Smart, water-saving landscaping at UT’s Belo Center

On a chilly, rainy Saturday in mid-November — a quiet traffic day — I headed to the University of Texas campus and actually found street parking at the Belo Center for New Media, whose landscaping I’ve wanted to see ever since landscape architect Christine Ten Eyck told me about the innovative design.

Formerly a parking lot, the street-front property at the corner of Dean Keeton and Guadalupe is now, thanks to Ten Eyck’s design, a water-conserving, native-plant garden surrounding a small lawn and plaza with multiple seating areas and a performance space.

A solitary paleleaf yucca (Y. pallida) planted in a soil pocket adorns a concrete table.

Opened in 2012, the garden is LEED Gold certified. Near the street, poured-in-place concrete benches furnish a spacious sunken patio, which is buffered by a wide planting bed filled with native hollies and grasses…

…as pictured here from the street.

A few steps up, the lawn offers green space for students to lounge when the weather is warmer and drier. Humble honey mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa), formally planted as an allee along the length of the lawn, offers filtered shade in summer. Instead of the usual river-rock mulch or blower-scoured earth, native skullcap (Scutellaria suffrutescens) makes a pretty groundcover under the trees.

Using all natives in an urban, semi-formal setting is unusual. But the most impressive aspect of the design is a water-collection system that harnesses rainfall and air-conditioning condensate from the building, which is then used to water the garden. No city-treated water is used on this garden. None. Zip. Instead, the condensate water is filtered through a biofiltration fountain that runs, rill-like, through the garden on a perpendicular axis with the building. Here’s where it starts, planted with grassy bog plants, which help cleanse pollutants out of the water.

The water sheets down a spillway as it enters the sunken patio garden.

A bridge of perforated metal allows foot passage across the stream, where, surprisingly, a few water-loving shrubs add height amid the flow.

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis). (Thanks for the ID, Michael.)

The water feature terminates in a rectangle of chunky river rock near the street, where the water drains underground to be recycled into the watering system or, I’m guessing, stored until needed.

The garden is planted naturalistically along the street. But closer to the building, natives are planted in linear masses, like this row of Yucca pallida

…and, behind the yuccas, flame acanthus (Anisacanthus quadrifidus var. wrightii), which blooms orange-red all summer but is done now. Red-berried possumhaw hollies (Ilex decidua), rhythmically planted between the two, add height and will eventually screen the street.

You could easily copy this combo for a traditional foundation planting using low-water native plants, so long as you have full sun and good drainage. The possumhaws like a little water in the summer, but the yucca and flame acanthus are supremely drought tolerant, and the acanthus can even be hedged, if you like a formal look.

Leaving the plaza and walking around the building reveals a nice swath of ‘Brakelights’ hesperaloe planted atop a retaining wall. I bet this is stunning in summer, with dozens and dozens of red flowers held on long wands above mounding foliage.

In back, a row of enormous cisterns hold rainwater collected from the roof. I’d love to have one of these at my house!

Streetside again, on the other side of the plaza, a block planting of Wheeler sotol (Dasylirion wheeleri) is simple and effective in the (typically dry) planting strip between sidewalk and street.

More Yucca pallida paired with sedge (Carex texensis?) carpets the ground at the side entrance. The handsome, gray trunks of Texas persimmon (Diospyros texana) offer a native substitute for the ubiquitous crepe myrtle, without the summer flowers, of course.

Nolina, either Lindheimer’s (Nolina lindheimeriana) or Texas (Nolina texana), is a little tall for the sign bed. Perhaps Texas sedge or skullcap would be a better choice? I do, however, love the fossil-pocked limestone used for the retaining wall.

It’s exciting to see a water-saving garden like this in a campus setting, adding plenty of Texas character and wildlife habitat in an urban area. Traditional lawn and shrubbery have got nothing on this. The fact that it requires no drinking water or well water to maintain makes it even better.

For additional reading, check out desert designer David Cristiani’s post at It’s a Dry Heat, from his visit earlier this summer. Also, several of the hyperlinks early in this post will lead you to published articles about the garden.

