an event space and a wedding venue. Other botanical gardens have planted first and then had to go back and redo their master plan [once they realized they needed spaces they didn’t plan for].

PP: As ZBG evolves, what will differentiate it from Austin’s other major public garden, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center?

CN: We’re more like a zoo in that we can display exotic plants simply because they can grow here. [The Wildflower Center grows only plants native to Texas.] We’re not in competition with each other. You’re not going to go to the Wildflower Center and see a Japanese Garden, for example.

PP: What does ZBG’s staffing look like these days?

CN: The city has brought in Cindy Klemmer to manage the garden and preserves. She comes from San Antonio Botanical Garden and has a long history working at botanical gardens across the country, including at Longwood. Her vision for ZBG is a botanical garden.

We have 6 people on staff on garden maintenance, which is below the national average. The parks department readily admits that ZBG is neglected, as are all of Austin’s parks, because their dollars do not stretch as far as they need to. We also don’t have as many volunteers as we used to. The number of volunteers from the garden clubs has drastically decreased. I think a lot of that has to do with an aging membership. The clubs struggle to get new, younger members. But the parks department has done a good job of finding groups that are willing to volunteer and do work hours in the garden. We’ve had volunteers from local tech companies, for example.

PP: As the conservancy takes on garden operations, will you offer membership?

CN: Yes, we will eventually offer membership. We’re trying to figure out how to do it with the city. It will be a lot easier if we wait until we have control of the gate [admissions]. The city is incredibly supportive. Mayor Steve Adler is coming to our Starlight Social and doing the ask of the group [for fundraising].

PP: What is the Starlight Social?

CN: Starlight Social is our first big conservancy-hosted event. It’s a “we’re here” event. We’ll introduce attendees to the work we’ve done and what we’re trying to accomplish. There’s a lot of opportunity for volunteering, fundraising, sponsoring things.

We’re going to showcase the garden’s streambed repair. There was a large leak in the stream between the Japanese garden and the rose garden, and we did a full repair in addition to upgrading the landscaping around it and the water plants that are in it. Environmental Survey Consulting worked on it, and the plants were donated by Taniguchi Architects. (Owner Evan Taniguchi is the grandson of Isamu Taniguchi, the founder and designer of the Japanese Garden. He’s also on the conservancy board.) We’ve also added mixed plantings to the rose garden and have almost doubled the size of the oak grove, our event space. The Starlite Social will be held in the oak grove.


CN: Tickets cost $100, but 100% of ticket sales will go into improvements in the garden. We’ll also have a small silent auction to raise funds. But the primary purpose is to introduce ourselves to people we hope will want to continue to be involved with us.

PP: What is your background?

CN: I’ve spent 20-something years in nonprofits. I came here from Skillpoint Alliance, which does workforce development. I’m from Austin but spent 17 years in the Seattle/Tacoma area. The work attracted me to Zilker Botanical Garden. I came here as a kid. For me it was an opportunity to be part of a startup and be part of an Austin entity.

PP: Do you like to garden?

CN: I’m not a gardener. I’m not good at gardening. But I think it’s been beneficial to have someone who’s not a gardener come in. My perspective is what makes sense for the business.


Starlight Social graphic

My thanks to Cat for her time in talking with me. I’ll be cheering on the conservancy as it works on raising Zilker Garden’s profile and transforming it into the downtown gem it’s meant to be.

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

Spring stroll at the Wildflower Center


After speaking at the Native Plant Society of Texas Spring Symposium, held at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center last Saturday (and a big thank-you to the organizers and wonderful audience members!), I strolled the gardens with my dad, who was visiting from North Carolina. The early spring show is underway, with Mexican plums and Texas redbuds playing a starring role this week.


You always know when a Mexican plum (Prunus mexicana) is blooming because it scents the air with a spicy fragrance, attracting bees and other pollinators.


I miss this cotton-flowered native tree, which I used to grow in my old garden. I like the underplanting of charming golden groundsel too.


A closer look at the golden groundsel (Packera obovata) — like drops of sunshine.


Nearby, the Family Garden was pretty quiet, although a few adults were exploring the play features…


…like the stumpery, where big tree trunks offer balance-beam fun. Bundled branches stand like a chorus line of winter-bare trees.


Sweet-scented Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens) climbs a trellis on a limestone wall.


Its golden trumpets glow against a blue sky.


Heading toward the observation tower, I spotted a sword-leaved Harvard agave (Agave havardiana) sending up a bloom spike resembling an oversized asparagus spear.


Dad and I climbed the tower and admired its spiraling stone top from Robb’s Roost, a small rooftop garden halfway up.


We were rewarded with a lovely view of native coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) in bloom.


A wider view reveals the handsome, rusty-steel trellis it’s growing on.


Heading back into the tower, here’s a peek at the domed brick roof.


Throughout the garden, Texas mountain laurel (Sophora secundiflora), our state’s most stunning, spring-blooming tree, is still in glorious bloom, but our unseasonable heat is quickly fading the flowers. Go enjoy some deep whiffs of grape Kool-Aid fragrance now, while you can.


I did!


Last year’s faded foliage, like cinnamon-colored bushy bluestem grasses (Andropogon glomeratus), still stand. But spring blossoms of Mexican plum and other plants are bringing spring freshness back to the garden.

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

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.

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.

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