Before and after: 6 years making a garden


Bluesy garden: our upper patio, just off the living room and master bedroom

It’s always eye-opening to see how much a garden has evolved by comparing before and after images. We moved into our current home in October 2008, and I started tinkering with a few beds right away, planting old favorites dug up from my former garden, and simply observing other areas to see what I had. As anyone knows who’s made a garden, it’s a process that takes years, especially if you frequently revise plantings, as I do.

I didn’t draw out a plan for this garden, even though I recommend it and did one for my former garden. Instead I worked on one area at a time, tackling whatever demanded my immediate attention and saving up for bigger projects along the way. The garden is and always will be a work in progress, but 6-1/2 years is long enough to see changes taking shape and plants maturing.

Just a few days after moving in, I wrote an introductory post about our new home. I’m reposting those “before” pictures here, followed by “after” pics I took yesterday morning from the same perspective. I offer the contrast not to show “improvements” but simply to illustrate the process of making it my own. After all, taste is subjective, and the serene, green, easy-care “before” garden not only enticed us to buy this house but may be preferable to many people over my densely planted, spiky style. I’m grateful for the garden we inherited and am enjoying putting my own stamp on it for as long as we’re its caretakers.


Before: The front entry of our 1971 ranch right after we moved in 6-1/2 years ago


After: We added architectural interest to the facade and the low, steeply pitched roof with a gabled porch roof addition. Poured-concrete slabs in an offset pattern replaced the narrow, down-sloping, tiled front walk, eliminating a step in the process. The lawn and foundation shrubs at left are gone, switched out for a water-thrifty gravel garden. The old aluminum windows are refreshed with new, efficient double panes, and we took down the shutters for a more contemporary look. New paint and updated porch lights complete the refresh. The aging roof, which was patched when the porch roof was altered, is next on our list.


Before: Pretty but traditional-style landscaping and a lawn showing signs of drought stress


After: My containerized spikefest, with ‘Alphonse Karr’ bamboo replacing a redbud in the back corner


Before: A species Japanese maple, which I immediately fell in love with but worried would need too much water


After: Not to worry — the Japanese maple has thrived in the shade on the north side of the house, and all I’ve had to do is prune it for shape. A dry stream channeling water away from the foundation runs between the maple and the native river ferns in the foreground. I also had the back fence moved toward the front corner of the house.


Before: The island bed in the center of the circular drive was cloaked in creeping jasmine and purple lantana.


After: Today a xeric garden of yuccas, euphorbias, grasses, and other drought-tolerant plants grows there. A stepping-stone path runs across the berm (hidden by plants in this view) for access.


Before: In back, the swimming pool and private, tree-shaded lot was one of the selling points of the house for us, as our children were the perfect ages to enjoy it.


After: The large gum bumelia tree behind the pool died in the drought, opening up the area to more sun. I added painted stucco walls last fall for structure and color.


Before: Limestone retaining walls near the pool offered gardening space off the back of the house. I was eyeing this bed from day one for the ‘Whale’s Tongue’ agave I’d brought from my former garden.


After: Today Moby is happily growing in that spot and at least twice as big as he was when I moved him. I added terracing to the bed and removed the grass below it to expand the garden. The ocotillo bottle tree replaced a more stylized version last summer.


Before: A cluster of live oaks at the bottom of the garden was set off with edging of casually stacked limestone.


After: Today Mexican honeysuckle grows under the trees, and one of the new stucco walls adds structure in front.


Before: Looking up-slope along the west side of the property. A red-tip photinia hedge along a chain-link fence screened the neighbor’s pool from ours.


After: For more privacy, we had a fence constructed in front of the hedge. I removed the lawn on this side of the yard and replaced it with garden beds and a terraced, gravel path (like this path, which I laid on the other side of the yard).


Before: Behind the pool, slabs of exposed limestone make a natural floor. A shaggy bed of liriope and purple heart edged the back of the pool.


After: The limestone hasn’t changed a bit, although I have to beat back the purple heart, which wants to take over. (The standing water is from the previous night’s heavy rain.) The stucco walls and stacked-stone retaining wall behind the pool are new. I’ve planted ‘Blonde Ambition’ grama and Texas sedge in place of the liriope, which died away during the drought.


Before: I was pleased to discover a Mexican buckeye in the garden. Cast-iron plant was welcome too.


