Drive-By Gardens: Grape Kool-Aid trees in northwest Austin


Can you detect a scent of grape Kool-Aid through your screen? I wouldn’t be surprised if you could. Austin’s enjoying a banner year for the fragrant, wisteria-like blooms of our native Texas mountain laurel (Sophora secundiflora).


This is the tree that helped sell me on Austin, as it was in full bloom when my husband and I first visited. In my 21 years of living here, I can’t recall the mountain laurels blooming better than they are right now. Each cascading purple flower cluster sends you right back to childhood with an intense, grapey fragrance.


And few gardens could have a more bounteous display than this Westover Hills home that I drive past every school day. This is a wider view of the scene pictured at top: a well-established, xeriscape garden composed of low-maintenance shrubs, trees, and palms, which shelter a small front lawn and provide privacy on a busy corner lot.


I’ve long admired the garden’s collection of mature natives like grassy Texas nolina (N. texana), currently in bloom; tall palmettos (Sabal texana) with cross-hatched trunks; and airy, silver cenizo (Leucophyllum frutescens).


A majestic screen of ‘Will Fleming’ yaupon hollies (Ilex vomitoria ‘Will Fleming’) is nice too. But wow, the mountain laurels! These are slow-growing trees, requiring years of patience and careful pruning to achieve this cascading form. So many people overprune Texas mountain laurel, leaving just a fluff of foliage on the top third of the tree. But I prefer a fuller look, and leaving some lower branches lets you get your nose in for a good sniff.


Just walking down the street gave me a pretty good whiff yesterday morning. Here, by the front walk, dwarf yaupon holly and Mediterranean fan palm (Chamaerops humilis) add more evergreen texture and contrasting form. As you might have guessed, deer tend to leave all of these alone.


Fan dance!


Looking up


Leaning in. Hey, Kool-Aid!


Layering with cenizo, Texas mountain laurel, and palmetto


On the other side of the street, unlikely bedfellows happily bloom side-by-side: Texas mountain laurel and flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), a small ornamental tree commonly planted in the Southeast but not this far west. Like azaleas, dogwoods prefer acidic soil, not the rocky, alkaline crumble we call soil. And yet here it grows — several of them, in fact, with a couple more in the neighbors’ yards. It just goes to show, never say something won’t grow here.


Around the corner I spotted this interesting xeriscape garden. Stone planter boxes add height to a pair of already towering beaked yuccas (Y. rostrata), while feathery bamboo muhly (Muhlenbergia dumosa) softens the midsection. A long steel planter in front holds a collection of agaves, including ‘Sharkskin’, New Mexico agave (I think), and Agave parryi var. truncata. More agaves and yuccas anchor an undulating, stream-like bed of river rock. There’s a lot going on, but kudos to them for going water-wise and going bold. No timid efforts here!


Heading south I spotted a sweet, solitary redbud (Cercis canadensis var. texensis) in full bloom against a cobalt front door.


And another one, a deeper pink, at a business park. In another few days the redbuds will be putting on fresh green leaves, and the flowers will fade.


But right now it’s spring perfection.

My thanks to everyone who’s voted for Digging in the Better Homes and Gardens 2015 Blogger Awards. Voting ends this Sunday, and the Gardening category is now listed first, so it’s easier than ever. I was told that you don’t have to click all the way through the other categories for your vote to count. Thanks as always for your support!

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

The great unfurling


Petals unfurl seemingly overnight, new blossoms appearing each morning. Every garden stroll is a small voyage of discovery right now. This week I’m seeing masses of dainty, lilac spiderwort (Tradescantia occidentalis).


A single summer snowflake (Leucojum aestivum) with flowers like dancing ladies in white ballgowns trimmed with jaunty, green dots.


‘Amethyst Flame’ iris, brought along from my former garden and blooming much better this year after being moved to a western exposure in the front garden.


Texas mountain laurel (Sophora secundiflora), close enough, almost, to give you a whiff of grape Kool-Aid fragrance right through your screen.


