Decked and swinging at the Wildflower Center

The weather has been so beautiful lately — Austin’s payoff for making it through another summer. Last Sunday, the whole family joined me for an afternoon stroll at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, one of my very favorite places. Right now it’s a mix of fall color and Christmas decorations, one of those quirks of Austin’s cooler season, which compresses fall, winter, and spring between October and April.

The garden is decked out for Luminations this Saturday and Sunday, a holiday tradition I highly recommend. (Here are my pics from last year.) This year the staff has upped their game, with red and green Christmas balls adorning the spiny arms of agaves in the Family Garden.

Arizona cypresses, which last year glowed with simple white lights, this year sport colorful Christmas balls too, for daytime and nighttime enjoyment.

Arizona cypress (Cupressus arizonica) makes a perfect outdoor Christmas tree, complete with fir-like fragrance.

Nearby, a gray-trunked Texas persimmon (Diospyros texana) seems to shelter a handsome buck, one of the many bronze animal sculptures placed throughout the Family Garden.

A spiral wall for kids to play on, tiled with numbers in the Fibonacci sequence, always catches my eye.

The flowers depicted in this section are Turk’s cap (Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii), one of several plants with spiraling features planted nearby.

Here’s some of that fall color I mentioned: Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) turning orangey red on the aqueduct along the entry walk.

It harmonizes nicely with the warm stone of the pillars.

We walked all the way out along the Texas Arboretum trail, a relatively new section of the gardens. My son goes tree-hugger with a live oak, as David, my husband, looks on.

Daughter was perched in the low branches like a bird. In case you’re wondering, we don’t normally climb trees (or any other plant) at public gardens. But it seems to be encouraged with this particular tree, which at some point fell over while remaining rooted and alive. A well-kept mulched path leads to it and encircles it, inviting you to sit on its horizontal trunk and clamber up.

Nearby, my favorite part of the arboretum is even more tree-interactive. A picturesque glade of mighty live oaks is hung with an assortment of swings: swinging armchairs, swinging benches, board swings, spinning disc swings, and even a few child swings with safety bars.

We tried them all out (except the baby swings), gliding and spinning and pushing for nearly an hour.

It was so much fun!

And even a little zen.

We climbed the big viewing tower before we left, and I stopped to admire this possumhaw (Ilex decidua) in full berry. When the leaves drop it’ll be even more stunning.

Here’s one more picture of the festive agaves to remind you of Luminations this weekend. It’s a fun holiday activity for the whole family. Go early to see the gardens before it gets completely dark, or go later to avoid the kiddie crowd. Either way, it’ll give you a warm glow!

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

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.

Fall flowers for a Texas garden

My shady, evergreen garden will never be showy with flowers. But I have pockets of seasonal blooms that brighten the garden for a week or two at a time and please me when they appear. Right now, Philippine violet (Barleria cristata) is one of these.

I have this subtropical perennial on each side on my back garden, and both started flowering in time for Saturday’s tour. Well done, P. violet!

Duranta (Duranta erecta ‘Sapphire Showers’) is also lovely with white-edged purple blossoms that dangle like chandelier earrings. It grows in a stock-tank planter in the raised bed behind the house, and it got pretty wilty this summer without twice-weekly watering. But I guess it was worth the trouble because these flowers are beautiful.

Here’s a mid-October surprise. Long after most of my oxblood lilies (Rhodophiala bifida) flowered and faded, these popped up just in time for Saturday’s tour. The bulbs lie under a trio of soap aloes (Aloe maculata) that don’t get watered by the sprinkler system. The aloes were looking drought-stressed the week before the tour, so I gave them a deep watering with the hose. And lo and behold, the oxbloods planted underneath them responded by popping up and bursting into crimson bloom. Many visitors on the tour mistook them for soap aloe flowers.

Forsythia sage (Salvia madrensis) is just revving up in the shade of live oaks.

Its yellow flower spikes show up well against the dark-brown cedar fence below.

Before the tour, I added a few more sunny flower spikes to the rocky bed behind the pool: a trio of the yellow-flowering variety of red yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora ‘Yellow’), which I found at Shoal Creek Nursery.

Those are the limestone slabs that everyone asked me about during the tour. The hesperaloes’ moonshine-yellow flowers stand out beautifully against the cedar fence.

And they pop against the blue stucco wall too.

Flowers aren’t the only fall color I’m enjoying. Moody Mexican beautyberry (Callicarpa acuminata) is bejeweled with nearly black berries along its arching branches.

It grows in deep shade in the lower garden, but shafts of sunlight brighten the berries to a wine-purple. I imagine the mockingbirds will get them soon.

Some other critter has been enjoying my fall decor on the front porch. I walked outside this morning to find my pumpkins pushed up against the porch step. Huh?

Uh-oh. My daughter said forlornly, as we stood there looking at the damage, “And it was the best pumpkin too.”

What do you think did this? Deer? Raccoon? Possum? Grrrr.

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