After: The buckeye has continued to mature, and my main job is pruning once a year for shape. The cast-iron plant is still there as well, behind a large, potted Texas nolina parked on one of the limestone slabs as a focal point along the lower-garden path. Dwarf Barbados cherries make a low hedge at right.


Before: Looking across the swimming pool toward the back of the house, where terraced limestone walls hold narrow garden beds. At first I worried that I’d have to remove the large Texas persimmon, which was encroaching on the house.


After: Regular pruning has allowed the persimmon to remain, and I enjoy its white-gray bark and graceful, leaning form. Aside from the persimmon and a crepe myrtle (at right), every single plant here has been replaced. From this angle it doesn’t seem like a significant bed. But it’s crucial to the experience of exploring the garden because the main path runs between this wall and the pool.


Before: A lengthwise view along the terraced bed shows a ‘Dortmund’ rose on a cedar-post support, which was nice.


After: But the rose bloomed only for a short time, and the rest of the year it was not very attractive. So I removed it and planted up the area with bold, variegated foliage plants, like ‘Alphonse Karr’ bamboo, ‘Bright Edge’ yucca, and ‘Color Guard’ yucca. A stock-tank planter that was a small container pond in my former garden was turned into a planter for height here. Two blue pots bring extra height and color.


Before: I liked the large, fuchsia-flowering crepe myrtle near the back deck. The white-trunked Texas persimmon is just behind it.


After: I widened the bed around the crepe myrtle and installed a disappearing fountain with a shallow basin to entice birds.


Before: We inherited a nice deck off the back of the house, with lattice screening at the base.


After: I soon widened the planting bed at its base. At first it was a trial spot for various plants, but over time I simplified and massed the plants for impact. We also restained the deck and lattice screening dark gray.


Before: I loved the limestone slabs jutting from the lawn here and there, although I worried that it meant the garden would be rocky and hard to dig.


After: Happily, the soil is fairly deep except right around the boulders, so digging hasn’t been a problem. I made a garden around these boulders and incorporated the flatter stones on the left into a terraced timber-and-gravel path. We pushed back the fence, visible at top-left in the “before” photo, to the front of the house to get more privacy and gardening space in back.


Before: Another boulder, shaped like a turtle head, jutted out of the concrete pool patio. A stepping-stone path led from the pool to the deck steps.


After: Here’s a wider view of the same area. The turtle-head rock is in the foreground. I laid a flagstone path in place of the stepping stones. And at right, in one of the earliest parts of the garden, I installed an 8-foot diameter stock-tank pond and laid a sawn-stone path in a sunburst shape around it. This is one of my favorite parts of the garden, and the circular pond and surrounding sunburst path look especially nice from the elevated deck.


Before: I admired the coyote fence along the back property line. Shaggy cedar posts were wired to an old chain-link fence for privacy and a woodsy look that harmonized with the greenbelt beyond the fence.


After: A few of the cedar posts have rotted, but most are hanging in there. We’ll definitely replace them as needed to retain this look. Other noticeable changes include the stucco walls and the loss of the gum bumelia tree.


Before: I liked the wide, decomposed-granite path in the lower garden.


After: But under all those trees it quickly grew overgrown with oak sprouts and ligustrum seedlings and was buried in leaf litter. So I mulched over the path for a more natural look and ran a stepping-stone path instead. I also removed the pineapple guavas that were planted along the back fence. They suffered in the drought and also from lack of sunlight. Various plants have taken their place.


Before: Looking up toward the pool patio from the lower garden path. A rock-strewn, narrow, grassy slope provided trip-hazard access to the lower garden.


After: Initially I used found rocks in the garden to build steps between the lower garden and the pool. But last fall I was able to redo the steps with large boulders while having the stucco walls built.


Before: Another limestone expanse between the lawn and the lower garden


After: The limestone’s still there (at right), but the lawn is long gone.

There were other parts of the move-in garden I didn’t show in that introductory 2008 post because they weren’t particularly interesting — just large areas of lawn. But I worked on those too over the years and today enjoy gardens where there used to be just grass. Here’s a quick run-through.


This is one of the more recent parts of the garden: the east side path and garden. I started out with a decomposed-granite path and garden beds for grassy, deer-resistant plants. More recently I had the lattice fence built for a sense of enclosure.


Earlier this spring I made mirrored trellises to add depth to the long, blank wall of the garage, staining them to match the new-stained fence.