All material © 2006-2015 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Autumn color at Barton Creek

Fall finally arrives in Austin along with the holiday celebrations. The quiet beauty of Barton Creek overhung with mellow-leaved trees, with Lady Bird Lake in the distance, caught my eye as we walked to the Zilker Tree Lighting yesterday evening.

Cedar elms, flameleaf sumacs, and crepe myrtles in their autumn finery will compete with Christmas lights for a few days more, but they won’t last. Enjoy them now, fellow Austinites.

All material © 2006-2015 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Blowsy autumn beauty at Rollingwood Waterwise Garden

Last Saturday, a drizzly, cool day, I returned to the West Austin neighborhood of Rollingwood to see how the waterwise garden at city hall had fared over the summer. Designed by Scott Ogden and Lauren Springer Ogden, the garden was installed two years ago. Following an initial harsh winter and now an unusually wet year, it’s really filling in. Ornamental grasses like Muhlenbergia ‘Pink Flamingos’ and Gulf muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris) are showy in the rain garden, a shallow basin designed to hold runoff and give it time to soak into the soil.

For a fun comparison, here’s the same view in April of this year. Before the grasses grew tall, you can see the contours of the rain garden.

‘Pink Flamingos’ muhly on the left, and Muhlenbergia capillaris ‘White Cloud’ on the right

Planted high on gravelly berms, golden barrel cactus and other dry-loving plants look happy. ‘Strawberry Fields’ gomphrena adds dots of fiery color.

In the hell strip (a term coined by the designer, Lauren Springer Ogden), flame acanthus (Anisacanthus quadrifidus var. wrightii) wends around a spineless prickly pear and a pretty yucca with white-edged leaves. I didn’t see a plant tag nearby; anyone know the ID? Update: It’s Yucca constricta.

Whale’s Tongue agave, low grasses, and a cheery groundcover of four-nerve daisy (Tetraneuris scaposa) Thymophylla (formerly Dyssodia) pentachaeta.

A gravelly berm near the city hall entrance is smothered in more four-nerve daisies Thymophylla pentachaeta.

Aloes cluster, starfish-like, around a boulder.

I really love this spiraling council ring of limestone blocks, with stacked limestone pieces to fill in the gaps. ‘Green Gem’ boxwood topiaries enhance the circular theme and add evergreen color.

Located under the shade of live oaks, this part of the garden is, I believe, known as Council Oaks.

A wider view

Looking in the other direction across the garden

‘Green Goblet’ agave (I think), one of my favorites

That dusty, blue-green coloring at its base is lovely.

A rugged limestone stair leads up a slope at one end of the garden. A unique mix of agaves, columbines, ferns, tradescantia, sedum, salvia, grasses, lantana, and yucca grow here. Pacific chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum pacificum) flowers at the base of the slope.

Looking across the rain garden, in all its feathery fall glory

White-blooming autumn sage (Salvia greggii) brightens the hell strip. Pink autumn sage and bamboo muhly are visible in the background.

This is eye-catching: ‘San Carlos’ firecracker fern (Russelia coccinea ‘San Carlos’). Shazam!

Rollingwood’s residents were far-sighted in bringing this sustainable garden to fruition, and (even smarter) budgeting for its continuing care by a design team that fearlessly experiments with tough yet beautiful native and adapted plants. It’ll be fun to watch this garden continue to evolve. I imagine it will inspire many other lawn-gone gardens around the neighborhood.

I do wish, however, that the garden had its own website, or at least a dedicated webpage on the City of Rollingwood’s site. I can find very little information about the garden online, except from outside sources like the Statesman, Central Texas Gardener, neighborhood resident Deb at Austin Agrodolce, and my own post about the garden last spring. I’d love to be able to read about the garden’s origin (how the idea arose, and how funds were raised, which will be useful for other groups looking to do something similar); how the design was developed (from the designers’ perspective, including special challenges that were overcome); a detailed and updated plant list organized by section of the garden, or by sun/shade conditions; and a monthly update on maintenance (to provide real-life info about what a garden like this requires and what to do at certain times of the year). Such information would extend the reach of this garden, which is hidden deep within the winding roads of Rollingwood, and turn it into a teaching garden for the whole city, region, and even the world.

All material © 2006-2015 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.