West Texas meets the Big Easy in the courtyard garden of Curt Arnette


Each time I visit the garden of landscape architect Curt Arnette in southwest Austin, I am absolutely agog over the front courtyard, which occupies a corner lot on a typical suburban street of nicely kept lawns and foundation shrubs. His garden stands out in the best way possible, with texture-rich plant combos, understated but finely crafted hardscaping, and strong “bones.”

While managing to work within the constraints of his HOA’s landscaping rules (he used hedges rather than the low wall he wanted for enclosing the garden, for example), Curt has created a dynamic wonderland of spiky yuccas, agaves, sotol, and dyckia around the perimeter of the garden, which opens at a friendly, gated entry to reveal a clean-lined, New Orleans-style courtyard shaded by live oaks.


Let’s take a tour, starting at curbside. All those spikes and spines just sing in the morning light, like the spherical heads of Yucca rostrata beyond the boxwood hedge.


In the foreground, where a mosaic path of Lueders limestone invites you in, a powder-blue ‘Whale’s Tongue’ agave (A. ovatifolia) echoes the color of a wrought-iron gate.


The view from the street. A hedge of ‘Wintergreen’ boxwood makes up the “walls” of the courtyard; a canopy of live oaks, the ceiling. A trio of ‘Whale’s Tongue’ agaves and smaller dyckias (‘Burgundy Ice’, I’d guess) add drama, architectural form, and evergreen color that contributes year-round beauty. Light-colored gravel ties in with the limestone and flows seamlessly from path to plantings.


Another view


The beautiful gate, one side ajar, says welcome.


Path detail. Notice the precisely aligned focal point, across the courtyard, of a pair of potted flax lilies.


A floral-carved stone anchors the vignette.


The steel-edged planting beds are laid out geometrically around two live oaks, with the courtyard paving providing negative space for the eye to rest among the lush plantings. A few potted plants, like this ligularia, sit on limestone plinths for extra height, elegance, and attention.


Curt had just put up the string lights a day or two before, opting to use metal posts to get the configuration he wanted, rather than stringing them from the trees. Curt does all such work himself, with an eye for exacting detail.


To give architectural interest to the house, Curt attached a metal trellis above the garage doors and planted a ‘Mermaid’ rose on it. This vigorous and thorny rose must require a lot of careful pruning to be kept in bounds, but it is beautiful. Below, in the space between the garage doors, a potted smoke tree was in full flower, its bronze foliage harmonizing with the tawny pink of the brick siding.


Evergreen fig ivy is neatly clipped to frame the entry porch, emphasizing the front door.


An Easter lily cactus (Echinopsis subdenudata) was in gorgeous flower by the potted smoke tree. Curt found it at Far South Wholesale Nursery, but I saw on FB today that Tillery Street Plant Co. is carrying it, for you retail buyers.


Let’s zoom out for a second to admire this thick-trunked Wheeler sotol (Dasylirion wheeleri), which Curt has pruned up. A strip of gravel runs alongside the driveway, making it easier to get in and out of the car.


The courtyard garden as viewed from the driveway.


Closer view


Entering here you pass a steel container planted with citrus and softening perennials. The limestone pavers lead your eye diagonally across the courtyard to the gated entry.


An espresso-stained bench with a French-blue cushion is tucked into a recess of hedging in front of a window, a “rug” of limestone at its feet.


A potted paddle plant (Kalanchoe thyrsiflora) sits atop a handsome bird-bath pedestal. Silver saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) brightens the shady bed behind it.


Exiting the courtyard and revisiting the perimeter beds, which give neighbors and passersby a beautiful view, I admired this tiered limestone curbing layered with bluebonnets (lower level), ‘Blue Elf’ aloes (middle), and irises (top). I’m guessing those irises have blue or purple flowers. A collection of smooth river stones adorns the top curb.


Curt taught me the value of proper pruning at my first garden (the one before Green Hall), when he was our across-the-street neighbor. He’s a very precise gardener, but one who isn’t afraid to take risks and experiment with plants. I like how he’s made a low hedge of bamboo muhly grass (Muhlenbergia dumosa) in the hell strip. It’s only about 18 inches tall and seems to take radical pruning very well! Perhaps you could even make a parterre of this normally billowy grass, if you were so inclined.


