Mid-century house inspires Palm Springs-style garden in Austin


Charlotte Warren, a photographer and former co-chair of the local Garden Conservancy tour, inherited a steeply sloping, west-facing zoysia lawn when she moved into her home in the hills of West Austin. Aside from requiring lots of water and regular mowing, the lawn offered zero privacy for her front-yard swimming pool and did nothing to complement the mid-century lines of her 1957 Barton Riley-designed home.


Inspired by the Palm Springs, California-style architecture of her house, Charlotte hired landscape architect Curt Arnette of Sitio Design to create a garden in the modern, desert-oasis style for which Palm Springs is known. In the summer of 2013, the zoysia lawn was ripped out and the new garden installed. I visited just a couple months later, in October, to photograph it. Those photos appear in the first half of this post. But I have a treat! I was invited to visit again last week and took new photos, which make up the latter part of this post, offering you before-and-after views of the garden’s growth over one year.


Let’s take a tour, shall we? A small, emerald lawn still offers barefoot pleasure under the live oaks near the house and pool, a non-guilty pleasure considering the water thriftiness of the rest of the garden. Mod circles of crushed gravel act as stepping stones across the rubbly, native river rock that mulches the dry garden.


Where the zoysia lawn once crisped in the afternoon sun, now an inviting, steel-edged, crushed-gravel path sidewinds through the sloping lot, with steel-riser steps leading down and back up to the house.


Desert plants like Yucca rostrata, agave, and golden barrel cactus and drought-tolerant natives like Texas mountain laurel, Wheeler sotol, blackfoot daisy, prickly pear, Mexican feathergrass, and frogfruit create a buffer between house and street, hold the slope (no retaining walls were added), and lushly mingle to create a Cal-Tex oasis.


The pool is situated in front of the house behind turquoise railing, overlooked by the front windows for a year-round poolside view.


These steps lead down the slope, where the gravel path continues back toward the driveway. Enormous, rounded granite boulders, which look as pillowy as rising bread dough, edge the steps and are placed as accents throughout the garden. Along the property line, Arizona cypress creates an evergreen screen.


Graceful steps entice you to keep exploring.


On any sloping lot, water runoff is a design challenge. Terracing is one answer, but it’s expensive. In this unterraced garden, boulders help slow water flow as do the plants, and a channel filled with riprap collects remaining runoff, ducks under a metal bridge in the gravel path, and moves it downhill off the property.


Xeric plants like ‘Macho Mocha’ mangave and Mexican feathergrass are given room to grow and spread.


Blackfoot daisy spills over and softens a cluster of boulders.


Looking up from the street. The white-flowering tree at right is Mexican olive (Cordia boissieri). Because it’s native to South Texas and can be damaged in hard freezes, this is one tree I’d plant in spring rather than fall.


It is quite pretty.


At street-level, Mexican feathergrass mixes with agave, mangave, sotol, leatherstem (Jatropha dioica), and blackfoot daisy.


The golden eye of blackfoot daisy finds a color echo in golden barrel cactus.

One year later: August 28, 2014


That was then. This is now, one year later, on a sunny, 100-degree summer afternoon. Despite the heat, a breeze kept me comfortable, and the winding path is as enticing as ever.


The groundcovers and grasses have put on the most growth over the past year. The native shrubs and small trees have also noticeably grown. Other plants have been replaced, as is typical in any garden. A shrub along the top path, for instance, has been replaced with the cleaner lines of an ocotillo, a desert plant I don’t see in Austin very often.


The switchback. Architectural Yucca rostrata serves as a focal point at the turn.


The Texas mountain laurels have grown a foot or two, and will eventually screen the left side of the pool.


Yucca rostrata shadow play (“Look at me! I’m a sun!”) on a puddle of silver ponyfoot.


A new perspective, looking down the steps. Notice that much of the gravel mulch is now hidden under a layer of creeping groundcovers, softening the look of the garden.


The steel bridge and riprap channel. I imagine this becomes a torrent during a typical Texas thunderstorm.


Looking back at those pillowy boulders and shimmery Yucca rostrata.


One more view, with the bridge. Blue-greens and silvery blues visually cool the garden, plus those plants tend to be most drought-tolerant.


Powder-blue Wheeler sotol dances uphill on either side of the riprap channel.


Yucca rostrata should always be planted where it can cast a shadow.


‘Green Goblet’ agave sits atop granite boulders, with golden barrel cactus below.


