Nature Nights introduces kids to the Wildflower Center’s new Family Garden

My kids are teens now and well past playground age. But I’m not!

Since the Luci and Ian Family Garden opened on May 4, I’ve been wanting to check it out. I previewed the garden before it was completed in mid-March and could see it would be a great addition to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. So when I learned that the Wildflower Center is staying open late every Thursday this summer for Nature Nights, a family-oriented evening of nature exploration and play, I grabbed my camera and headed over.

Normally the garden closes at 5 pm, but on Nature Nights it stays open until 8 pm, which is much better for picture taking, so even if you aren’t especially interested in the Family Garden you can still enjoy all the gardens in more flattering light. It’s also free all day and evening on those days.

Don’t fool yourself into thinking that it’ll be cooler, however. It won’t. I arrived last Thursday at 5 pm in 97-degree heat. It had dropped all the way to 95F by the time I left at 6:30 pm. I may not love the heat, but the brand-new plants are sure eating it up.

Surprisingly lush for being so new, the Family Garden is awash right now in blooming coneflowers, zexmenia, and ‘Blonde Ambition’ grama grass (above), plus masses of other beautiful native Texas plants.

Last Thursday, the Family Garden had a festival atmosphere with crowds of people, a band, and small giveaways set up near the play lawn. Pictured here is the Nature’s Spiral, a low, spiraling wall with colorful, tiled mosaics including the Fibonacci numbers sequence.

The plants in this garden were chosen for spiral features, and I saw a few kids examining them to find the spirals.

The tile art is fun and colorful.

Is that a spiral aloe represented at left?

A rustic-style shade pavilion offers picnic seating, but the kids were all drawn to the water features, as kids are.

Dinosaur Creek flows through a flagstone plaza…

…from the Watering Holes, pictured here, to a grotto with a waterfall. Boulders of holey limestone, called karst rock, mark the “headwaters” of seven streams that flow into the creek.

An old-fashioned pump and plastic buckets and watering cans allow children to fill and dump over the holey rocks or directly into the creek.

Dinosaur “footprints” lead along the creek toward the grotto. I watched a Gulf fritillary puddling on the edges of this one, heedless of the busy feet all around.

Many feet were happily soaking in the creek. Other feet (not pictured) were walking around in the creek bottom, despite a sign asking people not to wade or swim; the water is non-potable, and they’re trying to establish plants and habitat for fish, frogs, turtles and aquatic invertebrates. I had wondered how the Family Garden would balance the natural desires of children to get fully into the water (or climb walls or pick plants) with the safety and garden-preservation concerns that a public garden must contend with. At the media preview I attended in March, I was told that signage would be minimal and docents would be on hand to redirect destructive or dangerous play. It looks like the jury is still out on how this will work. The people pictured here were enjoying the creek in a garden-approved way.

These boys were exploring the creek near the Hill Country Grotto, the spectacular main attraction of the garden.

A long, stone-faced wall rises in the central part of the garden, with several cave-like entrances sized for children (I had to crouch to enter) and a dramatic waterfall spilling over the top into the creek.

One cave entrance leads behind the waterfall, where a few ledges are built into the walls for parents to sit on while their kids play in the water.

Spilling water is endlessly entertaining.

Even puddled on the floor, it’s pretty fun to splash around in. This is the scene behind the waterfall.

A good way to cool off on a hot day

A tile mosaic in one of the tunnels represents prehistoric pictographs in a vaguely Keith Haring style.

With dramatic yuccas planted on top, the grotto reminds me of the Hartman Prehistoric Garden at Zilker Botanical Garden.

Kids were also flocking to the Giant Birds’ Nests made of grapevines and branches found on-site. Play is unstructured and open to interpretation, of course. One little boy shouted, “It’s a ship!” as he ran up to a nest. Another told me that the nests were for dinosaurs…

…with dinosaur eggs inside. I love that there are heavy, carved wooden eggs in the nests — like coconuts, to my mind. The children enjoyed hefting them and moving them around.

But my favorite feature by far was the Stumpery. I have fond childhood memories of playing on logs and in a pile of large branches after my parents had a bunch of pine trees cut down. Fallen tree trunks like these can be balance beams, high ground in an alligator-infested swamp, boats, forts, an obstacle course, and even just a place to sit and rest. Thinner branches, bound vertically, surround metal poles at the perimeter of this play space, adding the illusion of a circle of trees.

