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.

Steel walls and soft grasses in travel-influenced Mirador Garden


A week ago I enjoyed the opportunity to photograph another of landscape architect Curt Arnette‘s gardens. Frothy, rose-colored clouds of Gulf muhly, tawny spikes of Lindheimer muhly, and a chartreuse Habiturf lawn wrap the large front garden in a cozy quilt of softness that counterbalances the flat planes and sharp angles of this contemporary Southwest Austin home.


Even at curbside, you know this garden is going to be big on ornamental grasses. No stiffly pruned topiary shrubs here, and definitely no overused, faux-Tuscan spires of Italian cypress.


Instead, native grasses grouped in contemporary blocks of color and texture keep the garden organized, even as it blends into the surrounding landscape.


But the big surprise in the front garden is a tiered arrangement of rusty steel walls that comes into view as you enter the driveway. Inspired by the adventurous homeowner, who had admired a similarly terraced garden on her world travels, Curt’s design replaced an existing stone retaining wall with slim panels of steel that trace the contours of the sloping lot.


Native and adapted dryland plants fill the terraces and broad ramps that provide gardening access.


At one end, bristling heads of Yucca rostrata shimmer atop a wedding-cake tier of steel curves.


From the house, it’s a dramatic amphitheater filled with an audience of native and adopted Texans.


The Habiturf lawn, which carpets the slope from the steel walls down to the driveway, is the first residential use I’ve seen in person. I like its tufted, shaggy texture. An ecological lawn developed by the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Habiturf is a low-mow, low-water alternative for the U.S. Southwest and Southern Plains.


The Habiturf lawn is allowed to spread naturalistically under and around yuccas, ornamental grasses, and other plants rather than being kept separate, which must make mowing a challenge. But then again, Habiturf rarely needs mowing. Curt told me that native wildflowers are seeded in the lawn for a meadowy spring display.


A line of native Lindheimer muhly grasses edges the driveway and glows against the red steel.


Gulf muhly and blue grama grasses catch the light atop a retaining wall next to the house.


Every view of the front of the house is softened by grasses, including this scrim of Lindheimer muhly.


At the front gate, a raised bed of agave and prostrate rosemary greets you. I didn’t enter here, however…


…but walked down the driveway to another gate set between head-high steel planter boxes.


These are filled with gopher plant, red yucca, and other highly drought-tolerant plants. The blocky walls create privacy for the courtyard garden within.


Fencing panels between the boxes admit light and frame views.


Another fence panel, this one in a stone wall along the driveway, offers a view of a see-through outdoor fireplace.


Entering the courtyard garden, you see a guest house or studio overlooking a board-formed concrete trough.


This rectangular, negative-edge pool is the focal point of a raised-bed vegetable and cutting garden.


It’s a spectacular water feature that reminds me of a similar one in Christine Ten Eyck’s courtyard garden (click and scroll for pics).


At the corner of the guest house/studio, rainwater is collected and stored in a silo-like cistern, which must be handy for watering the raised beds.


Roses, iris, and zinnias give this space a cheery, casual vibe, but it steers clear of cottage style with an open layout and the precise lines of the steel-edged beds.


Monarchs were nectaring on zinnias this morning, making a temporary, red-orange color echo.


A wider courtyard view


It’s not all edibles and cutting flowers in the courtyard. This planter contains succulents and spiny dyckias.


An inside view of one of the steel planter walls that enclose this garden


There are a lot of elevation changes here, bridged by a white, stone path that appears to float over wooden decking and an L-shaped dry stream that cuts through the courtyard.


The path leads like a conveyor belt to the sheltered front door. Large windows admit views of the garden to those inside.


Looking back from the entry, you enjoy this view of the courtyard garden, which, like the garden out front, is terraced with steel retaining walls. Frothy blue Russian sage fills one terrace; dwarf pomegranates underplanted with silver ponyfoot fill another.


I’m not sure how you’d reach the pomegranates to harvest the fruit, but they make for a pretty view from above, especially against the icy-blue ponyfoot groundcover.


Along one side of the house, where runoff from the neighbor’s uphill lot once eroded the slope and threatened the foundation of the house, a naturalistic terraced dry stream safely moves water downhill and serves as a rugged path when the weather is dry.


The water flows out to a grassy meadow behind the house. You can see a hint of their nice view of the hills.


Midway along the narrow side yard, a garden porch offers pretty views from inside and a quiet place to sit. As in the courtyard, steel planters display color-blocks of plants, including variegated flax lily, ‘Blue Elf’ aloe, and canna.


Heading around back of the house, you climb back up from a meadowy lawn. Rusty steel retaining walls again set the tone and contrast with the creamy whites of the house and paths.


Here’s a wide view of the sunny rear terrace. The lawn here is drought-tolerant zoysia, which has been allowed to grow long.


At the edge of the terrace a steel-edged swimming pool reflects the sky, and a rain chain hanging from the eave adds a vertical punctuation mark. Walls of windows must make the garden and pool seem part of the interior.


The terrace offers views of a pergola-shaded dining area and surrounding garden that Curt designed.


Koosh-ball Yucca rostratas cluster near the entrance to the space, and creamy flowering lantana attracts butterflies.


As does blue mistflower, seen in the background.


The homeowner is training figs up the steel posts of the pergola to recreate a garden arbor she admired on her travels. It’ll be a leafy bower hung with figs in a few years.


