Modern gravel garden sips water, amps up architecture

Succulent and cactus gardeners and fans of modern design, you’ll want to see this garden on the upcoming San Antonio Watersaver Landscape Tour on October 24. I recently enjoyed a preview visit, thanks to an invitation from Shirley of Rock-Oak-Deer and Heather of Xericstyle.

This contemporary garden belongs to Susan Bhatia and her husband, who live in the same neighborhood as Pat Mozersky, whose garden will also be on the tour (click for my preview). Susan loves succulents and cactus for their architectural beauty and water thriftiness. As she and her husband were constructing their new home, she scoured Houzz for inspiring pictures of drought-tolerant gardens and plants that she wanted to grow.

She and her husband worked with landscape architect Warren Pape of Texas Landscape Nursery to create a garden that complements the modern style of their home. Corten steel retaining walls paired with limestone risers make a dramatic entry walk on the steep lot. An artful arrangement of Corten pieces adds three-dimensional interest to one of the retaining walls, which are softened above by ruby grass (Melinis nerviglumis).

The grasses looked great, but I was drooling over the row of ‘Kissho Kan’ agaves in the first terrace.

Gorgeous! Susan said it wasn’t easy to locate six good-sized plants locally. These will likely need winter protection when it freezes, as various websites say they’re hardy only to zone 9, and San Antonio, like Austin, is zone 8b.

Clusters of cool cactus grow in the top terrace, like fishhook cactus…

…owl’s eye pincushion cactus (I think)…

…and golden barrel cactus.

To the right of the stairs, the garden is terraced with a wall of limestone block and Corten. Fishhook cactus occupies a mid-level niche planter.

Above, a rock garden is studded with architectural beauties like Agave mediopicta ‘Alba’, cow’s horn agave (Agave bovicornuta), and Yucca rostrata.

More golden barrels and ruby grass, as well as a freestanding art piece created from Corten pieces.

It’s a dynamic sculpture.

The gravel garden extends across the entire front of the house, taking the place of a traditional lawn. Live oaks provide shade at right; at left the sunny corner is planted geometrically with dry-loving squid agave (A. bracteosa), variegated flax lily (Dianella tasmanica ‘Variegata’), giant hesperaloe (Hesperaloe funifera), and yucca. The winding line of darker river rock at right indicates a dry stream that carries runoff from the roof through the garden. Corten terraces at the corner display the striking Agave mediopicta ‘Alba’.

I can’t remember the name of this agave, but look at those teeth. Isn’t it pretty? Update: Susan tells me it’s a ‘Mr. Ripple’ agave. (Thank you, Susan!) I have to say, it doesn’t look as wavy-leaved as I’d expect a ‘Mr. Ripple’ to look, but maybe that’s because it’s young?

Agave mediopicta ‘Alba’ — a beautiful agave

I like that Susan includes some softening plants to contrast with the static agaves, like round-leaf firecracker fern (Russelia rotundifolia), which I just planted in my own garden. I hope it soon grows to this size!

Four Corten boxes hold ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) alongside the house. Three remain in their seasonal leafless state…

…but the one at left has put out green leaves. These must be even better at night, with uplights casting ocotillo shadows on the stone wall.

Corten strips make a horizontal-slat fence along the side and back of the house that will never need replacing.

A narrow side terrace contains a minimalist mix of potted succulents and cactus.

Cereus, a tall vertical presence against stone walls, is utterly heat and drought tolerant. I wondered whether Susan would have to protect these from hard freezes. Perhaps the reflected heat and wind-blocking in this narrow space will be protection enough.

‘Sticks on Fire’ euphorbia blushes in full sun in a tall planter by the garage.

Horsetail (Equisetum hyemale), a bog plant, is being established along a garage wall. Susan has bundled them because they were flopping, and she wanted an erect, vertical form. She’s still experimenting here, seeing if she can make it work, and indulging in extra watering in this bed to help it along. Horsetail is invasive in the right circumstances; the concrete driveway and foundation keep it contained.

Around back, past a small lawn for the dogs, is a lovely courtyard swimming pool. The gray tones of the house are enlivened by an orange-painted steel beam and orange pool chairs.

Those glass doors look like they’d slide open for indoor-outdoor living at cooler times of the year.

