Sometimes you just luck into a great garden visit. Last weekend my family and I drove up to Dallas for the state fair, staying overnight at my father-in-law’s house in Richardson, a northern suburb. The day we left Austin I realized that we would be staying very close to Plano, another Dallas suburb, so I contacted Michael McDowell of Plano Prairie Garden, a blog I’ve been following for a couple of years, and asked if I could pop by. Oh, and could it be at 8 a.m. on Sunday (before my family got going for the day)? A good sport, Michael agreed, and so I found myself driving up to his suburban home, an island in a sea of traditional lawns, where his gorgeous garden was in full fall bloom in the magical light of early morning. How lucky can you get?
Michael’s prairie garden is an anomaly in his neighborhood, which is ironic considering the neighborhood’s name, Prairie Creek. He began digging out his St. Augustine/Bermuda lawn when he moved in, about 7 years ago, gradually expanding from the foundation to the curb. Today his front and back yards are lawn-free, with decomposed-granite paths running through prairie-style gardens. Only a narrow carpet of lawn grass remains, in a skinny side yard and along the alley where he parks, and I have a feeling its days are numbered.
The largest part of his garden is 3 years old, the “leaping” year according to gardening lore. Even after this summer’s terrible heat and ongoing drought, with a watering regimen of once every 7-10 days, his xeric garden was full and flowery. Recent cooler weather and 4 inches of rain prompted it to burst into bloom, just in time for my visit! Lucky, right?
The purple spires of gayfeather (Liatris mucronata or punctata) may have been the star of the show, although they had serious competition from the salvias, not to mention the ornamental grasses.
The coppery, upright foliage of little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) threads its way through the front garden, adding continuity, texture, and fall color. Michael said it’s half the height it normally would be because of the drought, but I liked the small size. Hot-pink Autumn sage (Salvia greggii) looks especially pretty next to it.
In a wider view, you can see liatris in front and a glowing pink agastache behind.
A close-up of the agastache
Rich purple wands of liatris add vertical spikiness.
Michael uses succulents like this pale-leaf yucca (Yucca pallida) and spineless prickly pear (Opuntia) to add evergreen structure, which anchors all his billowing, fine-leaved perennials.
Opuntia, little bluestem, Salvia coccinea, and pale-leaf yucca
Close to the house, Michael recently added an Austin-style feature: a stock-tank bog planter filled with horsetail (Equisetum hyemale). Michael said one of his neighbors remarked skeptically that maybe it should have stayed in Austin. Naturally, I loved it.
I also love this picture because it captures the prairie gardener himself reflected in a window. He was standing beside me as I snapped away, thinking to stay out of the frame—ha! The beautiful grass in front is pine muhly (Muhlenbergia dubia), a native grass from west Texas.
Salvia coccinea and Yucca pallida
Magical morning light
A tighter view
And looking down you see mealy blue sage (Salvia farinacea) with pink skullcap (Scutellaria suffrutescens) behind it.
Cheerful, petite, nearly ever-blooming hymenoxys (Tetraneuris scaposa) catches the sunlight.
More liatris, with Salvia greggii behind and Gregg’s mistflower (Conoclinium greggii) in front
Monarchs love Gregg’s mistflower at this time of year.
Michael’s small back garden blazed with fiery Salvia coccinea, a sight sure to delight any straggler hummingbirds on their way south.
We spotted this queen butterfly on a shoulder-high frostweed (Verbesina virginica).
On first glance I thought this was a kidneywood tree (Eysenhardtia texana) in full bloom, but Michael informed me that it’s beebrush (Aloysia gratissima). Both are honeybee-attractors, and they have a similar airy habit and tiny, white flowers.
Fall aster (Aster oblongifolius) will bring in the bees too.
Other beneficial insects are also welcome in Michael’s garden, like this wasp on goldenrod (Solidago).
Faded chocolate daisies (Berlandiera lyrata) are as beautiful as fresh ones, to my eyes.
Fragrant mistflower (Eupatorium havanense), also known as shrubby white boneset, was covered with buds. This is a Halloween bloomer in my garden, and its ghostly white flower clusters attract butterflies by the dozens.
Hercules’ club tree (Zanthoxylum clava-herculis) was new to me. I like its glossy, notched leaves, but watch out for those thorns that give this plant its name.
Michael transplanted aggressively spreading snake herb (Dyschoriste linearis) from another part of his garden into his hell strip in early summer, and it quickly colonized this difficult area. It dies back in winter, he told me, and he whacks it back before spring to neaten it up.
Michael generously shared several plants with me, including a good-sized pine muhly, with which I’m not as familiar as Lindheimer’s and Gulf muhly. Pine muhly was one of his best-performing grasses during this challenging summer, he told me, along with bushy bluestem, little bluestem, and seep muhly. (I didn’t notice any Mexican feathergrass in Michael’s garden.) Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) suffered badly from the drought, and he said he’ll be pulling it out.
Thanks to Michael, I learned about several native Texas plants I’d not encountered, and saw firsthand the beauty of a prairie garden and just how much life it attracts compared to the lawn deserts that surround it. His design sense (repetition of plants, use of structural plants, well-designed and generous paths) impressed me too. He mentioned that he doesn’t always get it right the first time, but he’s not afraid to move plants around until it looks right. I asked if he ever just sat in his garden to admire it, especially at this time of year, but like most gardeners he just laughed and asked, “Sit?”
I also admired his fearlessness in trying something new. Before moving to his current home, Michael had a garden where he grew a lot of antique roses. But he wanted to try a prairie garden here, with mostly native plants that would attract wildlife (a quality roses lack), and he threw himself into it, doing all the work himself a little at a time. He didn’t let a lawn-loving neighborhood aesthetic stop him either, although he does strive to keep things neater out front than in back for the sake of the neighbors. Now he reaps the rewards, with a low-water garden that is beneficial to wildlife and delightful to visitors as well. Thanks, Michael, for sharing your garden with me!
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