Heartleaf skullcap is a spring beauty for central Texas


Native groundcover heartleaf skullcap (Scutellaria ovata) is in full, glorious bloom in my garden, showing off with abandon before retreating into dormancy for the summer.


I’ve paired it with Texas dwarf palmetto (Sabal minor) in the live oak-shaded island bed out front. It makes a blue-green carpet under the palmettos all winter, and with spring growth it nearly eclipses them. Once the skullcap dies back in summer, however, the palmettos will take center stage again.


Massing this plant is the key because a single 1-gallon will just get lost in your garden. Luckily, heartleaf skullcap loves to spread, both underground through its fleshy roots and above ground via seeds.


While aggressive, it is easy to pull up, plus it dies back during our hot summers, leaving room for other plants to shine.


I planted a swath in the back garden too, lining the path around the stock-tank pond. I’m enjoying it while it lasts!

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

Hippos, bottle art sculpture, and a free-spirited garden journey with Donna and Mike Fowler


Could the official mascot of Hutto, Texas, possibly be anything other than a hippo? The Hutto Hippos. Nope, it’s perfect.

Located 30 miles northeast of Austin, the formerly sleepy hamlet of Hutto is growing as quickly as a hippopotamus in a lake full of duckweed. But the town still has a friendly, everyone-knows-everyone vibe, and its most congenial hosts have to be former mayor and found-object sculptor Mike Fowler and his wife and chief gardener, Donna Fowler. They own a beautiful, hundred-year-old home on three large lots that they’ve turned into an art-filled garden. Last Tuesday, Mike and Donna welcomed a group of Austin bloggers, shown posing here with the Fowlers’ parade-worthy hippomobile.


The tour begins under the shade of a large catalpa tree, which provides the roof of a garden room where Mike reads the newspaper.


In its shade, an iron birdbath elevates blue-green sedum against a glossy-leaved star jasmine screen, heavily scented in springtime.


Peeking out from under the low-hanging fringe of catalpa leaves, you see a sunny, xeric border along a wooden fence, with striking plants like yucca, hesperaloe, allium, purple heart, and ornamental grasses.


One of Mike’s glass sculptures, a pregnant woman with arms outstretched and face tipped to the sky, welcomes visitors. She was built in honor of Mike’s niece when she was expecting twins.


A Texas-themed garden and patio for entertaining features a massing of red yucca and accents of limestone boulders.


“The stars at night are big and bright” — bump bump bump BUMP — deep in the heart of Texas!


Open gates invite you to explore ahead, but other doorways beckon as well, and we turned the other way…


…and entered the vegetable and tepee garden. A “garden club” of glass-bottle ladies stand in rows alongside a magnificent, Chihuly-esque bottle tree — all Mike’s creations.


A wide view


The smiling garden club ladies are actually hose guards made of rebar and salvaged bottles and dishes. Mike made them at Donna’s behest in order to keep her hose from tearing up her plants as she watered.


With hats tied with ribbon and beaded necklaces, they are dressed for a tea party.


A mockingbird was enjoying a colorful perch atop the bottle tree.


Their son Luke erected the tepee at the far end of the garden.


Trellis poles make mini-tepees to echo the real deal.


Mike’s “Fork in the Road” piece stands along a path to the tepee.


Donna asked if we wanted to be smudged and invited us into the tepee. We huddled in a circle around a central pit filled with candles, which she lit and used to singe a handful of fragrant herbs.


As smoke wafted up from the singed herbs, she waved them before each of us in turn, chanting a blessing for our eyes to be open to the beauty of the world, our hearts to be filled, and more. I was charmed.


Just outside the tepee, hollyhocks and cornflower were in bloom in a bed thickly mulched with decomposed granite.


Allium seedheads


Another of Mike’s glass sculptures


A former mayor and longtime public servant, Mike nurtures a streak of black political humor in his artwork, including in this piece titled “Blockhead and Council: Poor Decisions and Wasteful Spending.” The blockhead is devouring money while ants representing council members crawl through his body.


In the crown atop its head, a mockingbird built a nest last season.


Exiting the vegetable garden, you see another of Mike’s pieces, the punny “Fish Sticks” swimming through a bed of iris.


There’s a whole school of them.


A meditation garden anchored by an altar-like central bed is the next garden room you pass through.


Trellises shaped like gothic church windows edge a small lawn next to the “altar.”


A stacked-stone sculpture sits atop a river of sparkling, recycled glass, which actually conceals a French drain.


A white garden fronts the large studio/office structure behind the main house. Mike’s dad, a fine-art sculptor, created several pieces that now reside here, including the mother-and-child piece at left.


I enjoyed the shadows of the palms against the house.


It was fun to look up through palm branches too.