At the corner, the hell strip is filled with manfreda, which was in spectacular full bloom, each bottlebrush flower standing four feet tall on a long, fleshy stalk.


The sun-blasted outer corner bristles with Yucca australis, two Yucca rostrata, and a large dish planted with golden barrel cactus and bunny ears cactus (Opuntia microdasys).


A closer view


That concludes another exciting visit to Curt’s garden. Thank you, Curt, for sharing it with me again!

For a previous post about the Arnette garden, click here. Search for “Sitio Design” in the search bar to find my tours of gardens Curt has designed for others.

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

Botanical bonanza at Peckerwood Garden


For new visitors, the name Peckerwood tends to elicit raised eyebrows because of the word’s history as a racial slur in the South. But touring Peckerwood Garden itself — it was named, explains the owner, after the plantation in Auntie Mame — induces amazement, both because of the owner’s extensive collection of rare plants and because he’s been at it for more than 40 years, utterly transforming his Hempstead, Texas, property from farmland to an artistically designed collector’s garden, which is now guided by the Garden Conservancy as it transitions to a public entity.


On April 19, I made the two-hour drive east along with a few friends (that’s Lori of The Gardener of Good and Evil pictured at top), and we took a guided tour. While it offers ticketed open-day visits, Peckerwood is still very much the personal garden and home of artist John Fairey, a plant explorer and collector of rare specimens from northern Mexico and Asia and a recently retired professor of architecture at Texas A&M University. His house is the corrugated metal building screened from public view by layers of trellis, wall, and fence.


I wrote about Peckerwood for Garden Design magazine a couple of years ago, and the article is available online if you’d like to know more about the garden and its soft-spoken owner. For this post, though, I’ll just show you some of my favorite scenes from the tour, like this terracotta-colored wall with five faces spouting water into a rectangular pool, which flows under the wall to be enjoyed on both sides.


Whimsical faces


The dry garden is the most dynamic space, with shimmering, spiny plants of monumental size clamoring for your attention, like these Mexican grass trees, or toothless sotol (Dasylirion longissimum). I like how their lines echo the lines of the metal structure behind them.


A metal sculpture is reminiscent of the shape of palm fans.


A long pergola offers shade, which was welcome on this warm, humid day.


Fun details abound, like this variegated octopus agave.


And these Dr. Seussian characters, tagged as Yucca desmetiana ‘Blue Boy’, although they look pretty different from the one I’m growing (aka Yucca aloifolia ‘Blue Boy’).


I’ve visited ceramist Marcia Donahue’s garden in Berkeley, California, which makes it even more fun to run across her art in other gardens. These phallic, bamboo-like poles are instantly recognizable as her work.


Jazz hands


In the woodland garden, sunbeams illuminate plants for a brief period around noon, as light filters through tall trees, each one planted by Fairey decades ago.


Across a woodland stream you get a tantalizing glimpse of a blue wall and a prehistoric-looking garden of palms and Yucca rostrata. I’ve longed to see this part of the garden for years, but after three visits to Peckerwood this is as close as I’ve gotten. Apparently the garden needs funds to construct a safe bridge for visitors to cross the creek and see this area. Until then, this part of the garden is always closed to visitors. Sigh –so close and yet so far!


Weeping boxwood — this is cool.


Vertically laid stone for edging a small change in level


Lovely white flowers on a shrub I neglected to get an ID for. Update: it’s likely mock orange. Thanks, readers!


More silvery blue palms


And more Marcia Donahue art, perhaps? I saw carved skulls like these in her garden.


This sunlit rondel is lovely. Our guide told us a little about the trees and shrubs here, but my memory for plant names is terrible — perhaps because I’m always walking away from tour guides to take pictures. It would be wonderful if Peckerwood’s website had descriptions of each of its gardens, but such things always take money and volunteer hours, of course.


Most of the plants are planted atop berms for drainage, which allows for greater diversity than what could be grown in sometimes soggy clay.


The arboretum, where a vast collection of Mexican oaks has been grown from seed gathered on plant-hunting expeditions. This place really is a plant nut’s mecca.


