The art-adorned, water-saving garden of Mireille Engel


Last week I had the pleasure of visiting a new garden, that of Mireille Engel, a French-speaking Swiss native turned Texan and longtime gardener, whose garden helper, Kathy Christian, introduced me and gave me a tour. Located in the Cuernavaca neighborhood and perched on the edge of the Hill Country, Mireille’s garden surrounds a horseshoe-shaped compound of two houses connected by a breezeway that she shares with her daughter and son-in-law, the architects who designed this unique home.


Sustainably constructed of straw bales, the stuccoed house is bisected by a stone buttress wall, which stretches into the front and back gardens. It was inspired partly by the architecture at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Kathy told me.


An arched opening at the base permits views through the wall and is filled, moat-like, with a pond that extends on either side. (See top photo for a side view.)


The lily-filled pond is fed by a tall, stacked-stone waterfall built into the uphill slope, attracting birds and other wildlife with its steady dripping. In the xeric beds along the slope, large agaves and ornamental grasses provide structure and movement.


Kathy explained that dozens of junipers (known locally as cedars) were recently removed from the front garden, and a new native-plant garden designed by Christine Ten Eyck is filling in. Where the junipers once crowded out everything else, now a diverse assortment of natives attracts pollinators and birds and was showing some late-spring color from wildflowers like pink evening primrose. The garden was supplied with an irrigation system to get it established, but the goal is for it to be self-sustaining in a few years.


If you could leap over the roof, you could follow the line of the buttress wall through the house and into the back garden, where it extends into the landscape with a gutter running down the center. It must be a delight to see water spilling down like a waterfall when it rains.


The collection of water is key to this green-built home’s design, actually. The metal roof slopes to the back of the house (pictured here), and gutters collect rainwater and send it via underground pipes to an enormous cistern behind the swimming pool, at the low end of the property. After being filtered and cleaned, the rainwater is reused for drinking, showering, and other indoor use. In fact, the home has no access to city water at all. All of its water is provided by rainwater collection and one small well. Considering there is a swimming pool to keep filled, that’s pretty impressive!


Behind the pool stretches a lovely Hill Country view. The rainwater-collection cistern keeps a low profile in the foreground, its concrete cover painted with a yin-yang design. I don’t remember how many gallons it holds, but it must be a lot. Overlooking the scene towers a female figure, a sculpture called “Rosetta Welcomes the Sun.”


Rosetta is one of several Bobby Bacon metal sculptures that Mireille has collected, and it’s monumental, around 20 feet tall.


Mireille delights in garden art, which is thoughtfully placed throughout the garden. I particularly like this oversized bouquet of metal-and-glass flowers alongside the house. Bluebonnets, ‘May Night’ salvia, and purple heart echo the blue glass of the flowers.


Mexican feathergrass tosses its blond tresses below the vase.


In the lush center of the garden, tough cottage favorites like iris, roses, and fruit trees mingle with natives like Anacacho orchid tree and square-bud primrose.


Grass paths wind through large planting beds.


Along the driveway, toothless sotol (Dasylirion longissimum) and prickly pear add architectural form and rarely, if ever, need watering.


Colorfully painted walls remind me of the Mediterranean or Mexico…


…giving the garden a hint of tropical retreat.


A terracotta goat pot and yellow wall say Mexico.


But oil rig wall art says Texas!


Metal roadrunner, with a clay lizard in its beak


I adore this spotted manfreda…


…and this creamy rose…


…and the raspberry paint on Mireille’s porch wall.


But the pièce de résistance is her yellow-tiled outdoor shower, complete with a jewel-toned ceramic lizard, whose open jaws helpfully hold the soap!


It’s the creation of ceramist Claudia Reese, a local artist whose work Mireille collects.


What a delightful and unique garden to explore, filled with art, interesting architecture, and native and waterwise plants. My thanks to Mireille for sharing it with me and to Kathy for the introduction and the tour!

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

Going waterwise at Rollingwood City Hall


Putting their money where their mouth is, more and more cities that urge citizens to reduce their water usage are replacing thirsty lawns around courthouses and city halls with xeric landscaping. Rollingwood, a tiny city of around 500 homes just three miles from downtown and surrounded by greater Austin, is setting a fine example with its new City Hall Waterwise Garden at 403 Nixon Drive, installed in autumn 2013.


Not every city has the wherewithal to get the famous Ogdens — part-time Austin residents Scott Ogden and Lauren Springer Ogden of Plant-Driven Design — to design it, however. Hired by the city, which received $16,000 in donations from residents (about half of the total design and installation cost, according to the Statesman), the Ogdens collaborated with local designer Patrick Kirwin to create a low-water, no-lawn, deer-resistant garden that offers a beautiful example to neighbors trying to cut back on their own water use.