Another view

Dry-loving lady’s slipper (Pedilanthus macrocarpus) grows in the narrow strip along the wall at right.

The lady’s slipper bed gives way to a rock garden near the back door. In a surprising move, the planting area is held back with a curvy stone retaining wall, and drainage is allowed to flow under the wall and out to the front of the house.

It ends up flowing through a succulent and cactus bed planted below the entry steps by the front door. It’s just one of the garden’s many unique features.

My thanks to Susan for sharing her striking dry garden with us! Remember, this garden and her neighbor Pat’s garden (click for my tour) will be open to the public, for free, on the San Antonio Watersaver Landscape Tour on October 24.

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

Sedgey evergreen garden of Pat Mozersky for Foliage Follow-Up

Austin designer Mark Word (see my profile about him) designed this serene, green San Antonio garden that you can see on the upcoming Watersaver Landscape Tour on October 24. I got a preview last Friday thanks to Shirley of Rock-Oak-Deer.

The garden belongs to Pat Mozersky, the longtime, recently retired food writer for the San Antonio Express-News. Pat generously allowed us to photograph her garden one day before the Mark Word maintenance crew came for a late-summer clean-up and refresh. Thanks to the garden’s good bones and evergreen plant palette, it looked photo-ready anyway.

Simple, restrained hardscape and swaths of evergreen foliage are the key to year-round good looks. Pat and her husband built this home, downsizing from a larger property and reducing their home and garden maintenance in the process. The new house sits on a small lot, and in place of a traditional lawn, a meadowy swath of Berkeley sedge (Carex divulsa) needs little care and stays green all year. Greening up the garden walls and providing additional privacy from nearby houses are understory viburnums, clethra, redbuds, and Texas persimmons. Live oaks shade nearly the entire garden.

The front yard is protected from deer by a handsome stacked-stone wall and gated entry.

This is the view from the front porch looking toward the gate and the street beyond. As you can see, it’s green and unfussy but has a naturalistic look.

Lueders limestone pavers spaced by ribbons of river rock make up a contemporary front walk and allow runoff to soak into the soil.

At the front porch, on each side of the steps, steel planters are filled with round-leaved ligularia, feathery foxtail fern, and abutilon for seasonal flowering.

Pat took us through her house and out the back door onto a covered back porch. A zinc-topped table and an old factory light from Germany blend well with the custom steel gate.

A few pots filled with low-maintenance succulents offer interesting foliage texture and colors.

Lueders pavers in random widths keep the eye from running straight to a separate patio. An oversized teak bench is the simple focal point. A built-in corner bench offers additional seating that doesn’t take up much space.

The view looking back toward the porch

In the back corner of the garden resides a nearly life-size metal bison, a gift from Pat to her husband and a smile-inducing sculpture in the otherwise serene garden.

Tufty sedges are planted around back of the house too, as pavers thread a narrow pathway through them.

Pat has two friendly cavalier King Charles spaniels, Layla and…I forget the other one’s name.

They appear to enjoy the garden, especially the bamboo muhly! My dog, Cosmo, also loves to nosh on bamboo muhly, so this didn’t surprise me. Luckily, it’s pretty tough and able to recover from dog browsing.

Near the driveway, outside the walled garden in a hot, sunny side yard, evergreen, glossy-leaved star jasmine climbs a wire-panel trellis to hide the A/C unit from view.

And here’s a last look from outside of the front garden wall, of native Texas persimmons standing ghostly amid Berkeley sedge — a tough and drought-tolerant combo.

My thanks to Pat for sharing her lovely garden with us! If you long for an easy-care, evergreen garden because of a busy schedule or physical difficulty in keeping up with maintenance, Pat’s foliage-based garden is an inspiring example.

This is my September post for Foliage Follow-Up. Fellow bloggers, what leafy loveliness is going on in your garden this month, or in one you’ve visited? Please join me in giving foliage its due on the day after Bloom Day. Leave a link to your post in a comment below. I really appreciate it if you’ll also link to my post in your own — sharing link love! If you can’t post so soon after Bloom Day, no worries. Just leave your link when you get to it. I look forward to seeing your foliage faves.

