Farewell visit to James David’s Austin garden, part 1


James and Gary’s entry garden, a gravel garden featuring agaves, aloes, succulents, and other dry-adapted plants from around the world

After 36 years devoted to creating an extravagantly plant-rich, terraced, one-of-a-kind garden on two acres in Austin’s Rollingwood neighborhood, landscape architect James David and his partner Gary Peese are leaving it all behind. Their home — an elegant, contemporary hideaway with a detached, modern concrete studio — is on the market, and they’ve already begun work on a new home and garden in Santa Fe, New Mexico.


Entry garden, with a fringe of Cupressus funebris, aka Chinese weeping cypress (I think), framing the scene

I was invited to visit in late March, when the live oaks were alight with new chartreuse leaves and the Texas mountain laurels were dripping with fragrant blossoms. James gave me a tour of the garden, rattling off botanical names so fast I caught only a few of them, and then invited me into his studio for a brief interview about leaving the garden.


Arbor made of crisscrossing steel pipes with concrete posts, to the left of the entry garden

He told me he is 71 and ready for a new adventure, cooler weather, and a smaller garden. He and Gary have already spent two summers in Santa Fe, remodeling two houses and making plans to build a house on a vacant lot they purchased. Their future garden is, for now, mainly wildflowers, said James.


Shrimp plant (Justicia brandegeana) blooms around the patio, but the largely evergreen garden screens the nearby road from view

I imagine Santa Fe, which recently opened a new botanical garden, will be very happy to have them. Their departure will be Austin’s loss. James and Gary’s influence on the gardening scene in Austin is huge. For nearly three decades they owned and operated the iconic garden shop and boutique nursery Gardens (now closed) and David/Peese Design, a garden design studio that’s given many well regarded designers in Austin and beyond their early training.


James has also served for many years as chairman of the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days program and has opened his own garden to the public many times. I’ve posted about my Open Days visits twice, in October 2006 and October 2010. Thanks to James and Gary’s generosity, attendees of the inaugural Garden Bloggers Fling enjoyed a private tour in 2008.


White irises mark the final resting place of four of James and Gary’s pet cats

Since I’ve never gardened anywhere longer than 7 years, I can hardly fathom the depth of garden making that goes into a 36-year-old garden. James is the primary designer and gardener. (Gary told me he is more of a vegetable gardener, tending the kitchen gardens near the house.) James’s avidity for new and different plants — “if you love the plant you’ll find a place for it,” he declared in a Martha Stewart video about his garden — is reined in by a classic approach to design.


Boxwood pruned into an embroidery of loops and curves

Evergreen hedges, strong hardscape structure, formal axes that lead the eye and focal points that arrest it — these elements create compelling views from inside the home, lead one on a journey of discovery along numerous tempting paths, and provide multiple places to stop and enjoy the garden.


Let’s follow a few of the paths together, starting here at street level and working our way around the house, down to the lowest level of the back garden, and back up. This formal parterre garden along the street…


…is accessed on one end via a curving, shallow stair. At its foot, an olive jar and round stones attract the eye amid evergreen shrubs.


An especially dark purple Texas mountain laurel (Sephora secundiflora) caught my eye here.


In the shade, tall stems of blue flowers reminded me of English bluebells. Could these be Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica)?


A very narrow path leads from the olive jar through a plane of clipped boxwood (a substitute for a lawn’s negative space, James told me) toward a side patio on the house. I find this path a bit narrow for comfort, but James said he enjoys the feeling of moving through the plants. Maybe if you have a man’s narrow hips? I sidled through.


Stopping at the patio and looking back toward the olive jar, the view is entrancing. Those leading lines…


…they work to pull you in multiple directions.


Let’s head back to the entry garden…


…to admire those gorgeous agaves again. Aloes were blooming too.


Visitors are immersed in the garden before they even reach the front door.


The front door is sheltered under a narrow porch and set modestly to one side.


A patchwork of paving materials imposes a linear design on the intimate entry court, softened by planting pockets.


At the front steps, a dozen rectangular pots and troughs cluster for impact. A collection of spherical stones adds a contrasting shape.


Chinese ground orchid (Bletilla striata) in spring bloom


Some sort of protea? Scadoxus puniceus var. natalensis (thanks, Astra and John)


Texas tuberose (Manfreda maculosa) sending up towering bloom spikes, backed by native ranunculus


While the street side of the property is relatively flat, in back a steep natural ravine has been tamed with a series of elegant stone and gravel terraces, including this narrow one along the foundation. A semicircular stone console table under a window displays a pot of succulents.


Along one axis parallel to the house, a double line of squat, pyramidal boxwoods leads to a pyramid-shaped shed with a dogtrot-style doorway running through the middle.


Sheathed in galvanized metal siding and roofing, it’s a striking focal point from several paths, including this one that runs below it.


Pass through the open doorway and you come to a stone walk that leads to the detached studio (which I’ll show in part 2). This is the view looking back through the pyramid shed. A Texas mountain laurel in full, fragrant bloom leans on the path.


Another view, with Gary and their dog Alice


Taking the lower path back around the pyramid shed…


…you come to this vignette. Under a flowering Mexican buckeye (Ungnadia speciosa), a weather-aged pot sits empty atop a limestone plinth.


Texas mountain laurel and Mexican buckeye are native, spring-flowering trees that make a pretty pair.


Another view


Ahead, the path straightens and enters a pyramid-shaped, trellis-walled gazebo. Triangular benches in each corner offer a place to rest and enjoy a lovely view back to the empty pot on the plinth — centered, you’ll notice, in the doorway of the gazebo.


Chocolate vine (Akebia quinata) climbs the gazebo, its clusters of burgundy flowers dangling like parachutes. I’d love to see the sausage-shaped fruit that follows in the fall.


A wider view of the trellis gazebo shows a Chinese fringe flower (Loropetalum chinense) pruned up tree-form, its burgundy leaves offering a color echo of the chocolate vine’s flowers.


Turning the opposite direction, the axis continues parallel to the house, leading to a secluded dining table hemmed in by low retaining walls. A double line of string lights tracks above the space to the dovecote structure that terminates the sight line. On the right, behind the lower wall…


…is a built-in BBQ for entertaining. An oversized stone finial echoes the pyramid shapes that appear throughout the garden.


On the wooden table, a beautiful potted amaryllis echoes the burnt orange of the metal chairs.


Beyond the table a gravel courtyard with a steel fire pit offers another gathering place. It’s also the center of a perpendicular, downward-leading axis from the back of the house through the lower garden, which I’ll show in part 2. The shallow steps at left lead up to the house and the street-side garden. Turning to the right you’d see the most dramatic view of the whole garden: a grand staircase with a rill running down the center that leads to a large pond. Coming up next!


I’ll end part 1 with a framed view of spring-green trees, as seen through the limestone dovecote window…


…and a sweet pink-and-cream rose.

Up next: Part 2 of my farewell visit to James David’s garden

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

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.