Looking Up at Laguna Gloria and Austin City Hall

Last Saturday, a chilly, blustery day under a brilliant cobalt-blue sky, my dad and I attended two docent-led tours about the landscape architecture at cultural sites in Austin: one at Laguna Gloria, the other at Austin City Hall. Led by landscape architects who’ve restored or designed these public spaces, the tours were hosted by the Cultural Landscape Foundation for its November 21-22 What’s Out There Weekend Austin. A total of 27 such tours were offered, free of charge, at sites all over the city, and they were so educational I wish I could have attended more.

I’ve been to both Laguna Gloria and City Hall many times, but it was interesting to hear the landscape architects involved with these projects talk about their design decisions and the history of each site. I didn’t take pictures during the tours, but I snapped a few beforehand. This giant, silver man, who looks like he’s made of aluminum foil, is a sculpture by Tom Friedman called Looking Up.

Molded out of styrofoam and pressed aluminum turkey-roasting pans, and then converted into stainless steel, Looking Up stands 33 feet tall…

…vying with nearby palm trees for vertical dominance on the lawn in front of the historic Driscoll House. Here it is with Dad, for scale.

The Driscoll House — the 1916 Italianate home of philanthropist Clara Driscoll, “Savior of the Alamo” — is today part of The Contemporary Austin (an art museum) and is the location of The Art School, which offers classes year-round in studios located on the lakeside grounds.

While the Italian-style gardens of Laguna Gloria emphasize vertical lines, like these palms…

…the contemporary design of Austin City Hall emphasizes horizontal lines. Carolyn Kelley and Eleanor McKinney, the landscape architects who designed the plaza and green-roof gardens of City Hall, led the tour, sharing that the building’s angled horizontal planes represent the ancient Balcones Fault that divides Austin’s natural landscape between blackland prairie to the east and rocky hills to the west.

The plant choices riff on this theme too, with Hill Country plants on the west side of the building, post oak savannah plants on the east, and prairie plants on the north. This raised bed, which faces south, is planted with Gulf muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris) and golden thryallis (Galphimia gracilis).

Austin’s an interesting city, and I enjoy learning more about it through tours like these. Fellow Austinites, did you partake of any of the Cultural Landscape Foundation tours last weekend? You can also read about cultural sites here and in other cities on the What’s Out There webpage.

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

Modern courtyard garden at South Congress Hotel

Last weekend I met a friend for drinks at the beautiful new South Congress Hotel bar. (A word of advice: never, ever order the Pink Flamingo, which tasted exactly like a burning tire. After a few grimace-inducing sips, I deemed it undrinkable — my friend agreed — and asked the server to take it away. He merely said, accusingly, “I told you the mezcal was smoky.” Right you are, sir.)

While waiting for my friend to arrive, I poked around behind the hotel and discovered an intimate courtyard that would look right at home in the garden of many a contemporary Austin home. Designed by Christine Ten Eyck, the narrow space is kept from feeling like a shoebox thanks to a zigzag design of board-formed concrete retaining walls that create planting beds and conversation nooks with built-in benches. Lighting beneath the benches softly illuminates the board-form details, a ribbon of river rock, and scored-concrete paving.

The planting beds already look lush, even though they can’t be more than two months old. Virginia creeper climbs a gray-painted wall, and Turk’s cap’s crimson flowers (Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii) stand out even at dusk. I think those are possumhaw hollies (Ilex decidua) in front, which will add height, winter color, and, eventually, a little shade.

I don’t know the groundcover with ruffly leaves, but I found it charming. Anyone know it? It’s bigfoot water clover (Marsilea macropoda), a wetland Texas native. In the distance, a grove of copper-leaved bald cypress surrounds a waterfall dripping from a high wall — a modern interpretation of a Hill Country grotto? My pictures of that area didn’t turn out because it was getting dark, but it’s quite nice. Next time I’m on South Congress I’ll stop by for another look.

For a few pictures of the hotel’s street-side landscaping — also very cool — click here and scroll about halfway down.

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

Drive-By Gardens: A new lawn-gone garden in my neighborhood

Bravo to my neighbors, who’ve ripped out their front lawn and replaced it with native groundcovers woolly stemodia (Stemodia lanata) and sedge (probably Carex texensis), accented with xeric specimen plants like Agave parryi var. truncata, gopher plant (Euphorbia rigida), Wheeler sotol (Dasylirion wheeleri), squid agave (Agave bracteosa), and ‘Color Guard’ yucca.

For comparison, a “before” image from Google Maps. It looked so much smaller with just lawn! Now there’s an abundance of interesting plants to catch your eye, and the new flagstone walk invites you to meander, not rush, to the front door.

Their front garden faces east, and they went with xeric (dry-loving) plants on the sunny side of the yard, mulching these with decomposed granite. The woolly stemodia should fill in quickly, covering the DG with a silvery green carpet that sparkles with lavender flowers in late summer. The accent plants should do well too, although if we have a cold, wet winter the variegated ‘Arizona Star’ agave at the back may suffer.

On the shady side, under a large oak (red oak, I think), sedges will eventually fill in to make a low, grassy groundcover. Shredded wood mulch suppresses weeds, and it looks more natural under trees than gravel. This should look very pretty in a few years. They only thing I would have done differently, being impatient, is to plant the sedges more thickly. A dense initial planting also gives opportunistic weeds less of a chance to sneak in. Along the edge of the yard, bamboo muhly (Muhlenbergia dumosa) makes a feathery, chartreuse screen.

Along the foundation, under a limbed-up crepe myrtle and Texas mountain laurel, variegated flax lily (Dianella tasmanica ‘Variegata’), bicolor iris (Dietes bicolor), and a few flowering perennials are planted on either side of a paver path leading from the driveway to the front door. The handsome paver driveway and path are a nice upgrade from concrete, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they had French drains installed to move runoff away from the garage.

Unlike my house, theirs has a sidewalk, and they planted the hell strip too. I see blackfoot daisy (Melampodium leucanthum), red yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora), and Mexican feathergrass (Nassella tenuissima), good choices all. Again, I would have planted more densely, and they’ll need to be vigilant about weeding this section because there’s no woolly stemodia to fill in and outcompete opportunistic weeds. In my experience, Bermudagrass, nutgrass, and mats of spurge love to colonize open stretches of DG. But they can be defeated with constant vigilance.

Also, I would have added 10-foot sections of paver or flagstone paving on each side of the driveway, for visitors who park at the curb. Car landings allow visitors to get in and out of their cars without trampling your plants or getting poked in the shins.

Our neighborhood’s regular visitors have already stopped by to check out the new garden, with hoof prints left as evidence. Deer are a constant presence in my northwest Austin neighborhood, and everything one plants must be highly deer resistant. Even so, they’ll sample many of those when they’re newly planted, sometimes pulling them out of the ground in the process, and at this of year agaves, yuccas, and young trees can be damaged by bucks rubbing their antlers against them.

It takes determination to garden under such circumstances, but I love to see my neighbors going for it and making their yards more beautiful and inviting to birds, bees, butterflies, and other creatures (but hopefully not the deer, not if they want to have a garden). I can’t wait to see how this garden evolves, and I know it will bring them — and their neighbors — a lot of pleasure every day.

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