Plant This: Dwarf firebush ignites the fall garden

I’m trying a dwarf variety of the popular firebush (Hamelia patens ‘Compacta’ or ‘Glabra’) in a mostly sunny spot in my neighbor’s garden that I help tend, and it’s performed beautifully all summer and into fall, requiring little water once established and blooming its head off through the dog days. At about 3 feet tall and 2 feet wide, dwarf firebush is perfect for a tight spot, compared to the standard firebush at 3 to 5 feet tall and wide.

The long, narrow leaves have a slight blush along the edges, echoing the orange-red stems, and are pretty even when the plant is not in bloom.

The tubular flowers glow golden, orange, and red and attract hummingbirds.

Since it’s considered a tender perennial in Austin, plant dwarf firebush in the spring so it can become established before winter. Add a few purple-flowering salvias around it (try Salvia leucantha), and you’ll have a stunning summer and fall combination.

Note: My Plant This posts are written primarily for gardeners in central Texas. The plants I recommend are ones I’ve grown myself and have direct experience with. I wish I could provide more information about how these plants might perform in other parts of the country, but gardening knowledge is local. Consider checking your local online gardening forums to see if a particular plant might work in your region.



Both events are free, and I’ll be selling and signing copies of Lawn Gone! I’d love to see your friendly faces!

All material © 2006-2012 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Gorgeous gravel garden outshines former lawn in Lakewood garden

Whenever landscape architect Curt Arnette of Sitio Design invites me to see one of his gardens, I say, “I’ll be right there!” Last Saturday we toured a 1-year-old garden in the Lakewood neighborhood of West Austin that he designed and that his cousin John Gibson (of Gibson Landscape in Georgetown, Texas) installed. This is the street view — shazam!

I was lucky to catch at peak bloom the Gulf muhly grasses that run ribbon-like through the front garden. Sculptural succulents and woody lilies like Opuntia and Yucca rostrata anchor the garden when the muhly is not in bloom. Dense native groundcovers like frogfruit (Phyla nodiflora) and wooly stemodia (Stemodia lanata) keep it feeling lush despite the obvious drought tolerance of this well-drained gravel garden.

A green-trunked, thorny, native retama tree (Parkinsonia aculeata) adds height and chrome-yellow flowers in the spring. A wide view shows the winding layout of the front garden, which occupies a large corner lot.

BEFORE: This image from Google Maps gives you a sense of how much Curt changed with the new design. How boring is this huge, flat expanse of thirsty lawn, with a smattering of crepe myrtles and pines (in Austin!) along the circular drive? Curt kept some of the pines, which add height and texture and put me in mind of Bastrop’s pineywoods in the sandy soils to the east of Austin. He also specified a regrading of the lot (see photo above), creating large, bermed planting beds mulched in chunky granite gravel, with wide, curving paths of packed decomposed granite running through the garden.

Limestone boulders are placed artfully along the edges of the path. Notice how the boulders are buried halfway in the soil, giving them a natural look. Curt’s plant palette mixes native shrubs, perennials, and grasses with subtropical palms and flowering shrubs (like Tecoma ‘Orange Jubilee’) and desert plants like yuccas and agaves. The result is hybrid style that’s uniquely Austin.

Flowering aloe, with bamboo muhly (Muhlenbergia dumosa) and Gulf muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris) in the background.

Chartreuse clouds of bamboo muhly frame a vase-shaped palm, red yuccas (Hesperaloe parviflora), and a ‘Whale’s Tongue’ agave (A. ovatifolia).

Another wide view, with silver ponyfoot (Dichondra argentea) carpeting the bermed bed at right. It’s beautiful now, but keep in mind that this is only a year-old garden, and the agaves will fill in to 4 or 5 feet across in the next few years. The palms will fill out as well, adding to the lushness.

Mexican olive (Cordia boissieri) in flower. I usually see these pruned up as trees, but I like the shrubby look too. (A sustained hard freeze can damage this beautiful South Texas native, so if you covet one it should be sited with care.)

The naturalistic style of the front garden gives way to a linear, more contemporary design as you reach a fenced courtyard garden that leads to the home’s entry. Curt designed the rust-colored, steel-mesh panels and arbor, which provide security, deer-proofing, and a sense of privacy without obstructing views or breezes. He also designed the raised steel container with a concrete pond inserted in the middle. Recirculating water flows from the pond into a raised, concrete rill that runs through a cut-out in the fence…

…leading the eye into the courtyard garden and toward a large, circular pond. A path of poured-concrete strips, both aggregate and smooth-surfaced, leads you into the garden, but not too quickly. You are encouraged to linger over the plants that grow in crevices along the path and soften the geometry of the hardscaping. The freckled, fleshy leaves of ‘Macho Mocha’ mangave spill over the path’s edge at right.

I love this evergreen combination of bamboo muhly, firecracker fern (Russelia equisetiformis), and some variety of palm, with Yucca rostrata anchoring the corner.

The rill pours neatly into the sunken pool…

…home to a couple of water lilies and a school of colorful fish. Observant readers may remember a similar pond in Curt’s own garden, which he described as a trial run for this one.

To the right, a shoestring acacia (A. stenophylla) with a graceful weeping form anchors the small garden by the fence. Native to Australia, this small tree is said to be hardy to 20 F. (Austinites, plant with care, giving it a protected location and a southern exposure.)

A trio of Yucca rostrata of varied heights, with their shimmering Koosh-ball heads, stand sentinel by a side entrance.

