Winter berries, ghostly agaves, and early spring flowers at the Wildflower Center

I visited the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center yesterday for a media preview of the new children’s garden that will be opening in May (more to come soon), and I made a quick tour of the main gardens before heading out. All was quiet and still on this chilly, overcast Thursday afternoon, and I had the gardens nearly to myself. The hush extended even to the plants, which were dormant or freshly cut back and awaiting spring’s warmth. The architecture of the place always fascinates me.

The architecture of certain plants is equally stunning. Pictured here, at the garden’s entry, is a ghostly, sinuous combo of Agave americana and Texas persimmon (Diospyros texana). Seep muhly (Muhlenbergia reverchonii), perhaps, still holds winter-bleached seedheads aloft.

A wider view reveals the inky-green cedar trees (junipers, actually) that contribute to Austin’s evergreen wildscapes.

Limestone and decomposed-granite paths lead through winter-cleaned gardens where spiky Harvard agave (Agave havardiana) and softening Mexican feathergrass (Nassella tenuissima) offer contrasting textures.

This xeric garden is tucked amid boulders behind the center’s iconic, spiraling cistern-tower. On warmer days, the cafe seating visible just beyond will be filled with visitors enjoying the views.

But I enjoy these late-winter views quite as much as the spring wildflower displays the garden is known for.

Low limestone walls with peek-a-boo window openings surround the demonstration gardens at the heart of the Wildflower Center.

During the media tour I learned that an overhaul of the demonstration gardens is being considered for a future phase of work at the rapidly growing Wildflower Center. I am glad to hear it. I’ve long thought this part of the garden could do with a refresh. The conglomeration of little, square beds lacks cohesiveness and a wow factor. Since the Wildflower Center already has quite a few naturalistic gardens, I’d like to see this area transformed into something more daring — a garden to knock the socks off visitors unused to seeing native plants used creatively in a non-naturalistic fashion. Senior director Damon Waitt told us that Christine Ten Eyck, a visionary Austin landscape architect who specializes in native plants, has submitted preliminary drawings for this area. I hope I won’t have to wait too many years to see what this becomes.

Moving on, I admired the smooth, mahogany trunk and limbs of this Texas madrone (Arbutus xalapensis) leaning nonchalantly on a low wall.

Nearby, golden groundsel (Packera obovata) brightened the woodland floor like a pool of sunshine.

Behind these petite wildflowers, dwarf Texas palmetto (Sabal minor) raised its fan-like leaves above a gurgling stream.

Another view of the golden groundsel. Soon columbines will take their place in the sequence of spring wildflowers.

But a colorful vestige of winter, the sparkling, red berries of possumhaw holly (Ilex decidua), stood out above other plants on this visit. Everywhere I looked, blazing berries brightened the quiet winter garden.

Possumhaw is a deciduous cousin of the commonly grown yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria). Despite the ice earlier this week, a shimmer of chartreuse leaves were appearing along the branches.

An enormous possumhaw grows next to the spiraling cistern-tower.

I showed this possumhaw a month and a half ago. Yesterday its brilliant berries mingled with fresh, green leaves.

A still-dormant Mexican buckeye (Ungnadia speciosa) leaned longingly toward it, eager for spring’s awakening touch.

As I was leaving I noticed this pretty weeping yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria ‘Pendula’) in a pot — a nice evergreen accent for a patio. I had quite a large weeping yaupon in my former garden, and miss it. Seeing this one, I felt as if I were seeing an old friend.

All material © 2006-2014 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Drive-By Gardens: Modern garden with gravel and steel boxes

On a cold, blustery Thursday, while driving through Austin’s Clarksville neighborhood, I spotted this intriguing, lawn-gone garden at a contemporary-style house. The mix of spiky and feathery plants caught my eye first. When I slowed down to rubberneck, I noticed that much of the garden is planted in rusty steel boxes. A low, concrete wall defines public and private spaces.

I do love a nice squid agave (A. bracteosa), and steel planters rock. This one is meant to be an address marker, however, and the squid has simply grown too large, obscuring the numbers. Might be time for a replant in the spring?

I like the wall. The dry-loving plants are fabulous, and look how green the garden is, even in mid-winter, after several hard freezes. This homeowner no doubt enjoys a very low watering bill and has no need of a lawn mower.

The right side of the garden is a little more southern than western, with sago palms and Texas mountain laurel under shade trees.

Interestingly, their neighbors are into the rusty steel containers and spiky plants too. A widely spaced row of what looks like ‘Green Goblet’ agave in steel planter boxes lines the neighbor’s driveway and blends with the garden next door. A difference in gravel color is the only giveaway of the property line.

This is part of a very spare contemporary garden fronting the cottage next door.

What do you think? Do you like the drama and architecture of a modern garden like this? Is it a good response to a drought-prone climate, where water is increasingly viewed as the precious resource it is? If you go for a dry garden in front, would you feel justified in creating a lusher garden in back? Let’s discuss!

All material © 2006-2014 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.