In this era of native-plant appreciation and, sometimes, rigidity, it’s worth noting that the garden is not strictly a native-plant garden. The Ogdens use many natives in their designs, but they are first and foremost plant lovers who use plants from all over the world. The key to using non-natives successfully, as Scott has explained, is to choose plants from climates that are similar to our own. Well-adapted plants add diversity, which is especially welcome in gardens overrun with deer (which often results in a severely restricted plant palette) and to those who crave a little variety in plant choice.


TexasDeb, a Rollingwood resident and blogger at Austin Agrodolce, alerted me to the new garden about a year ago and suggested I visit. Last week, when the bluebonnets were in full bloom, I stopped by and enjoyed a leisurely stroll through the spring-blooming garden. While still quite young, the garden is filling in quickly and should be showy this fall with ‘Pink Flamingos’ muhly and other grasses, salvias, lantana, mistflower, and beautyberry.


The garden harvests rainwater not just with cisterns connected to gutters but with earth-sculpting. A wide, shallow basin in front of the galvanized cistern collects excess water and holds it, giving it time to soak into the soil. Plants that appreciate a little extra water and can handle seasonal flooding are planted in the basin, like grasses, crinum lily, and Mexican summersweet (Clethra pringlei). Dry-loving plants are kept outside of the basin or on the fast-draining rim.


The entire garden is mulched with angular gravel, which wildflowers like poppy love as much as agaves.


Chopped limestone edging sets off the main gravel path, but for secondary paths the gravel flows sans edging from beds to paths, for a unified look. Plant density, subtle berming, and extra-wide paths help people see where they should be walking and keeps them out of the plants.


This seating spiral — a unique take on a council ring — is a cool feature.


Equal parts seating, garden architecture, and art, it’s constructed simply of large limestone blocks, with corners filled with cairns of stacked, flat stones. Five ‘Green Gem’ boxwood balls add evergreen rhythm around the perimeter.


A “lawn” of ‘Scott’s Turf’ sedge (Carex retroflexa), which you can find at Barton Springs Nursery, is filling in under the shade of a large live oak.


The sunny side was abloom, during my visit, with native and adapted wildflowers, which add fast-growing color amid slower but ultimately architectural plants like agave, sotol, yucca, prickly pear, and barrel cactus.


I think this is Agave salmiana, with gray globemallow and Texas bluebonnets.


‘Whale’s Tongue’ agave (A. ovatifolia) and bluebonnets — a pretty combo


Wildflower, cactus, and succulent tapestry


Blues, purples, and silvers keep the spring color scheme on the cool side.


Datura and…what is this purple-flowering perennial?


Some sort of salvia, I’d guess


The bees liked it.


Byzantine gladiolus


Cute cacti


A pink-flowering bauhinia blooms by one of the two large cisterns.


On a rocky hillside, Dioon angustifolium adds a prehistoric vibe.


Pink oxalis — perhaps not planted; it grows wild in my garden — flowers at the dioons’ feet.


Feathery leaves of dioon


From the top of the steps up the hillside, you get a nice view of the sunny side of the garden. Yes, that’s the city hall building — a former residential house, from the looks of it.


Anacacho orchid tree, supported (or protected from deer antlering) by a tepee of cedar posts


Congratulations to the residents of Rollingwood for funding and otherwise supporting the creation of this beautiful water-saving garden. What a great example for other cities to follow.

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

Meadows abloom and a swingin’ arboretum at the Wildflower Center


For my third and final post about last Saturday’s visit to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, I’ll lead with the state flower and inducer of innumerable spring photo ops: the Texas bluebonnet (Lupinus texensis), pictured here with a smattering of Indian paintbrush (Castilleja indivisa).


Flower peeping is what visitors were there for (if they weren’t at the plant sale), and there was plenty of it.


Prairie penstemon (Penstemon cobaea), I think


People atop the cistern tower were enjoying a bird’s-eye view of the wildflower meadow. An aqueduct funnels runoff from a nearby rooftop into the center of the tower, which contains a water storage tank.


The upper part of the spiraling stair is on the outside of the tower, pictured here. The lower stair is inside the tower. A landing halfway up offers a view down into the water cistern. It’s pretty cool!


Administrative buildings and surrounding garden


Atop one of the walls is a planting niche containing a sweet combo of bluebonnets and four-nerve daisy (Tetraneuris scaposa).


Moving on to the relatively new Arboretum, I stopped to admire a silvery-trunked Texas persimmon (Diospyros texana) underplanted with wiry Texas nolina (Nolina texana) in bloom.


More bluebonnets!


On the longer loop trail, you eventually come to a grove of live oaks, from whose branches hang a dozen or more swings, all kinds, from classic board seats (I had a swing here)…


…to seats with safety straps for those who need a little extra help…


…to single and love-seat swinging chairs (I swung here too). There are even a few disk-style rope swings. Now tell me, who could resist stopping for a swing under the oaks?


When they aren’t supplying fun, the Arboretum’s trees offer writhing, spiraling drama…


…or simply a shady resting spot.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this 3-part spring visit to the Wildflower Center. For a look back at the blossoming Family Garden, click here.

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