Mid-century house inspires Palm Springs-style garden in Austin


Charlotte Warren, a photographer and former co-chair of the local Garden Conservancy tour, inherited a steeply sloping, west-facing zoysia lawn when she moved into her home in the hills of West Austin. Aside from requiring lots of water and regular mowing, the lawn offered zero privacy for her front-yard swimming pool and did nothing to complement the mid-century lines of her 1957 Barton Riley-designed home.


Inspired by the Palm Springs, California-style architecture of her house, Charlotte hired landscape architect Curt Arnette of Sitio Design to create a garden in the modern, desert-oasis style for which Palm Springs is known. In the summer of 2013, the zoysia lawn was ripped out and the new garden installed. I visited just a couple months later, in October, to photograph it. Those photos appear in the first half of this post. But I have a treat! I was invited to visit again last week and took new photos, which make up the latter part of this post, offering you before-and-after views of the garden’s growth over one year.


Let’s take a tour, shall we? A small, emerald lawn still offers barefoot pleasure under the live oaks near the house and pool, a non-guilty pleasure considering the water thriftiness of the rest of the garden. Mod circles of crushed gravel act as stepping stones across the rubbly, native river rock that mulches the dry garden.


Where the zoysia lawn once crisped in the afternoon sun, now an inviting, steel-edged, crushed-gravel path sidewinds through the sloping lot, with steel-riser steps leading down and back up to the house.


Desert plants like Yucca rostrata, agave, and golden barrel cactus and drought-tolerant natives like Texas mountain laurel, Wheeler sotol, blackfoot daisy, prickly pear, Mexican feathergrass, and frogfruit create a buffer between house and street, hold the slope (no retaining walls were added), and lushly mingle to create a Cal-Tex oasis.


The pool is situated in front of the house behind turquoise railing, overlooked by the front windows for a year-round poolside view.


These steps lead down the slope, where the gravel path continues back toward the driveway. Enormous, rounded granite boulders, which look as pillowy as rising bread dough, edge the steps and are placed as accents throughout the garden. Along the property line, Arizona cypress creates an evergreen screen.


Graceful steps entice you to keep exploring.


On any sloping lot, water runoff is a design challenge. Terracing is one answer, but it’s expensive. In this unterraced garden, boulders help slow water flow as do the plants, and a channel filled with riprap collects remaining runoff, ducks under a metal bridge in the gravel path, and moves it downhill off the property.


Xeric plants like ‘Macho Mocha’ mangave and Mexican feathergrass are given room to grow and spread.


Blackfoot daisy spills over and softens a cluster of boulders.


Looking up from the street. The white-flowering tree at right is Mexican olive (Cordia boissieri). Because it’s native to South Texas and can be damaged in hard freezes, this is one tree I’d plant in spring rather than fall.


It is quite pretty.


At street-level, Mexican feathergrass mixes with agave, mangave, sotol, leatherstem (Jatropha dioica), and blackfoot daisy.


The golden eye of blackfoot daisy finds a color echo in golden barrel cactus.

One year later: August 28, 2014


That was then. This is now, one year later, on a sunny, 100-degree summer afternoon. Despite the heat, a breeze kept me comfortable, and the winding path is as enticing as ever.


The groundcovers and grasses have put on the most growth over the past year. The native shrubs and small trees have also noticeably grown. Other plants have been replaced, as is typical in any garden. A shrub along the top path, for instance, has been replaced with the cleaner lines of an ocotillo, a desert plant I don’t see in Austin very often.


The switchback. Architectural Yucca rostrata serves as a focal point at the turn.


The Texas mountain laurels have grown a foot or two, and will eventually screen the left side of the pool.


Yucca rostrata shadow play (“Look at me! I’m a sun!”) on a puddle of silver ponyfoot.


A new perspective, looking down the steps. Notice that much of the gravel mulch is now hidden under a layer of creeping groundcovers, softening the look of the garden.


