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.

Soggy garden blues make me happy


During the horrible drought year of 2011, I swore I’d never complain about rain again, and I’m not tempted now. My garden has had nearly 5 inches of rain since last Tuesday, washing out a gravel path twice and incubating a healthy crop of mosquitoes.

And how sweet it is!


The garden is lush with new growth. I’ve not had to run the sprinklers since last fall. The birds have lots of bugs to eat. And I delight to feel the soil squish when I press my foot on it.


It all just makes one feel like lounging comfortably on a wall, doesn’t it, Cosmo? Oh well, there are weeds to pull!


I’m thrilled to see that the Acanthus mollis is sending up a bloom spike for the first time. Its large, notched leaves are pretty too, gleaming at the base of a Mexican beautyberry (Callicarpa acuminata).


Mama Owl worried me yesterday. She didn’t appear in the box opening all day, despite having been a fixture there for weeks, and I wondered if her chicks could have suddenly fledged without my ever seeing them. In addition, Papa Owl was absent from his usual perch along the back fence.

But that evening, as I searched the trees through the living room window, I spotted the missus in the crepe myrtle by the deck. She’d obviously moved out to give the growing chicks more room and was roosting where she could keep an eye on the owl box. I walked down the deck steps, right under her, to get a photo, and she only gave me a lazy glance. All is well.

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

Owl’ll be watching you


After weeks of live oak litter, first leaves and then pollen catkins, and weeks of me raking, blowing, and bagging, the garden is finally visible again. Sunday evening I went outside with no expectation of doing any spring chore: no clean-up, no pruning, no planting, no mulching, no nothing. It was blissful.


The soap aloes (Aloe maculata) are blooming, which is always special. They’ll do this about three times each growing season.


I like how they echo the new orange Hover Dish hanging from the crepe myrtle.


I thought it would be fun to plant it with Texas sedge, and now that it’s long and shaggy I’m enjoying the way it dangles its fiber-optic seedheads. Columbine and rain lilies are jammed in there too. I don’t know if the columbine is going to do anything this year.


Another wide view, with lots of blue, orange, and yellow-green


Looking left, the new stucco walls are totally working the space, with the gray wall echoing the curve of the stock-tank pond in the foreground.


Descending to the lower garden along the back fence, I stopped to ogle a bloom spike — the first ever! — on the Acanthus mollis. Those lustrous leaves are pretty fine also. I planted it 4 or 5 years ago, and it’s always either been blighted early by drought and heat or else frozen to the ground in winter, returning too late to bloom before summer’s heat sets in. But last fall I planted a black beautyberry nearly on top of it, and I guess it got the message that it better start strutting its stuff if it wants to keep a place in the garden.


Moving along the stepping-stone path, which leads under the arching branches of a Mexican buckeye, I stopped again to admire the new Yucca rostrata framed by a wine-colored loropetalum and a trio of pots filled with succulents.


Here’s the blue monolith wall from behind. That’s Moby atop the stone wall in the background.


Moving along to the hilly side garden, I realized I haven’t taken a picture of this year’s ‘Etoile Violette’ clematis flowering. The blooms are a bit shriveled from the recent heat…


…but still pretty.


The older Yucca rostrata is growing tall and shaggy. I’m contemplating pruning up the lower leaves to expose the trunk. But probably laziness will win out. Winecup (Callirhoe involucrata) blooms at its feet.


Here’s a new acquisition I don’t think I’ve shown: a weeping ‘Traveller’ redbud, which I ordered from Vivero. It arrived after the spring bloom, so that’s something to look forward to next year. According to grower Greenleaf Nursery, ‘Traveller’ grows to 5 feet tall with a spread of 5 to 12 feet.

Dan Hosage of Madrone Nursery discovered this weeping variety of the native Texas tree. He named it ‘Traveller’, according to Madrone’s website, in honor of Robert E. Lee’s horse and in tribute to his alma mater, Washington and Lee University.


A garden stroll wouldn’t be complete at this time of year without checking in with Papa Screech Owl, who hangs out during the day in a ligustrum just behind the back fence.


Evening was setting in, and he was waking up and probably thinking about breakfast for himself and the missus.


What a handsome fellow!


There was plenty of other bird activity as well, including this insistently chirping juvenile cardinal. She looked quite big enough to feed herself…


…but Papa was waiting nearby with a tasty snack.


“Feed me!”


“Come to the dinner table, missy!”


“But I’m playing!”


Cosmo and I watched these antics until it was time to get dinner ourselves. And oh yes, Cosmo is certain I had the walls built just for his lounging pleasure.

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