Houston Open Days Tour 2014: West 11th Place Garden

Houston has one of the earliest Garden Conservancy-sponsored Open Days tours in the country. This year it was held on March 29, after a cold, drawn-out winter (by Texas standards) that saw two 20-degree dips even in subtropical Houston. I wondered how Houston would pull off a garden tour so early, when gardens in Austin were still looking sleepy. But my friend and fellow blogger Diana and I hit the road anyway, 2.5 hours southeast to Houston, eager to kick off spring with a tour.

Six private gardens were on tour, and as on Houston’s 2012 Open Days tour they were mostly estate-style, lawn-and-azalea gardens that would be particularly appealing to landscape architecture students because of their restrained plant palettes and emphasis on space and a seamless connection between house and garden. They were not gardeners’ gardens.

They were of course lovely spaces, with expansive terracing, tastefully planted borders, beautiful swimming pools, and expensive sculpture. While I enjoyed them, I still long to see more variety on a tour, though I appreciate the difficulty any organizer has in finding homeowner-gardeners willing to open their personal spaces to the ogling public. For that reason, I always applaud tour organizers — volunteers usually — for all their hard work and thank those willing to share their gardens.

I plan to show four of the tour gardens this week, starting with this classic space in the posh Museum District.

The boxwood and lawn of the entry court segues into a pool patio with a narrow border of potted boxwood and colorful annuals and perennials.

The flat, metal-sided building visible just over the fig ivy-covered wall is the Contemporary Arts Museum. What a location for art lovers!

Clipped boxwood in terracotta pots are underplanted with annuals.

The border is planted with golden-hued sedum and ‘Kaleidoscope’ abelia (I think), offset by silvery ‘Powis Castle’ artemisia.

Up next: The strikingly contemporary West Lane Garden.

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

Visit to Thompson+Hanson nursery and Tiny Boxwoods cafe

Can you travel to another city to see gardens without visiting a local nursery? Yes, but why in the world would you? While Diana and I were in Houston last Saturday for the Open Days tour (pics coming soon), we stopped for lunch at Tiny Boxwoods cafe, which is operated by and located on the beautiful grounds of boutique nursery and elegant garden shop Thompson+Hanson.

Thompson+Hanson’s reminds me of now-closed Gardens in Austin. As with Gardens, T+H’s primary business is a design-build landscape architecture firm (which, I was surprised to learn, has an office in Austin too). Their retail nursery, located on Alabama Street, invites you in through a massive arbor topped with what appears to be a rainwater-collection tank. It’s playfully adorned with a collection of sparkly disco balls.

I’m a little infatuated by the idea of disco balls in the garden now.

This is central Houston, mind you — land of urban infill, no zoning, and less parking, but look at the spaciousness of this nursery!

And the classic elegance of its structures and decor

Perfuming the air, a white wisteria is carefully trained along an arbor by the garden shop’s doors.

Elegant pots of flowering plants occupy tables set up throughout the nursery, along with classic or tastefully whimsical garden art and decor.

Everything is beautifully displayed.

The nursery grounds feel surprisingly large for inner Houston, but with a limited selection of plants this is not a nursery for all your gardening needs. It’s where you go to “freshen things up” or add a striking focal point or make your front porch the envy of the neighborhood.

All the plants I saw were healthy and happy — not inexpensive, mind you, but well cared for and temptingly beautiful, like this flowering broom.

Their pot selection is simply stunning…

…with planted examples on display to purchase or just jump-start your own creativity.

There is even a small succulent table…

…and this striking potted aloe for sale.

I’m not sure what this structure is for — maybe classes, maybe parties? The grounds are rentable for weddings and other events.

A gift from my sister, I have a couple of smaller grapevine balls like these.

I noticed a nest-building house finch was treating them like a Home Depot.

More nursery views, with burgundy-leaved Japanese maples standing out amid the fresh greens

What a backdrop the Japanese maple makes for this Quadricolor agave.


This orange-spined potted cactus is pretty cute too.

Potted herbs

And potted, pettable moss

I was quite taken with this fiberglass, faux-concrete star but couldn’t bring myself to splurge on it.

Three sizes included this small one on the brick terrace, artfully surrounded by fallen wisteria petals.

Perfect for the Sissinghurst-inspired white garden

Adirondacks by the door invite lounging. Two women were sitting here with glasses of wine when I first walked by. Now that’s the way to garden shop!

Inside, cool elegance and friendly salespeople

Table settings for garden parties…

…playful decor…

…timeless ornament…

…and pretty faux flowers.

At the other end of the nursery from the garden shop, an inviting lawn surrounded by cafe seating had attracted casual Saturday brunchers, some with small children and smaller dogs, and a line stretched out the door for the upscale cafe Tiny Boxwoods.

Diana and I dithered about it but then got in line. We envied the lucky loungers with their mimosas on the patio on this perfect day.

We feared no one would ever leave so that we could get a seat.

But at last we got through the line, ordered our salad and sandwich, and even found a table indoors by the window. Each table was set with a tiny boxwood, naturally.

Lunch was delicious — totally worth the wait. Although I mostly window shopped, I enjoyed this place. It’s an elegant fantasy, as the Open Days tour gardens were, but it’s fun to dream. And you can enjoy a nice lunch on a beautiful terrace while you’re at it.