More of Mike’s humorous, glass-bottle art


In a hot, sunny border, Donna combined Mexican feathergrass and red salvia with charming but aggressive (like mint, she said) butter-and-eggs, also known as yellow toadflax (Linaria vulgaris).


I loved it with the yellow-hued feathergrass.


Around back of the house, on either side of the driveway, two hippos stand at attention, one painted like the U.S. flag…


…the other as the Texas flag.


The Fowlers have christened the narrow garden along the side of their house as Hippo Valley, and it is chock full of hippos. This is one of a trio peeking out of a bed of blanketflower.


Here’s another swimming through a pool of recycled glass. There were many more to be discovered among exuberant plantings.


A fence is given eye-level interest with grandfather’s pipe (Callisia fragrans) cuttings in old bottles wired to metal trellises.


Is this where Donna roots cuttings, I wonder?


Blue and green bottles are put into service as path edging.


White yarrow offers country charm against a wooden fence.


Another of Mike’s father’s sculptures


Looking back at the path winding through Hippo Valley, you see a large cistern that collects rainwater off the roof.


A turquoise assortment of bottles adorns another of Mike’s bottle sculptures.


And an empty fence corner is dressed up with sedums and other easy-care plants in a tiered arrangement of terracotta planters.


One more look at the hilarious hippomobile, whose right eye can be made to wink via a lever inside.


The backside — lifelike down to the brushy tail


Mike and Donna are generous and gracious hosts, sharing stories, blessings, and the beauty and humor of their garden with us. My thanks to both of them for a wonderful visit! If you’d like to see more of their garden, watch their recent interview on Central Texas Gardener.


And here’s our group enjoying the garden. From left to right: honorary blogger Tom Ellison (whose garden I recently toured), Ally of Garden Ally, Bob of Central Texas Gardening, Diana of Sharing Nature’s Garden, me, Lori of The Gardener of Good and Evil, and Cat of The Whimsical Gardener.

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

Drive-By Gardens: Lawn-gone and neighbor-friendly in central Austin


Coming home from a garden tour last Saturday, I traded the backed-up traffic on MoPac for a meandering drive through the charming central Austin neighborhoods of Pemberton, Rosedale, and Allandale. I had my camera with me, and for your enjoyment I furtively snapped photos of front-yard gardens that delighted me with neighborly patios, winding paths, and/or lawnless gardens, starting with this adorable stone cottage in Rosedale. I love the half-circle front patio with inviting Adirondacks and that tomato-red, contemporary door. Perennials and cactus in terracotta pots casually mark the patio’s edge. The only possible improvement would be a welcoming front walk winding to the street and driveway, edged with tidy garden beds to reduce the lawn.


This blue charmer in Rosedale reduced the lawn and went neighbor-friendly with the addition of a limestone-edged, rectangular patio. The owners, acquaintances from our children’s grade-school years, are lovely people, and the husband, as you might have guessed, is into palms. What a great way to reduce the lawn and get to know the neighbors.


This Rosedale ranch ditched the lawn altogether for a strolling garden with Texas Black gravel paths and native grasses, trees, and perennials. This looks like a drought-tolerant and wildlife-friendly garden.


The owner of this sunny home hired me to design a no-lawn garden for her back yard a few years ago. Her front garden (not my design), which was already underway at that time, is a cottage-style, low-water garden that offers a pretty view from the comfortable front porch.


This is different! Rusty steel screening panels and planters give this gravel garden and patio a contemporary edge.


In the Pemberton Heights neighborhood, I drove by this old favorite, a colorfully painted stucco home with a blue-tile roof. A clipped hedge and trellis-covered arbor give privacy to the front patios along a busy street. But the garden is cottage-friendly with a meadowy planting of larkspur for the neighbors to enjoy.


Driveway vignette: An indigo wall, a modern steel planter and agave, and a blue moped, with Jerusalem sage and billowy grasses contrasting with the clipped hedge. This looks like a playful garden.


And along Shoal Creek Boulevard in the Allandale neighborhood, I was pleased to see a garden I designed last year being installed. The owner had requested a garden to replace her gigantic, thirsty St. Augustine lawn, with room for a small patio near the front door and a fruit orchard along the sunny side of the yard. Although it’s hard to see the details here, it’s essentially a strolling garden, with broad gravel paths that draw you into and through the space. It looks like the owner has made tweaks of her own, planting large swaths of shade annuals rather than the sedge meadow I’d suggested under the trees, but that’s fine. It’s all part of making a garden your own. I also like how she broadened and swooped the path where it meets the sidewalk and wish I’d thought to do that!


For comparison, here’s a “before” shot — so much lawn and not very interesting. Her new garden is a gift not only to herself and to local wildlife but to her neighborhood.

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