‘Blue Elf’ aloe, whose tubular orange blossoms offer a siren song for returning hummingbirds.


Mexican honeysuckle (Justicia spicigera), putting on a festive show of orange under an orange-red Circle Pot filled with succulents.


An orange Hover Dish hovers under a crepe myrtle, filled with flowering Texas sedge (Carex texensis) and columbine (Aquilegia chrysantha). Rain lily bulbs are tucked in there too.


Gopher plant (Euphorbia rigida) is still glowing in the side garden, although the pincushion foliage of Yucca rostrata ‘Sapphire Skies’ steals the show from certain angles. OK, from all angles.


Insects, after slumbering through winter, are unfurling too. This is one of several argiope spider egg sacs I’ve observed in the front garden. A tiny hole has been punched through the sac. Is this where spiderlings emerged, or did a bird get them, as I’ve read happens to most egg sacs?


And in tribute to the welcome, soaking rains we received last weekend, here’s “Tempest in a Teapot,” a water-evoking wind chime from Living Desert, now called Living Desert Ranch, given to me years ago by my husband. Isn’t it fun?

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I’d love to have your vote in the Better Homes and Gardens 2015 Blogger Awards. The Gardening category is listed first this week, and you can vote as much as you like. Thanks for your support!

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

New mirrored trellises add depth to a blank wall


There’s something new in the side garden. Yes, the Texas mountain laurel (Sophora secundiflora), my favorite native ornamental tree, is blooming and wafting the sweet fragrance of grape Kool-Aid through the air. Does anything say springtime in Austin as much as that smell?

But something else is new. And I’m not talking about the 3-inch layer of live oak leaves on the ground.


I’ve hung five mirrored-acrylic trellises along the long brick wall at back of the garage. I’d been looking for something to liven up that boring stretch of brick and add the illusion of depth to a side garden of bowling-alley proportions when I saw these DIY trellises on Design Sponge.

I didn’t take smiling in-process pictures like author Grace Bonney did (I would have looked a lot more grumpy at certain points), but you can see hers and read her how-to if you’re interested in the nitty-gritty. My only addition to her instructions is to drill through the plexiglass very carefully so that you don’t crack it. I learned this the hard way.

I bought inexpensive wooden trellises at Home Depot and cut the legs off before painting them. Mirrored plexiglass isn’t exactly cheap, but it is lightweight and you can drill through it to attach it to the trellis, which is handy. I found it locally at Regal Plastics, where it can be sized to your exact specifications. Regal suggested coating the cut edges of the plexiglass with silicone caulk for durability outdoors, but I found it didn’t easily stick. Plus I was making an unholy mess of things. Since they’re hanging on a shady wall and under an eave, I’m hoping they’ll have sufficient protection from the elements as-is.


My plan is to stain the lattice fence that borders this space the same color as the trellises: Sherwin-Williams Black Alder. That will unify the square lattice on each side and give the whole space more depth. This is the entry to the back garden that I take visitors through (the other side is a working space with trash storage), and I want it to look as appealing as any other part of the garden, not just a pass-through. Plant choice is very simple, mainly grasses, yucca and hesperaloe, and shade-tolerant herbs and perennials due to frequent deer browsing, so I’m going with mass plantings for impact. Visible here: bamboo muhly (Muhlenbergia dumosa), wide-leaf giant hesperaloe (Hesperaloe funifera ssp. chiangii), Texas betony (Stachys coccinea), and Berkeley sedge (Carex divulsa). Planted around the Texas mountain laurel, in the 2nd photo from the top, is inland sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium).


I’m pleased with how it turned out and can now check one spring project off my list. I have many still to go! How about you?

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I’d love to have your vote in the Better Homes and Gardens 2015 Blogger Awards. Skip through to the Gardening category, select Digging, and then skip to the last page for your vote to be counted. You can vote as much as you like. Thanks for your support!

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