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

Interview with Luci Baines Johnson about Wildflower Center’s new Family Garden

Water feature with streams, pond, rocks, and grotto in the new children’s garden

Some of you already know this story. In early 2000, while visiting the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center with my baby daughter and 3-year-old son, I unexpectedly met Lady Bird and her daughter Luci Baines Johnson at the newly constructed Hill Country Stream, into which my son was enthusiastically chunking rocks he’d plucked from the stream’s edge. Though starstruck to see Lady Bird in her namesake garden, I was also red-faced at being caught in a bad parenting moment. At her brand-new stream, no less! Lady Bird graciously pretended not to have seen and merely inquired about the children’s ages, exclaimed over the baby, and asked whether we were enjoying the garden.

My kids at the Wildflower Center in 2001

The kids and I loved our Wildflower Center visits over the years, and from their toddlerhood through middle-school years we came to know the garden well — and even learned not to chunk rocks there. But I would have given up my babysitter’s phone number to have access to a garden designed especially for children, where they were invited to get wet and dirty, to explore and climb on things, to make-believe. Of course we did all that in our own back yard, at playgrounds, and along greenbelt creeks (where chunking rocks into the water is a compulsion for little boys), but a dedicated children’s garden that encourages nature exploration would have been a special treat.

Me & my daughter, Wildflower Center 2001

Artistic rendering of the new Family Garden at the Wildflower Center. Image courtesy of W. Gary Smith

Therefore I confess to being a little envious of today’s young parents, who soon will be able to explore with their children the new Luci and Ian Family Garden at the Wildflower Center, which is scheduled to open in May. Designed by acclaimed landscape architect W. Gary Smith, the garden’s play features include a stumpery (fanciful tree stumps), a hedge maze, a stream and pond with a hand pump and buckets nearby, a grotto hidden behind a waterfall, giant birds’ nests with wooden eggs, a spiral wall, and a 1-acre lawn (buffalograss to be eventually overseeded with Habiturf) for running, playing tag, flying kites, or whatever else kids dream up.

A young visitor explores the new water feature.

Senior director Damon Waitt says the Family Garden will be “the garden of yes” for children, with staff “play leaders” on hand to redirect any unsafe activity. One thing you won’t find in the garden are signs explaining what things are and suggesting ways to play with them. Young visitors will be entrusted with exploring in their own fashion and playing creatively in any way that interests them. Adults will be welcomed into the garden as well. In fact, outdoor exercise equipment will be provided so that adults can improve their own fitness while the kids play, if they’re not busy exploring the grotto, maze, and stumpery themselves.

Luci Baines Johnson with husband Ian Turpin. Photo courtesy of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Recently I was invited to attend a press preview of the still-under-construction garden and interview Lady Bird’s daughter Luci, who along with her husband gave the lead gift to establish the garden. Following is our email conversation, interspersed with sneak-peek images from the garden.

PP: In what ways will the children’s garden be a place where kids can cut loose from the traditional garden no-no’s: no picking, no climbing, no stepping?
LBJ: The Family Garden is designed to connect children and families to the natural world. The garden offers more than a dozen interactive features, including a small cave kids can climb inside, porous limestone pedestals for adding water to a creek, giant birds’ nests, a metamorphosis maze, a spiraling wall inlaid with mosaics, and much more.

Giant birds’ nests

LBJ: I took my granddaughter Annie to the Family Garden, and she had a delightful time exploring. You come with preconceived notions of what will be popular, and then you watch folks discovering nature in this really magical spot, and you realize that there are experiences that make your heart sing that you hadn’t anticipated. My hope is that our Family Garden will be a place where families go to play and discover. It’s about learning through discovery instead of formal instruction, and we hope it gives them a sense of excitement.

Spiral wall with Fibonacci number sequence tiled in

PP: How will the children’s garden differ from a nice playground? What makes it a complementary part of the Wildflower Center?
LBJ: What the Family Garden means to the Wildflower Center and Austin is transformation. Every time a children’s garden has been added to a botanical garden throughout the country, memberships explode. The Wildflower Center is on the cutting edge of sustainability, [its focus] the health of the environment. Future generations will come here to discover the wonder and importance of nature.

Upside-down juniper trunks will be part of the Stumpery.

PP: I grew up running around in the woods, wading in streams, and maybe you had that kind of childhood freedom too. But today so few kids, at least in the city, enjoy that level of freedom and exploration. What do you hope today’s indoor-oriented kids will get out of this garden?
LBJ: Mother’s love for the natural world came out of her being born in a rural community and having her mother die when she was five years old. She spent a lot of her early years out in the woods of East Texas. Plants, shrubs, and trees became her instructors and friends. Today our society is much more urban, and children are not outside discovering this world through nature. Nature deficit disorder is a reality.

I believe that the Family Garden will be a magical spot in the Wildflower Center, a place where all ages will enjoy coming. People in Austin love being outside, being in nature. The Family Garden speaks to the child in all of us.##

Covered pavilion and future rain garden

Note: The public grand opening of the Family Garden will be on May 4, and will include food carts, music, and fun activities. If you’re a member of the Wildflower Center (and you should be), you can attend a members’ preview on May 3.

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