Amid the majestic oaks, prairie nymph (Herbertia lahue), a native wildflower, was blooming in the lawn, showing that even the most common and lowly plants offer plenty of beauty as well.

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

The art-adorned, water-saving garden of Mireille Engel


Last week I had the pleasure of visiting a new garden, that of Mireille Engel, a French-speaking Swiss native turned Texan and longtime gardener, whose garden helper, Kathy Christian, introduced me and gave me a tour. Located in the Cuernavaca neighborhood and perched on the edge of the Hill Country, Mireille’s garden surrounds a horseshoe-shaped compound of two houses connected by a breezeway that she shares with her daughter and son-in-law, the architects who designed this unique home.


Sustainably constructed of straw bales, the stuccoed house is bisected by a stone buttress wall, which stretches into the front and back gardens. It was inspired partly by the architecture at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Kathy told me.


An arched opening at the base permits views through the wall and is filled, moat-like, with a pond that extends on either side. (See top photo for a side view.)


The lily-filled pond is fed by a tall, stacked-stone waterfall built into the uphill slope, attracting birds and other wildlife with its steady dripping. In the xeric beds along the slope, large agaves and ornamental grasses provide structure and movement.


Kathy explained that dozens of junipers (known locally as cedars) were recently removed from the front garden, and a new native-plant garden designed by Christine Ten Eyck is filling in. Where the junipers once crowded out everything else, now a diverse assortment of natives attracts pollinators and birds and was showing some late-spring color from wildflowers like pink evening primrose. The garden was supplied with an irrigation system to get it established, but the goal is for it to be self-sustaining in a few years.


If you could leap over the roof, you could follow the line of the buttress wall through the house and into the back garden, where it extends into the landscape with a gutter running down the center. It must be a delight to see water spilling down like a waterfall when it rains.


The collection of water is key to this green-built home’s design, actually. The metal roof slopes to the back of the house (pictured here), and gutters collect rainwater and send it via underground pipes to an enormous cistern behind the swimming pool, at the low end of the property. After being filtered and cleaned, the rainwater is reused for drinking, showering, and other indoor use. In fact, the home has no access to city water at all. All of its water is provided by rainwater collection and one small well. Considering there is a swimming pool to keep filled, that’s pretty impressive!


Behind the pool stretches a lovely Hill Country view. The rainwater-collection cistern keeps a low profile in the foreground, its concrete cover painted with a yin-yang design. I don’t remember how many gallons it holds, but it must be a lot. Overlooking the scene towers a female figure, a sculpture called “Rosetta Welcomes the Sun.”


Rosetta is one of several Bobby Bacon metal sculptures that Mireille has collected, and it’s monumental, around 20 feet tall.


Mireille delights in garden art, which is thoughtfully placed throughout the garden. I particularly like this oversized bouquet of metal-and-glass flowers alongside the house. Bluebonnets, ‘May Night’ salvia, and purple heart echo the blue glass of the flowers.


Mexican feathergrass tosses its blond tresses below the vase.


In the lush center of the garden, tough cottage favorites like iris, roses, and fruit trees mingle with natives like Anacacho orchid tree and square-bud primrose.


Grass paths wind through large planting beds.


Along the driveway, toothless sotol (Dasylirion longissimum) and prickly pear add architectural form and rarely, if ever, need watering.


Colorfully painted walls remind me of the Mediterranean or Mexico…


…giving the garden a hint of tropical retreat.


A terracotta goat pot and yellow wall say Mexico.


But oil rig wall art says Texas!


Metal roadrunner, with a clay lizard in its beak


I adore this spotted manfreda…


…and this creamy rose…


…and the raspberry paint on Mireille’s porch wall.


But the pièce de résistance is her yellow-tiled outdoor shower, complete with a jewel-toned ceramic lizard, whose open jaws helpfully hold the soap!


It’s the creation of ceramist Claudia Reese, a local artist whose work Mireille collects.


What a delightful and unique garden to explore, filled with art, interesting architecture, and native and waterwise plants. My thanks to Mireille for sharing it with me and to Kathy for the introduction and the tour!

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