The steel bridge and riprap channel. I imagine this becomes a torrent during a typical Texas thunderstorm.


Looking back at those pillowy boulders and shimmery Yucca rostrata.


One more view, with the bridge. Blue-greens and silvery blues visually cool the garden, plus those plants tend to be most drought-tolerant.


Powder-blue Wheeler sotol dances uphill on either side of the riprap channel.


Yucca rostrata should always be planted where it can cast a shadow.


‘Green Goblet’ agave sits atop granite boulders, with golden barrel cactus below.


The garden continues in a curving band on the other side of the driveway. It makes for a continuous garden view at the juncture of strolling path and driveway.


Water runoff along the driveway is handled with another channel and heavy stone that won’t wash downhill.


At streetside, groundcovering Mexican feathergrass and frogfruit have filled in nicely, and the feathergrass has gone tawny for summer. The structural agaves grow more slowly, but in a few years they will dominate this scene.


On the right side of the drive, silver ponyfoot cascades around boulders and plants like a living waterfall.


Up near the house, a trio of large steel-pipe pieces act as planters for silver and bronze dyckias.


A silvery-green, textural composition of ‘Whale’s Tongue’ agave (A. ovatifolia), purple prickly pear (‘Santa Rita’ opuntia, perhaps?), and silver ponyfoot (Dichondra argentea).

My thanks to Charlotte for inviting me back to see how her garden has grown. It’s heartening to see a garden that looks just as happy after weeks of triple-digit heat and no rain as it does in fall or spring. Charlotte told me she waters once a week via a drip system that delivers water directly to each plant. I imagine by next year, the dry garden could easily go two weeks between waterings in summer and look just as fantastic, and of course it wouldn’t need to be watered at all in cooler, wetter times of the year.

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

Waiting for autumn’s reviving touch


Whew! After writing 16 posts about Portland gardens, each containing scads of photos of summer-lush and richly blooming borders, I’m somehow ready for a return to my own Death Star-blasted garden. August is my least favorite gardening month here in Austin. I’m over the heat. I’m over the humidity. I’m over, over, over summer.

And yet there’s love, still, for the garden as it patiently — much more patiently than I — awaits the reviving touch of fall.


Last evening I strolled through the front garden at sunset, taking a closer look than I’ve done in weeks. The trio of ‘Burgundy Ice’ dyckia (two are replacements after the cold snap last winter) is looking quite sharp.


The west side of the driveway-island bed is looking good too despite my neglect. ‘Color Guard’ yucca, gopher plant (Euphorbia rigida), Mexican feathergrass (Nassella tenuissima), wavy prickly pear (Opuntia), ‘Powis Castle’ artemisia, and Vitex agnus-castus don’t ask for much except sun and an occasional deep watering to look their best, even in summer.


In the shade of the live oaks, heartleaf skullcap (Scutellaria ovata) has gone to seed, leaving a trio of Texas dwarf palmettos (Sabal minor) to strut their stuff. They’d look better if I trimmed back the spent skullcap, but oh well.


A different view. Those sabals are putting on some height this year! Turk’s cap (Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii), one of my few dependable summer bloomers, screens the street behind the palmettos.


Here’s the long view across the front garden and Berkeley sedge lawn, as seen from my neighbor’s yard (the fence runs along the property line). I think I’m going to Outlaw Gardener-up that bare spot in front of the giant hesperaloe (Hesperaloe funifera) — maybe a few colorful Mexican gazing globes?


And here’s the long view as seen from the curb: a garden of deer-resistant grasses, salvias, yucca, and herbs. The caged tree at left is a young possumhaw holly (Ilex decidua), which I’m still protecting from deer. Every day I tell myself to get out here and whack back those autumn sages (Salvia greggii) by one-third, for better shape and fall bloom, but every day laziness wins out. Maybe tomorrow.


Stepping back about 15 feet into my neighbor’s driveway, you can see how her garden and mine blend together. I planted this for her a few years ago, and we share the decomposed-granite path that runs between our gardens from the street to the fence, and which continues into my garden. (She opted not to continue it around the back of her bed to her driveway, but that could be added later to reduce even more lawn and improve accessibility.)