Looking lengthwise across the front yard, the dominant feature is a Berkeley sedge lawn. A giant hesperaloe anchors one end near a cluster of live oaks. A broad, curving path of decomposed granite leads through the front garden.


The same view in reverse, from the driveway looking toward the lattice fence. The meadowy sedge lawn at right needs much less water than a traditional lawn and mowing only once or twice a year.


Closer to the house, I had a limestone retaining wall built to tame a slippery slope on a natural berm alongside the driveway and foundation. It gave the house room to breathe and opened up space for additional pathways through the garden.


On the west side of the garden, I took out all but one small, semicircular patch of lawn and planted a deer-resistant garden of irises, grasses, dyckia, sotol, and yucca.


Finally, as you enter the back garden on the west side, you pass through a work/storage space and then come to the upper patio, along one edge of which I built this cinderblock wall planter filled with succulents.

I’m kind of tired now as I think back through all these garden projects, and my wallet feels a lot lighter. But it’s more rewarding than buying clothes, jewelry, or a car, so what can I say? I love to make gardens! I hope you’ve enjoyed the retrospective. As you busily make your own garden, remember to take photos and document the process so you can look back and see all you’ve accomplished.

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

My Dry and Mighty article is in Wildflower magazine


If you’re a member of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, you’ll soon find the Summer 2015 issue of Wildflower magazine in your mailbox. I’m thrilled to announce that I wrote the cover story, “Dry & Mighty.”


What’s it all about? “A dry garden doesn’t have to be drab. Make yours dazzle even in summer,” teases the contents-page tagline. In the 6-page spread, I offer design ideas for making a dry garden that looks great all year.


The article will appear on the Wildflower Center’s website soon (I’ll link to it then). But I urge you to consider subscribing by becoming a member. Not only will you receive this beautiful and informative quarterly magazine, but you’ll be supporting the garden and its mission to educate people about native plants and their benefits to ecosystems everywhere — from wilderness to your own back yard. You’ll also get free admission to the garden (and to reciprocating botanical gardens throughout the U.S.) and a discount in the gift shop.


While this wet spring may have central Texans thinking about rain gardens rather than dry gardens, we all know that dry, hot weather will return. When it does, it pays to be prepared. It’s hard to establish new plants, even xeric ones, when drought is squeezing the ground dry. This, then, may prove to be the perfect year for getting a tough, new garden established.

Update: The Summer 2015 issue is now available online.

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

Farewell visit to James David’s Austin garden, part 2


A grand limestone staircase bisected by a rill leads from the back of the house to a large pond in the lower garden.

Yesterday I showed you around the upper level of James David’s magnificent garden, which I visited in late March and which is currently for sale as the owners prepare to relocate to Santa Fe. Today let’s take the paths that lead down into the ravine behind the house and back up to the detached studio.


Behind the house a large cistern collects rainwater from the roof and seems to spill surplus water into a stone trough. In actuality, I think this must be an illusion because otherwise the water would soon run dry — even though our current rainy spring might suggest otherwise. I’d guess the rainwater is actually stored for use on Gary’s vegetable garden, visible in the background. This running faucet must be plumbed via a hidden pipe, creating the illusion that the cistern is the source of a long water passage through the back garden.


The water reappears a few steps below, spilling from a hidden stone channel into a small, stone-edged pool.


A wider view shows glossy holly ferns (Cyrtomium falcatum) doing a good air plant impression by sprouting from gaps in the wall.


A collection of fossils and pretty stones adorns a corner of the wall.


From the pool, water flows below ground into a simple metal pipe, which spills into a stone trough that’s been repaired with board-formed concrete. A second, smaller trough accepts an overflow stream. These troughs, with their musical splashing, sit next to the dining patio shown yesterday.


Underground the water goes again, and then it reappears at the top of the most dramatic feature of the garden: a grand limestone staircase bisected by a rill that runs a trickle of water all the way to the rectangular pond at the bottom of the stair. Behind the pond, an off-center stone stair leads up to a lap pool. Another path leads to a large greenhouse.


Here’s the view from behind the pond, looking back at the grand staircase and the house. ‘Will Fleming’ yaupon hollies once lined each side of the stair, creating a vertical screen, but these days it’s edged with boxwood.