A wider view shows a change in elevation to the left of the pond, which gives the courtyard even more of a sense of enclosure.

A side view. The home’s double front doors are visible at right. Notice the circular strip of aggregate concrete running around the pond, emphasizing its shape, adding a sense of movement, and leading the eye.

Steel edges steps and a raised bed behind the garage, with a stacked-antler sculpture adding a focal point that plays off the yuccas’ spiky forms. Silver ponyfoot cascades over the steel edging.

A closer look

Behind the garage, a metal mesh gate opens up a stuccoed wall and offers a view of the front garden.

Here’s the other side, if you’re curious. Curt designed all the metalwork in the garden as well.

‘Whale’s Tongue’ agave (A. ovatifolia) mingling with Gregg’s mistflower (Conoclinium greggii)

Leaving the courtyard, you step up into the back garden — a large side garden, really, as the back of the house overlooks a canyon leading down to Bull Creek. Casual decomposed-granite paths lead through a shady space with a naturalistic yet uncluttered style.

Agave and a possumhaw holly, or maybe yaupon holly, laden with berries

Philippine violet (Barleria cristata) in full purple bloom

The back garden is laid out in a similar fashion to the front garden, only with smaller bermed and graveled beds, and with shade-tolerant plants instead of sun-loving. Winding paths of decomposed granite invite you to explore. This is the view looking back toward the courtyard entry garden.

Notice that no edging separates paths from planting beds, although a chunkier gravel is used to mulch the plants than is used on the paths. In the narrow strip along the back of the house, a swimming pool with a raised edge and surrounding patio offers a place to entertain or lounge, and it overlooks a scenic view of Bull Creek.

The view from the pool patio is slightly more tropical, with clusters of palmetto, sago palm, philodendron, and lily-of-the-Nile or amaryllis.

The stucco wall that encloses the back garden is shorter behind the pool, where it’s topped with mesh fencing panels that allow light and views. That’s Bull Creek below, and a view of the surrounding hills.

Behind the master bedroom, a small patio offers an inviting spot for morning coffee.

The soft-yellow bloom spikes of forsythia sage (Salvia madrensis)

We exited the garden the same way we entered, through the entry courtyard. One last look…

Back out front, I had to admire the Gulf muhly again, and a wavy prickly pear.

Not to mention the overall scene

Even the mailbox is cool, done up in board-formed concrete. (The rill in the courtyard is constructed of board-formed concrete too. Scroll up for a photo.)

The garden tour wouldn’t be complete without a photo of the talented people who brought this garden to life: Curt Arnette, the designer, and John Gibson, the installer. And my thanks to the owners for allowing me to share their gorgeous, water-saving garden!



Both events are free, and I’ll be selling and signing copies of Lawn Gone! I’d love to see your friendly faces!

All material © 2006-2013 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Festive fall color just a footstep away

Look low, not up in the trees, for vibrant autumn color in an Austin garden. Our trees tend not to turn until early December. But fall-flowering perennials provide plenty of pizzazz until then. Right now in my garden I’m enjoying golden thryallis (Galphimia gracilis), which blooms all summer but turns it up a notch with fall’s cooler temperatures.

Out front at curbside, my neighbor’s garden is a festive explosion of autumn sage (Salvia greggii), dwarf Mexican firebush (Hamelia patens ‘Compacta’), orange lantana, and Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha), all surrounding a young but fast-growing ‘Whale’s Tongue’ agave (A. ovatifolia).

Purple-flowering Salvia leucantha and orange lantana make a classic fall combo in Austin.

Color can come from garden art too!

Mexican firebush (Hamelia patens) adds more orange blooms, along with handsome, orange-tinged leaves.

‘Whale’s Tongue’ agave (A. ovatifolia) and autumn sage (Salvia greggii)

‘Wendy’s Wish’ salvia is new to my garden this year. It bloomed beautifully all summer in dappled shade and proved completely deer resistant. It’s considered a tender perennial in Austin. Fingers crossed that it returns next spring.

All summer I anticipate the fall flowering of my ‘Pink Flamingos’ muhly, a cross between our native Gulf muhly and Lindheimer muhly grasses. Early this month the sparkling pink inflorescences appeared — and then they flopped in the heavy rains…

… and they’ve draped lazily across the hot-pink Salvia greggii ever since.

Still quite pretty, although not quite the effect I was going for.

Pale pavonia (Pavonia hastata), another tender perennial, would look pretty with the pinks of the muhly and salvia, but it’s growing in the island bed in the driveway, where it seeded itself from a mother plant long gone.

In the back garden, our native fall aster (A. oblongifolius) is in full bloom, along with summer-blooming plumbago (P. auriculata) that still has legs. A blue disappearing fountain adds permanent color to the scene.

Hmm, I sense a theme — vivid color — in my garden decor. Under the red-orange circle planter from Potted and a red Austin sign, the cobalt blooms of black-and-blue sage (Salvia guaranitica) feed migrating hummingbirds.

But it’s almost Halloween, and a little ghostly white is not unwelcome in the fall-flowering garden. One of the latest bloomers in my garden is shrubby white boneset, aka white mistflower (Ageratina havanensis), which is just opening its spicy-scented sprays. I like the way the white flowers look with the silver gleam of the culvert-pipe planters. Soon bees and butterflies will be drawn to the lure of the mistflower.

The garden is also quite spider friendly, and we have a big one on the front porch. Visitors, beware!

All material © 2006-2013 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.