Nursery visit: The Arbor Gate near Houston

My sister, who lives in Houston, expressed amazement at how many gardens I managed to squeeze into my visit to her city a couple of weekends ago. It’s true. I’ve shown you four Open Days tour gardens, plus four drive-by gardens that were pretty fabulous, plus a nursery visit to Thompson+Hanson, plus wildflowers in Brenham along the way. Whew!

But I have one more nursery visit to share with you, The Arbor Gate in far northwest Houston (Tomball, to be exact), a lively, customer-oriented, garden-art-packed destination nursery for Houston-area gardeners.

I was touring with my friend Diana of Sharing Nature’s Garden, and we popped into the shop first just to say hi and make sure they were OK with us taking photos. I spotted this congregation of bluebirds on the porch rail. It was my first taste of the fun garden art placed whimsically and en masse throughout the nursery and display gardens.

Like these ceramic koi splashing through the chard.

See how they color-coordinated the orange and red fish with the hot-colored stalks of the chard?

And the poppies

Painted metal birdhouses and flying pigs were hung from seemingly every tree and arbor.

Signs, suns, and winged hearts galore decorated a painted fence.

A whole flock of parrots and cockatoos festooned the nursery aisles.

This is the place to go if you need to brighten your garden with art…

…or give a bird a home.

The pottery selection is nice too, with shade from the intense Texas sun.

A ceramic owl stool amid the blue pots

There were, of course, plenty of plants tucked among all the garden art, like these azaleas, which grow well in East Texas.

Plus lots of flowering perennials…

…and hanging baskets. The sales staff was helpful when needed, and Diana and I found a few new plants to bring home. Not azaleas though.

The Arbor Gate offers lots of talks, and I think this elaborate copper arbor is probably where speakers are set up.

Two gift shops at opposite ends of the nursery offer housewares, books, and gifts of all kinds. The front shop, pictured here, is packed with home accessories and garden-related goodies.

Even table settings

This was a fun stop on the way into Houston, requiring only a slight detour to the north as we drove in via Hwy. 290. So, would any of the garden art have tempted you? I loved those ceramic koi but resisted — this time anyway.

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

Houston Open Days Tour 2014: Jungle safari at 3965 Del Monte Drive Garden

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! On March 29, my friend Diana and I traveled to Houston for the Garden Conservancy-sponsored Open Days tour. Del Monte Drive in the posh River Oaks neighborhood was home to two of the gardens, starting with a surprising “safari garden” behind one of the most enormous homes I’ve ever seen.

Voila! The neo-French mansion in all its pale-pink glory. Actually, this picture doesn’t do it justice because it obscures an entire wing of the house to the left, plus a freestanding ballroom with its own entry court on the right (pics at the end of this post). Grande, non?

We expected little more than an elegant parking court, graceful old trees, and obligatory acres of lawn and azaleas. Imagine our surprise, therefore, when our perfunctory stroll through the rear garden turned into a fun, exploratory walkabout through azalea trails leading past a menagerie of life-size animal sculptures. Look out! Here comes a leopard.

Elephants are my favorite animal and seemed to be the owner’s too. This baby elephant, perched over a small pond, its trunk stretched out for a drink, is one of three elephant sculptures in the garden.

Yes. Three life-size elephant sculptures.

Two of them are only calves, however, and don’t take up much room.

This picture shows how the stepping-stone path winds through a groundcover of mondo grass and past borders of azalea, foxtail fern, and philodendron. Overarching the scene is an upper layer of small trees like Mexican plum and sinuous, dark-limbed live oaks.

It was quite a magical space, believe it or not. We imagined how much fun the owner’s children or grandchildren must have, running these trails and climbing on the animal sculptures.

Here a foal grazes amid cut-back liriope while a turtle raises its head for a look.

A bronze bear sniffs the air for the presence of tasty little boys or girls.

Watch out! A hippopotamus gapes wide amid azalea, loropetalum, and iris.

A fancy playhouse on stilts, looking very much like a safari tent, is tucked into one end of the garden, surrounded by rustling bamboo.

Beneath it, a flagstone patio furnished with camp chairs invites lounging or play. A gorilla relaxes nearby.

From another angle you see the playhouse, inviting paths, and — whoa! — an alligator snapping at passersby from a clump of variegated flax lily. Over-the-top it may be, but come on! What kid wouldn’t love this?

Backing up for a wider view, you see elegant steps leading to a vine-cloaked pool house or storage building. Two of these green-doored structures flank each side of a swoop-roofed pool cabana…

…with a striped, tent-like ceiling, buffet, mirror, dining table, and incredible beaded chandelier. Lounge chairs, not pictured, are aligned on the lawn on each side of the pavilion, all overlooking the pièce de résistance

…a prancing, life-size elephant spouting water from its trunk into a circular swimming pool surrounded by palms.

We met the landscape architect who designed this garden, Frank Brown III, who also happens to be the Houston Open Days organizer, and he told us that the owner already owned the animal sculptures, and he was charged with figuring out how to display them. I think he did a marvelous job.

I stood in the pavilion for a bit, looking out on the scene and wondering about the kind of person who purchases a menagerie of life-size, bronze sculpture for her garden. I imagined someone a bit like my husband’s grandmother, who has always had a flamboyant style, an appreciation for whimsy, and a willingness to spend to create an experience for her family and friends.

By the way, that’s the free-standing ballroom up ahead.

Here’s a look at it from the front. This is the first area of the garden we saw. Very nice, of course, but not particularly inspiring for the average homeowner.

A parking court with an island of boxwood and roses. But wait — what’s that against the house?

Espaliered magnolias! Perhaps Magnolia grandiflora ‘Little Gem’? Now that’s interesting, and do-able for any skilled gardener on a smaller budget. See? There’s always a takeaway.

Up next: The casually elegant 3640 Del Monte Drive Garden. For a look back at the contemporary West Lane Garden, click here.

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.