Detouring to the right, let’s follow a path that leads up the side of the garden, past a low retaining wall beautifully made of various materials, including urbanite (broken concrete) on top.


Variegated agaves behind the wall


And a chicken coop!


Turning around, let’s head back down to the lower garden. Ahead is the large pond, and beyond that are pollarded Mexican sycamores.


Hardscape in this garden is masterfully crafted and enticing. You want to explore every curving stair, cross every bridge, investigate every long path framed by arbors and shrubs. But there’s also an element of danger to many of the walks, which universally lack handrails. They imply, you will be mindful of where you put your feet. I find it delightfully adventurous. But you definitely don’t want to get so distracted by the plants or the views that you fall backwards off a wall.


Now we’ve found the swimming pool, which sits well above the pond. Flowering shrubs and trees screen one side…


…while the other is open and offers a lovely view of the pond garden.


I was smitten by this flowering tree at the end of the pool: jack tree (Sinojackia xylocarpa), which James said he got from Forestfarm online nursery. They don’t seem to have it in stock now, but I see that it’s also grown by Texas grower Greenleaf.


The flowers dangle like white parachutes, reminiscent of those on white potato vine.


Stone stairs by the greenhouse are used to display potted agaves and other succulents.


Beautiful, but mind your ankles.


They are such camera hogs. They know they look good from every angle.


Potted cacti line a long limestone shelf along the front of the greenhouse.


A few tropicals, like this clivia, add colorful flowers to the mix.


Looking back toward the house you see the grand staircase and, closer, a wooden bridge that crosses a dry stream and wet-weather garden. The Mexican sycamores (Platanus mexicana) are planted in a grid, their pollarded canopies creating an umbrella effect.


Crossing the bridge, which is lined on one side with more potted plants, you get another view of the sycamores and their white and green mottled trunks.


A stone stair by the greenhouse descends to the dry creek.


I’m sure the dry creek has seen a lot of action this spring.


On the left, another view of the pond


Pulling back a little, you can appreciate the lushness of the garden, with purple flowers of Texas mountain laurel (Sophora secundiflora) in the foreground. Now imagine that we’ve crossed the wooden bridge again, walked behind the greenhouse, and followed a decomposed-granite path that leads to the right…


…and to the newest section of the garden: a semi-wild meadow garden behind the award-winning concrete studio. A ruler-straight path leads the eye and foot between stone pedestals topped with cornucopia-like urns, across a metal bridge, and up some steps to a concrete wall that supports a contemporary pond (shown below). Notice the concrete balcony jutting out from the topmost window? I’ll share a picture from that vantage point in a moment.


A topiaried oak. James told me he’s not afraid to try topiary on any kind of plant.


Looking back, I find this view through the columns very romantic.


I liked this grassy, white-flowered plant, whose fleshy leaves reminded me of bulbine, but I can’t remember the name. Update: It’s St. Bernard’s lily (Anthericum liliago). Thanks, Diana, for the ID!


Native red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) was blooming too.


As you climb the stairs up to the studio, you come to an asymmetrical, concrete-edged pond. Here’s an overhead view from the studio balcony. What looks like a metal bridge from this angle…


…is actually a gabion wall that supports a metal pipe spilling water into the pond. A dry garden planted with Argentine saguaro and other xeric plants offers a contrast between wet and dry.


Koi live in the pond and came running swimming when Gary pulled out the fish food.


The view across the gabion wall and pond to the cornucopia urns and meadow garden


To the left of the pond, the dry garden continues, with Yucca rostrata and a pruned-up Chinese photinia (Photinia serrulata), if I recall correctly. James is a big fan of this photinia, though not of the overused red-tip variety.


More steps lead up to the studio. This is the view from the walk connecting studio and house.


The studio


A porch at the studio door holds a trio of potted plants. I like the circle motif of the tabletops and rear pot.


Ice plant in vivid bloom


James and Gary’s dog Alice made herself comfortable on the porch’s wooden bench.


I somehow neglected to take a photo of James while he was showing me around. But I’m grateful to him and to Gary for inviting me into their beautiful home and garden again. Visiting their garden has always been the highlight of the Open Days tour, and I’ll miss it. But who knows — maybe it’ll be on tour again one day with new owners at the helm. I hope so, and I’m sure James and Gary do too. Until then, I wish them bon voyage and happy garden-making in their new home.

For a look back at part 1 of my garden visit, click here.

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