Up next, also from my San Antonio visit last week: A modern garden that’s a cactus and succulent lover’s dream. For a look back at the gorgeous courtyard xeriscape garden of Linda Peterson, click here.

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

Dreamy green courtyard and water-saving garden in San Antonio

My friend Shirley of Rock-Oak-Deer in San Antonio recently uttered the magic words: Come see a few gardens! So last Friday I hopped in my car, drove south to the Alamo City, and met Shirley to tour three gardens. Two of the gardens will be on this year’s Watersaver Landscape Tour on October 24. I’ll give you a sneak peek at those soon, but first I’ll show you the one featured on last year’s tour.

This is the garden of Linda Peterson, who, with her husband, built this home in the northwest San Antonio neighborhood in which Linda grew up. As a teenager, she told me, she and her friends would bike to this then-vacant property to lounge under a 100-year-old live oak whose lowest limbs sprawl along the ground. It was all part of an old estate that was being developed into her suburban neighborhood. Years later, when she and her husband had an opportunity to buy the lot, they did, and built their dream home here. They preserved the beautiful live oaks as they constructed their home and garden around them.

A grayed-out mint-green stucco wall encloses a courtyard garden at the front of the house, sheltering it from the street and creating an outdoor room that gracefully transitions between the interior of the home and the public-facing garden outside the walls.

Stepping through the arbor-shaded opening you enter a generously proportioned patio garden designed for all-seasons relaxing. A hammock sways invitingly in the shade of the long-armed oaks, and a pot fountain splashes quietly behind matching agaves.

Chairs cluster near a focal-point outdoor fireplace. Curving seat-height walls provide plenty of extra seating for parties.

It’s a marvelous use of space, bringing the outdoors inside through a window-wall in the house and making this corner-lot, front garden feel as private as a fenced back yard.

I could move right in.

There are already several other residents, however, including this large metal iguana…

…and this rhino mama and calf, seemingly deciding whether to cross a river-rock stream.

Small metal lizards scurry down one of the live oaks — hoping to snag one of the almonds Linda puts out for the birds?

Linda collects not only metal animals but lanterns, which she hangs en masse from tree branches (as well as indoors in her entry hall), to striking effect. They add a distinct San Antonio-via-Mexico flair to her garden.

Paving is green-hued Pennsylvania bluestone, which matches the gray-green walls. It swirls around a central live oak and leads from the entry arbor to the front door, around the courtyard, and out past the fireplace to the back garden.

Wide planting beds curve around the perimeter of the space, softening the walls with drought-tolerant plants like vitex, prickly pear, variegated American agave, and soap aloe. Caramel-hued round gravel mulches the beds, aiding drainage and giving the widely spaced xeric plants a finished look.

Linda plants up striking pot displays too.

She boldly mixes metal cactus with real cactus, like this wonderful combo of steel golden barrels and spineless opuntia. Green and purple sweet potato vine meanders among the golden barrels, enhancing the color scheme and giving almost a pumpkin-patch appearance.

Linda created these abstract flowers of copper tubing herself, using leftovers from another project and pinching long copper tubes around them to make “stems.” I believe the wiry branches rambling below are gray leaf cotoneaster.

Next, Linda led us around the side of the house, where a metal porcupine snuffled past potted succulents.

A side deck is lightly screened with a wire trellis, which is strategically hung with pots of asparagus fern. Fig ivy cloaks the trellis that extends below the deck, making an evergreen foundation.

A metal star attracts the eye skyward.

Along the gravel and flagstone path, intimate seating areas catch your eye, inviting you to sit and enjoy the garden.

This one, made for two, anchors the bend of the path. The umbrella offers not only sun protection but screening from neighboring houses.

More metal lanterns hang from a nearby tree. Even unlit, Linda’s lanterns foster a wonderful mood, promising festivity and late evenings in the garden. They also lift the eye off the ground plane and bridge the middle space in a heavily treed garden.

In the narrow back garden (the house is sited at the rear of the lot, leaving plenty of room up front for the courtyard garden), a small patio is sheltered from neighboring view by a unique, contemporary-style metal screen. Linda and her husband creatively constructed it themselves out of leftover metal roofing strips that they riveted together.