Upside-down cedar trunks seem to scuttle like crabs. These could be forts for a child crawling under the leg-like branches, or they’d make fine climbing structures.

This huge tree trunk just begs to be climbed on.

The newly planted Metamorphosis Maze is still a bit raw, but once the evergreen native shrubs (I saw cenizo and Texas mountain laurel) fill in it’ll be a fun track to explore. It has a froggy theme, with a large frog sculpture in the center of the maze…

…and smaller frogs at the entrances.

Aside from the play features, the Family Garden also contains numerous planting beds that’ll inspire adult visitors.

This sunken rain garden is designed to capture rainwater and allow it to soak in slowly and stay on-site.

An enormous, galvanized cistern is hooked up to gutters on the restroom roof.

I’d like to learn more about how the stored water is used in the garden.

Quotes by Lady Bird Johnson, the Wildflower Center’s founder, are engraved on boulders throughout the garden, reminding visitors of her mission to promote native plants, to preserve the unique flora each place is endowed with, and to help us all recognize the beauty of the natural world around us.

Click here for more information on Nature Nights, including the fossil-themed event this Thursday, June 19th. Of course you can visit the Family Garden any time the Wildflower Center is open during regular hours as well. All ages are welcome.

Update: My thanks to designer Gary Smith for adding his voice to the comments below. See comment #5.

Up next: More pictures of the other gardens in early summer bloom at the Wildflower Center.

All material © 2006-2014 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Inspired landscape architecture at Cavalliere Park in Scottsdale

While touring low-water gardens in Phoenix and nearby Scottsdale, Arizona, in early April with my friend Noelle Johnson, aka AZ Plant Lady, we stopped at Cavalliere Park. Constructed in 2012, the park is a model of sustainability and is a 3-star SITES-certified project.

Aside from all that, I really liked the look of the place. The angular roof of a long shade structure, which shelters restrooms and a playground, is tilted up and down to mirror the jagged mountains in the distance.

Rusty steel on the roof and rock-filled gabion walls echo the colors of the surrounding rugged landscape. Native plants were chosen for their ability to survive on their own in harsh desert conditions. A play lawn that’s part of the playscape area is artificial turf, which never needs watering. All of the materials were chosen with the goal of requiring less maintenance, thereby reducing long-term costs. You can read more about that on the Sustainable Sites Initiative website.

Two existing mesquite trees in the parking area were saved with the help of a steel-edged island that preserves the original grade around their root zones. This circular island bed is the beautiful focal point of the parking lot.

Native saguaro cactus, yuccas, and flowering perennials fill the understory.

Gabion retaining walls line stormwater retention ponds, and concrete benches with modern lines are positioned for views of the basketball courts and distant mountains. A trio of steel plates with cut-out windows caught my eye. How I wish I’d walked over to see what view is framed when you look through all three at once.

All material © 2006-2014 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Hippos, bottle art sculpture, and a free-spirited garden journey with Donna and Mike Fowler

Could the official mascot of Hutto, Texas, possibly be anything other than a hippo? The Hutto Hippos. Nope, it’s perfect.

Located 30 miles northeast of Austin, the formerly sleepy hamlet of Hutto is growing as quickly as a hippopotamus in a lake full of duckweed. But the town still has a friendly, everyone-knows-everyone vibe, and its most congenial hosts have to be former mayor and found-object sculptor Mike Fowler and his wife and chief gardener, Donna Fowler. They own a beautiful, hundred-year-old home on three large lots that they’ve turned into an art-filled garden. Last Tuesday, Mike and Donna welcomed a group of Austin bloggers, shown posing here with the Fowlers’ parade-worthy hippomobile.

The tour begins under the shade of a large catalpa tree, which provides the roof of a garden room where Mike reads the newspaper.

In its shade, an iron birdbath elevates blue-green sedum against a glossy-leaved star jasmine screen, heavily scented in springtime.

Peeking out from under the low-hanging fringe of catalpa leaves, you see a sunny, xeric border along a wooden fence, with striking plants like yucca, hesperaloe, allium, purple heart, and ornamental grasses.

One of Mike’s glass sculptures, a pregnant woman with arms outstretched and face tipped to the sky, welcomes visitors. She was built in honor of Mike’s niece when she was expecting twins.

