Houston, where are your creative, cutting-edge gardens? You’ve got traditional estate gardening down: azaleas, boxwood hedges, enormous lawns, extensive terracing, the whole bit. But where are your native gardens, your contemporary gardens, and most important, your gardener’s gardens?
Last weekend I traveled to Houston for the Garden Conservancy’s season-opening Open Days tour. Six gardens were open to the public, including three large estate-style gardens. Every one was lovely (and I’ll post pictures to prove it soon), but not one of them could really be considered a gardener’s garden.
I can’t help but wonder why, in a city as large and successful as Houston, the organizers couldn’t put together a tour with a bit more zip and a few more gardener’s gardens—those fascinating, sometimes quirky, always personal Edens that other plant lovers love to visit. Where the owner likes to experiment, isn’t afraid of failure, grows a lot of plants and tries out a few unusual ones, adds his or her own personality to the garden, and loves nothing better than to talk plants when he or she isn’t actually gardening.
Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not criticizing the Houston tour gardens themselves. As I said, each one was beautiful and had something to offer visitors. But overall on the tour there was a feeling of sameness, of traditionalism, of an emphasis on architecture and hardscaping, with plants as a pleasing backdrop rather than the reason for being. There’s nothing wrong with that, but is that what garden visitors really want to see at every stop?
I made the rounds with my friend Diana of Sharing Nature’s Garden, and we had a nice time but breezed rather quickly through the large, lawn-centric and boxwood-edged gardens. (I realized after I got home that I didn’t even take pictures of these kinds of spaces; they may be verdant and beautifully “done,” but they don’t speak to me.) After the tour we stopped at Buchanan’s Native Plants in the Heights and found hordes of eager gardeners, an extensive selection of native and adapted plants, helpful salespeople, and a great gardening vibe. Based on that one nursery, I know Houston must have exciting, cutting-edge, and fascinating gardener’s gardens. I’d love to see some of them on the next Houston Open Days tour.
I’ve just been reading about influential Houston plantsman Lynn Lowrey, who operated a nursery to sell native plants back when everyone thought of them as weeds, as well as exotics from Mexico that he thought grew well here. He sold popular plants too, of course, not being a plant snob. Mary Anne Pickens, in a presentation to the Southern Garden History Society in Houston, described him thus:
In Lynn Lowrey’s mind, Houston was the land of opportunity for gardeners. He knew that Houston could accommodate a wide range of plant material. In one of his newsletters he wrote an article which he titled “Houston: Crossroads of East and West, Temperate and Subtropics.” He said:
Houston, despite soil and moisture problems is a crossroads of plant types. We can grow maples and palms, pines and acacias. The Southeastern pine forests find their southwestern limit in Houston. The western prairie with huisache and mesquite comes up to Alief on the west side of Houston. The temperate forest trees come right down to Buffalo Bayou, and the mild Gulf coast climate lets us grow bananas, cycads and oleanders. Also our different soil types: gumbo-clay, concrete hard sand-clay, and humus poor deep sand make gardening more demanding and interesting. Still we can grow such a great variety of plants that Houston can be one of the most interesting places to garden.
I don’t know about you, but I’d like to go on a tour of Houston gardens that Lowrey would have put together.
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