The patio shelters a tropical assortment of potted plants, including a tall palm and a coppery-leaved banana. Floor-to-ceiling back windows bring this space right into the home as well. A spiral stair leads up to the roof…

…where Linda enjoys a bird’s-eye view of the courtyard garden. From here you can see how the outer streetside garden buffers the courtyard walls.

I admired a soap aloe “river” at left. I know how much maintenance this requires; those aloes pup (produce offsets of baby plants) like crazy. You have to pull or snip off the pups frequently to have single rosettes like these.

Zooming in on the hammock corner, I noticed what a nice combo variegated American agave and bamboo muhly make. This would work just as well in full sun.

The fireplace view. A narrow balcony overlooks this space — but not as high as we are now!

Climbing down from the roof, let’s head out into the front garden — the only part of the garden that most passersby ever see. It’s a treat too. A metal agave, forever in early bloom, echoes the form of an Agave weberi behind it. Along the path, society garlic and foxtail fern are massed for effect.

The octopus-like arms of the sprawling live oak, whose trunk anchors one end of the hammock inside the courtyard, seem to writhe out of a hole in the wall, reaching out to encircle a stump-constructed table and stools. Its limbs dip into a cushiony groundcover of trailing purple lantana.

Glancing back along the path, you see masses of variegated flax lily and a gray leaf cotoneaster on the left and a large silver-blue agave (americana?) on the right. I admire Linda’s confidence in allowing open spaces between some of her plants, like the architectural agaves (as they’d have in a desert setting), contrasted with masses of softening groundcovers. The result is quite lush, even though the plants are all drought tolerant. Linda has no irrigation system and waters everything, as needed, by hand.

A stone Aztec-style crocodile looks fierce but tamely carries succulents in his plantable back.

Linda recently planted a swath of ‘Blonde Ambition’ grama grass, and it looks more erect and happy in full sun and gravel mulch than in my part-sun and wood-mulched garden. I love its color echo with the yellow stripes on the agaves in the background.

Let’s take a closer look at those stripey agaves. Also notice how beautifully a painted stucco wall sets off xeric plants.

A blue-green Agave weberi guards the path toward the driveway.

A handsomely pruned prickly pear stands sentry alongside the wall.

A wider view of the front-side garden. To orient yourself, you’re looking at the back of the outdoor fireplace (the taller wall section at the far right).

Linda likes to prune. I like to prune too. The key with pruning, if you’re into it, is knowing when to stop but also being willing to take chances, to seek out a beautiful form without poodling a plant. I admire Linda’s pruning skills with various shrubs, like cenizo, which she prunes up like a small tree, enhancing the natural airiness of the plant, but still allowing it a wide, graceful form — so unlike the tightly pruned and stunted cenizos commonly seen in our area.

Now we’re at streetside, looking at the front garden (you can see the octopus-like live oak in the background). I was intrigued by the bushy, silver-green shrub at right, which Linda told me is silvery cassia (Senna phyllodinea).

Silvery cassia seedpods

Two palms make a bold statement and offer additional screening.

Unusual Gregg dalea (Dalea greggii) spreads like a ghostly head of hair across the ground. Common-as-dirt rosemary, however, captured my complete attention because of Linda’s unique pruning. She’s gotten under the plant and pruned out the lower branches, lifting it up like a full skirt hanging just above the ground — for air circulation, Linda said, but also just because she likes the look.

I love it.

A curling and stretching agave looks like it just woke up and is trying to get itself moving.

More gracefully pruned-up cenizos, which create a silver scrim rather than a view-blocking hedge

A prolific pupper, variegated American agave produces lots of new plants for Linda to mass for effect.

The flagstone path widens near the end of the garden, making room for a simple wooden bench backed by a cloud of bamboo muhly.

A tighter view. Focal points like these give the eye a place to stop, even if your bottom will never grace the seat.

Linda knows to provide an equally pleasing view from the vantage of the focal point itself, so no matter where you stop or which way you look, you have a framed view or vignette to appreciate.

Linda designed the garden herself and does her own maintenance, and her attention to detail is evident at every turn. It’s a beautiful space, and the fact that it’s a low-water garden makes it even more inspiring. Thank you, Linda, for sharing your garden with me!

Up next: An evergreen garden that’s low-maintenance for easy living, for the Foliage Follow-Up meme on 9/16.

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