Taking stock, I see that the ‘Whale’s Tongue’ agave has grown tremendously, but three Gulf muhly grasses (Muhlenbergia capillaris) have not thrived. Two have been removed, and the last one needs to go. My neighbor planted a softleaf yucca (Y. recurvifolia) to fill the gap; I would not have chosen to place the yucca so close to the agave, but after all it is her yard to play in. Her salvias, like mine, need a good whacking. It’s a bit crispy and could really use a deep watering, but overall this is typical for a largely unwatered, native-plant garden in August in central Texas. Fall rains will perk it up.


I’m not sure anything will perk up this poor, gnawed-to-a-nub ‘Soft Caress’ mahonia. I received two beautiful plants from the Sunset Western Garden Collection following the 2013 San Francisco Garden Bloggers Fling. I’ve had good luck with this plant in shade, and I added the freebies to my new side garden with high hopes. From the start, however, the deer have chomped them, although they’ve never touched more-established mahonias along the front of my house. Frustrating.

Despite the challenges of August and Bambi, I know I will delight in being outdoors again soon. Just one month to go until the happy gardening month of October! How about you? Are you enjoying or hurrying along these last weeks of summer?

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

Love just around the bend at Bella Madrona: Portland Garden Bloggers Fling


For our final tour on the Garden Bloggers Fling in Portland last month, our bus stopped on a rural highway and deposited us in a field with a few pieces of rusty farming equipment strewn about. Not sure what to expect, I walked through open gates adorned with the garden’s name, Bella Madrona. Suddenly a pulsing beat and falsetto vocals filled the air. The disco anthem “Stayin’ Alive” was playing throughout the garden via hidden speakers. This was going to be a party!


A dramatic red and black garden greeted us as we entered.


Va-va-voom reds


Beech hedges, like arched Gothic columns, framed the space, creating doorways and windows, while this black pot sat like a cauldron atop a mossy pedestal.


A mysterious and romantic mood was set.


A concrete dolphin sporting a red crystal on its head? Why not?


Crocosmia and red-tinged banana leaves, along with mossy chairs, make for a lost-in-the-jungle vibe.


Intimate seating areas like this appear throughout the 5-acre garden, amid slightly overgrown, romantically tangled gardens.


Paths branch off in different directions, curving around hedges and shrubs so that you can’t tell what’s ahead. Randomly selecting the left-branching path, I came across a barn-like, ivy-cloaked guest house. Old wash buckets decorate the side.


On the porch, all manner of cast-off items are turned into strange and spooky still lifes.


Following the path onward, I paused to admire these stars set in the gravel. As soon as I got home I dug some old metal stars out of my garage and set them in one of my paths.


At the base of some steps, a series of monumental, angular arbors appeared, beckoning one downhill and into the woods.


I did not heed their call, tempted as I was by another path leading elsewhere, and I never made it back to this area in my 2-hour wanderings. How I wish I had! It led to an eerie gnome garden and high-flying swing that others have blogged about.


Instead, I walked this way, drawn by a small seating area atop a curved double stair backed by a doorway hedge.


Looking through from the other side


The terracing contained a dripping fountain of metal pipes jutting out of the rocks, which fed a small pool.


Just beyond that, a larger gathering space appeared, as well as “waterfall” steps leading up past billowing white hydrangeas. You can’t really see it in this photo, but a terraced stream runs downhill alongside the path. Heading upward and around the bend…


…my heart gave a start as I peeked beneath low-hanging branches to see what a glimmer of blue might be. I find this vignette creepily fascinating. It’s like the garden is populated with otherworldly characters that come to life after dark.


But although the sun was low in the sky, it was still light, and Aretha Franklin was belting out “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” over the speakers. I couldn’t be too spooked. Soon I came upon a tousled, English-style border, and all eeriness disappeared.