The garden continues in a curving band on the other side of the driveway. It makes for a continuous garden view at the juncture of strolling path and driveway.


Water runoff along the driveway is handled with another channel and heavy stone that won’t wash downhill.


At streetside, groundcovering Mexican feathergrass and frogfruit have filled in nicely, and the feathergrass has gone tawny for summer. The structural agaves grow more slowly, but in a few years they will dominate this scene.


On the right side of the drive, silver ponyfoot cascades around boulders and plants like a living waterfall.


Up near the house, a trio of large steel-pipe pieces act as planters for silver and bronze dyckias.


A silvery-green, textural composition of ‘Whale’s Tongue’ agave (A. ovatifolia), purple prickly pear (‘Santa Rita’ opuntia, perhaps?), and silver ponyfoot (Dichondra argentea).

My thanks to Charlotte for inviting me back to see how her garden has grown. It’s heartening to see a garden that looks just as happy after weeks of triple-digit heat and no rain as it does in fall or spring. Charlotte told me she waters once a week via a drip system that delivers water directly to each plant. I imagine by next year, the dry garden could easily go two weeks between waterings in summer and look just as fantastic, and of course it wouldn’t need to be watered at all in cooler, wetter times of the year.

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

Waiting for autumn’s reviving touch


Whew! After writing 16 posts about Portland gardens, each containing scads of photos of summer-lush and richly blooming borders, I’m somehow ready for a return to my own Death Star-blasted garden. August is my least favorite gardening month here in Austin. I’m over the heat. I’m over the humidity. I’m over, over, over summer.

And yet there’s love, still, for the garden as it patiently — much more patiently than I — awaits the reviving touch of fall.


Last evening I strolled through the front garden at sunset, taking a closer look than I’ve done in weeks. The trio of ‘Burgundy Ice’ dyckia (two are replacements after the cold snap last winter) is looking quite sharp.


The west side of the driveway-island bed is looking good too despite my neglect. ‘Color Guard’ yucca, gopher plant (Euphorbia rigida), Mexican feathergrass (Nassella tenuissima), wavy prickly pear (Opuntia), ‘Powis Castle’ artemisia, and Vitex agnus-castus don’t ask for much except sun and an occasional deep watering to look their best, even in summer.


In the shade of the live oaks, heartleaf skullcap (Scutellaria ovata) has gone to seed, leaving a trio of Texas dwarf palmettos (Sabal minor) to strut their stuff. They’d look better if I trimmed back the spent skullcap, but oh well.


A different view. Those sabals are putting on some height this year! Turk’s cap (Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii), one of my few dependable summer bloomers, screens the street behind the palmettos.


Here’s the long view across the front garden and Berkeley sedge lawn, as seen from my neighbor’s yard (the fence runs along the property line). I think I’m going to Outlaw Gardener-up that bare spot in front of the giant hesperaloe (Hesperaloe funifera) — maybe a few colorful Mexican gazing globes?


And here’s the long view as seen from the curb: a garden of deer-resistant grasses, salvias, yucca, and herbs. The caged tree at left is a young possumhaw holly (Ilex decidua), which I’m still protecting from deer. Every day I tell myself to get out here and whack back those autumn sages (Salvia greggii) by one-third, for better shape and fall bloom, but every day laziness wins out. Maybe tomorrow.


Stepping back about 15 feet into my neighbor’s driveway, you can see how her garden and mine blend together. I planted this for her a few years ago, and we share the decomposed-granite path that runs between our gardens from the street to the fence, and which continues into my garden. (She opted not to continue it around the back of her bed to her driveway, but that could be added later to reduce even more lawn and improve accessibility.)

Taking stock, I see that the ‘Whale’s Tongue’ agave has grown tremendously, but three Gulf muhly grasses (Muhlenbergia capillaris) have not thrived. Two have been removed, and the last one needs to go. My neighbor planted a softleaf yucca (Y. recurvifolia) to fill the gap; I would not have chosen to place the yucca so close to the agave, but after all it is her yard to play in. Her salvias, like mine, need a good whacking. It’s a bit crispy and could really use a deep watering, but overall this is typical for a largely unwatered, native-plant garden in August in central Texas. Fall rains will perk it up.


I’m not sure anything will perk up this poor, gnawed-to-a-nub ‘Soft Caress’ mahonia. I received two beautiful plants from the Sunset Western Garden Collection following the 2013 San Francisco Garden Bloggers Fling. I’ve had good luck with this plant in shade, and I added the freebies to my new side garden with high hopes. From the start, however, the deer have chomped them, although they’ve never touched more-established mahonias along the front of my house. Frustrating.

