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.