A Texas-themed garden and patio for entertaining features a massing of red yucca and accents of limestone boulders.

“The stars at night are big and bright” — bump bump bump BUMP — deep in the heart of Texas!

Open gates invite you to explore ahead, but other doorways beckon as well, and we turned the other way…

…and entered the vegetable and tepee garden. A “garden club” of glass-bottle ladies stand in rows alongside a magnificent, Chihuly-esque bottle tree — all Mike’s creations.

A wide view

The smiling garden club ladies are actually hose guards made of rebar and salvaged bottles and dishes. Mike made them at Donna’s behest in order to keep her hose from tearing up her plants as she watered.

With hats tied with ribbon and beaded necklaces, they are dressed for a tea party.

A mockingbird was enjoying a colorful perch atop the bottle tree.

Their son Luke erected the tepee at the far end of the garden.

Trellis poles make mini-tepees to echo the real deal.

Mike’s “Fork in the Road” piece stands along a path to the tepee.

Donna asked if we wanted to be smudged and invited us into the tepee. We huddled in a circle around a central pit filled with candles, which she lit and used to singe a handful of fragrant herbs.

As smoke wafted up from the singed herbs, she waved them before each of us in turn, chanting a blessing for our eyes to be open to the beauty of the world, our hearts to be filled, and more. I was charmed.

Just outside the tepee, hollyhocks and cornflower were in bloom in a bed thickly mulched with decomposed granite.

Allium seedheads

Another of Mike’s glass sculptures

A former mayor and longtime public servant, Mike nurtures a streak of black political humor in his artwork, including in this piece titled “Blockhead and Council: Poor Decisions and Wasteful Spending.” The blockhead is devouring money while ants representing council members crawl through his body.

In the crown atop its head, a mockingbird built a nest last season.

Exiting the vegetable garden, you see another of Mike’s pieces, the punny “Fish Sticks” swimming through a bed of iris.

There’s a whole school of them.

A meditation garden anchored by an altar-like central bed is the next garden room you pass through.

Trellises shaped like gothic church windows edge a small lawn next to the “altar.”

A stacked-stone sculpture sits atop a river of sparkling, recycled glass, which actually conceals a French drain.

A white garden fronts the large studio/office structure behind the main house. Mike’s dad, a fine-art sculptor, created several pieces that now reside here, including the mother-and-child piece at left.

I enjoyed the shadows of the palms against the house.

It was fun to look up through palm branches too.

More of Mike’s humorous, glass-bottle art

In a hot, sunny border, Donna combined Mexican feathergrass and red salvia with charming but aggressive (like mint, she said) butter-and-eggs, also known as yellow toadflax (Linaria vulgaris).

I loved it with the yellow-hued feathergrass.

Around back of the house, on either side of the driveway, two hippos stand at attention, one painted like the U.S. flag…

…the other as the Texas flag.

The Fowlers have christened the narrow garden along the side of their house as Hippo Valley, and it is chock full of hippos. This is one of a trio peeking out of a bed of blanketflower.

Here’s another swimming through a pool of recycled glass. There were many more to be discovered among exuberant plantings.

A fence is given eye-level interest with grandfather’s pipe (Callisia fragrans) cuttings in old bottles wired to metal trellises.

Is this where Donna roots cuttings, I wonder?

Blue and green bottles are put into service as path edging.

White yarrow offers country charm against a wooden fence.

Another of Mike’s father’s sculptures

Looking back at the path winding through Hippo Valley, you see a large cistern that collects rainwater off the roof.

A turquoise assortment of bottles adorns another of Mike’s bottle sculptures.

And an empty fence corner is dressed up with sedums and other easy-care plants in a tiered arrangement of terracotta planters.

One more look at the hilarious hippomobile, whose right eye can be made to wink via a lever inside.

The backside — lifelike down to the brushy tail

Mike and Donna are generous and gracious hosts, sharing stories, blessings, and the beauty and humor of their garden with us. My thanks to both of them for a wonderful visit! If you’d like to see more of their garden, watch their recent interview on Central Texas Gardener.

And here’s our group enjoying the garden. From left to right: honorary blogger Tom Ellison (whose garden I recently toured), Ally of Garden Ally, Bob of Central Texas Gardening, Diana of Sharing Nature’s Garden, me, Lori of The Gardener of Good and Evil, and Cat of The Whimsical Gardener.

All material © 2006-2014 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.