Spotted manfreda and a blue-green ‘Whale’s Tongue’ agave add evergreen color and structure amid billowing white roses and blue mistflower.


Back up on the terrace, here’s a parting view of the framing hills, rounded yucca heads, meadow-lawn, and sky-reflecting pool.


My thanks to the homeowner for allowing me to share her lovely garden here, and to Curt for introducing me to another of his plant-centric garden designs. I hope you enjoyed the tour!

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

Hill Country style and a downtown view in the garden of Ruthie Burrus


I see a lot of gardens on public tours, which I enjoy tremendously. But being invited for a private tour of a new-to-me garden is a special treat, especially if the garden happens to belong to an avid gardener making the most of a beautiful, hilltop site overlooking downtown Austin. Such is the garden of Ruthie Burrus, a reader of Digging who recently dangled a fall garden visit in front of my nose, which I snapped up like a trout.


Ruthie’s home sits at the top of a long, sloping driveway, and you approach through a rustic, Hill Country-style garden. Large limestone stepping stones lead past a deep foundation bed filled with salvia and roses and accented by powder-blue ‘Whale’s Tongue’ agaves (A. ovatifolia).


A large trough filled with water sits at the curve of the path, aligned with the front door.


Water dribbles down one corner of the trough onto a holey piece of limestone, making a hollow trickling sound, and then disappears into an underground basin to be recirculated. Maidenhair and other ferns grow at the base of the trough, enjoying the moist environment.


The view across the entry garden. Pink roses add romance to the front walk.


A pair of ‘Little Ollie’ dwarf olives planted in — what else? — olive jars dresses up the front porch.


The entry garden is partially enclosed by a wing made to look like a Fredericksburg-style Sunday house. I didn’t know what a Sunday house was, so Ruthie explained that the German farmers who settled the Hill Country built small houses in town, which they stayed in when they came to town to attend church.


Stepping through the house and out onto the back porch, the skyline of Austin seems almost close enough to touch. Framed by live oaks and a lawn that leads to the edge of steep drop-off, the view is stunning — and what most people notice instead of the garden, Ruthie told me. It would be hard for any garden to compete with that view…


…and wisely Ruthie keeps the garden clean and simple here. A sleek swimming pool accessed by geometric pavers of Lueders limestone lets the view take center stage.


But off to the side, Ruthie cuts loose with a naturalistic, fall-blooming garden of Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha), fall aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium), and Gulf muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris). Concrete orbs with scooped-out seats make a charming contrast to the squares and rectangles of the paving and pool.


Ruthie likes snake herb (Dyschoriste linearis), which blooms purple in spring, as a groundcover amid the salvias and asters.


The long view across the pool reveals string lights, which I believe Ruthie told me were temporary for a party they were preparing for.


The view back toward the house — such an inviting space.


The modern arrangement of the limestone paving is interesting. The pavers at right seem to float off from the main patio.


The covered porch with a fireplace offers a cozy spot for a chilly day, although it was the opposite of chilly on the day I visited.


A second, open-sided porch offers an outdoor dining spot. Notice the rain chains coming off the corners of the roof?


They channel rainwater into underground pipes that feed two large cisterns on the property. Runoff is collected from various points along the roof of the house, allowing for a lot of rainwater storage.


Beautiful dining table and succulent planter


From the dining porch my favorite feature of the garden comes into view: Ruthie’s gardening haus.


Ruthie told me that it’s constructed from stones collected on the property during the house’s construction. She searched high and low to find the weathered metal roofing.


A ‘Peggy Martin’ rose, also known as the Katrina rose (please click to read its moving story if you don’t know it), arches over the doors. Lavender and santolina fill raised stone beds that line the walk.


The arched doors inspired the whole thing, Ruthie told me. She found the weathered blue doors in a local French antique shop and had the shed constructed around them.


It’s an utterly charming garden shed from every angle. Behind it sits the smaller of the two cisterns.


Looking back you see the dining porch and, at right, a pizza oven.


White ‘Ducher’ roses must glow during evening cookouts.


In front, planted in a large iron cauldron, is a Mr. Ripple agave surrounded by purple-blooming ice plant, a lovely combo.


A wooly opuntia in a textural container on a low wall just begs to be stroked. Did I? Yes, I did.


Ruthie has a flair for creating interesting containers.


Walking back around to the driveway you see the bigger cistern, which holds 10,000 gallons. A pump allows Ruthie to irrigate with it for as long as the water lasts.


Just over its shoulder is a sliver of a view of Lake Austin.


More salvias line the driveway, and an island bed’s dry soil is filled with agaves, giant hesperaloe, blackfoot daisy, Mexican feathergrass, and artemisia on one side…


…and with blue mistflower and what looks like ‘Green Goblet’ agave on the other.


Mexican bush sage was in full flower.


Native rock rose (Pavonia lasiopetala) was blooming too.


In a shady area I noticed this unusual combo: a red billbergia and grassy Texas nolina (Nolina texana).


As I made my way down the driveway and through the gate I had to take a parting photo of Ruthie’s colorful streetside garden, filled with lantana, native daisies, agave, and even cholla. It’s a wonderful welcome that tells any visitor that a Texas gardener lives here.

Thank you, Ruthie, for sharing your beautiful garden with me!

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