Despite the challenges of August and Bambi, I know I will delight in being outdoors again soon. Just one month to go until the happy gardening month of October! How about you? Are you enjoying or hurrying along these last weeks of summer?

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

Rocking a gravel garden in the Kuzma Garden: Portland Garden Bloggers Fling


After the barely controlled excess of Floramagoria, the next garden we toured on the Portland Garden Bloggers Fling seemed, at first glance, restrained, even austere. No seating was visible aside from garden walls and steps. With the exception of a few monumental, colorful pots placed as focal points and a striking steel fountain, garden art was nonexistent. But, oh my, the plants are where owner John Kuzma lavishes his artist’s palette and experiments with an abundance of dry-climate species you wouldn’t expect to see in moist, cool Portland.


John’s suburban half-acre is one of the larger private gardens we visited, but the entry garden is modest in size. An open, gravel courtyard, wood-and-wire fence, and xeric plants like agave and nolina gave this space a very Austin look, at least to my mind. Here’s the paver path leading from the street into the fenced courtyard.


And the side entry from the driveway. A large, blue pot, left empty (such restraint!), provides a focal point from any direction.


As you enter the back garden, negative space greets you first — gravel, not water-sucking lawn. An expansive, dark-gray, gravel patio flows from the back of the house along the entire width of the lot. Bold-leaved palms, banana, phormium, and agave are planted along the margins, with silvery eucalyptus shining in the border. A straight line of black mondo grass runs like a fuzzy, black caterpillar from…


…a small, arbor-shaded patio to…


…a contemporary raised pond fed by two pipes projecting from a rusty-steel backplate.


Now you see where John’s passion lies. A dramatic foliage garden rises on terraced beds and gravelly berms behind the water feature, creating a feeling of exotic seclusion from neighboring homes, not to mention a fine view from John’s living room.


Palms, papyrus, giant cape restio (I think) — this garden is about texture, form, and bold foliage.


A smaller water feature is as simple as a lotus in a sealed, glazed pot. Mosquito dunks (available at big-box stores and independent nurseries alike) keep a still pond like this free from blood-sucking pests.


The gravel patio is largely open, but along the foundation of the house agaves and prickly pear (New World natives) mingle with Australian acacias and Mediterranean palms.


Steps lead up to an abundantly planted, almost prehistoric-looking garden. Despite its apparent lushness, John told us that his 4-year-old garden, designed by Sean Hogan of Cistus Nursery, took a hit in last December’s deep freeze.


Tammy of Casa Mariposa takes in the scene. (By the way, if you’d like to see a list of Portland Fling attendees and their blogs and locations, click here.)


This is where things really get good! Ah, kangaroo paws. How I wish I could grow you in Austin.


Spiky plants dig John’s gravelly berms, which keep them from rotting during Portland’s drizzly, gray winters.


On this large berm, John has made a trendy crevice garden for his agave collection. I’m seeing quite a few of these lately, like at Denver Botanic Gardens and, closer to home, in Shirley’s San Antonio garden.


I see a few ‘Whale’s Tongue’ agaves in there — Moby‘s cousins!


As in the front garden, John uses a big, glazed pot to create a focal point for multiple pathways entering an open space.


It looks great from every angle.


Orange kangaroo paws provide a perfect color echo amid cool-blue yucca, prickly pear, and gopher plant.


Here’s another example, with a blue pot acting as focal point for the end of a path.


More lushly planted berms


Portland has a friendly climate for green roofs, and we saw a number of them at the Fling, including this charming, sedum-planted one on a blue shed.


At the rear of the garden, a row of yuccas (Y. recurvifolia, perhaps?) was in creamy-white bloom.


Dramatic gunnera leaves


Let’s head down to the gravel patio for one last look at the raised pond and fountain.


This is a very Austin look, with the rusty metal and raw steel pipes. You’d need a metal fabricator to create this, right?


Well, I wonder. From the side I noticed that rather than a solid plate of steel, cut panels are screwed onto wooden posts to create the fountain backplate. The fountain basin itself is concrete, stained to match the steel. You’d still need someone to cut the steel plates, but this could be installed by a do-it-yourselfer, I think.


It would make a wow moment in any garden, wouldn’t it?

Up next: The romantic, wild-child, mysterious Bella Madrona, our final Fling garden. For a look back at the stunning, whimsical exuberance of Floramagoria, click here.

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