Spiky eryngium — love!


Tall pedestals along the back of the border support potted ‘Color Guard’ yuccas and add drama to the scene.


The columns themselves are set in planters made of steel rings.


More flower-border goodness


And more. I love the rich colors.


I watched a hummingbird working the border for some time and caught one blurred image.


The other side of the border was intriguing also, with a spiky, orange-tinged Solanum pyracanthum in front of a tiered metal fountain. I once tried to talk Loree of Danger Garden into this plant at Cistus Nursery. “But you need it. It’s dangerous!”


Speaking of whom, there’s Loree with Peter, The Outlaw Gardener, who’s giving me a this-is-the-life wave.


And here’s Loree again, one of our incredibly organized, generous, and welcoming Fling hosts.


Bella Madrona is the 34-year-old creation of two retired physicians, Geof Beasley and Jim Sampson. Their magical garden is regularly the site of fundraising benefits, and the band Pink Martini, which has performed here, wrote “The Gardens of Sampson and Beasley” about it. Stacks of Pink Martini’s CD Hang On Little Tomato, which contain the song, were generously donated to our group by the band when they heard we would be visiting the garden.


This skeleton affixed to the front of a truck in the driveway is perhaps a nod to the owners’ former profession? It reminded me of a similar hood ornament at Wamboldtopia at the Asheville Fling in 2012. Actually, the whole garden bears a certain resemblance to Wamboldtopia, especially in its mysteriously magical mood and cast-off-object artistry.


Wandering past the front of the house, I came across a living bottle tree.


Chunks of glass were stuck in the folds of its massive trunk, reminding me of the pig’s teeth in the wych elm of Howards End.


A carved, wooden figure wearing a tin hat, with a piercing, blue-eyed gaze, emerged from a swath of ferns.


Here’s a striking use for a steel pipe remnant.


And a wire sphere


Heading back down into the main gardens I entered a room bordered by a randomly crennelated hedge — Piet Oudolf meets Sleeping Beauty’s castle.


Secret gardens at every turn


And inviting, wandering paths…


…full of mystery…


…and beauty…


…and “danger”…


…and romance.


A cracked, hollow sphere appears, egg-like, to hatch an ornamental grass. I’m fairly certain this is a Little and Lewis piece.


How could anyone resist paths that beckon you on with curves and hidden rooms ahead?


What lies around the bend?


A boulder with glass horns and a spot to sit with a friend and enjoy the view…


…surrounded only by grasses and conifers.


A few steps down from the chairs and table…


…I came upon a golden garden around sunset.


It glowed with gold and chartreuse foliage. I felt I’d stepped into King Midas’s garden.


Continuing on, I encountered a pair of red chairs enclosed by tall…thistles?


In yet another small clearing, a sundial or clock made of chains, round pavers, and straight sections of slate reminded me that it was getting late.


Heading back, I was enchanted to find a small patio paved with bottoms-up wine bottles. I wonder where they get all these bottles?


Oh, never mind. Here’s a beautiful bouquet on a table of drinks and food set up for our group on the main lawn.


Our group of 80 bloggers, plus one very enthusiastic bus driver, gathered here for refreshments and conversation…


…sitting with friends for a while before drifting away to explore the winding paths of Bella Madrona.


What a magically wonderful way to end the Fling.

My thanks to the owners of Bella Madrona and all the other gardens for welcoming us so warmly into your delightful creations. And huge applause and congratulations to the Portland Fling planning committee — Scott Weber at Rhone Street Gardens, Loree Bohl at Danger Garden, Heather Tucker at Just a Girl with a Hammer, Jane Howell-Finch at MulchMaid, and Ann Amato-Zorich at Amateur Bot-ann-ist — for putting together such an incredible event. Thank you, thank you!

Up next: A pre-Fling drive out to the scenic, wild Columbia River Gorge and then to Cannon Beach. For a look back at the foliage-rich, xeric garden of John Kuzma, click here.

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