Visit to Big Red Sun

Roly-poly Buddhas, fleshy succulents, and spiny cacti mingle in towering, rusted-steel saucers and planters, the signature look at Big Red Sun, an eastside Austin nursery where East meets West. I get the Big Red Sun blues (with a nod to songwriter Lucinda Williams) every time I visit because I can’t afford to bring home all the unusual plants, gorgeous floral arrangements, and glazed pots that I want. Cheap it isn’t, but the whole place is a feast for the eyes.

Located within biking distance of the Capitol, Big Red Sun occupies a green, mod bungalow and side yard amid a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Great gift finds (books, clothes, jewelry, toys, a few small paintings) fill the bungalow’s tiny rooms, and I often come to BRS just to shop inside. But today the blue skies and warm sun lured me outside, so I decided to give you a tour of this fun, urban nursery.

As you tour Big Red Sun with me, remember—it’s winter. While Big Red Sun rarely blazes with color—the plants tend to be evergreen and architectural—the other seasons bring a fullness to the gardens. They are leaner now, but they still wow me.

Even if I park in the alley lot, I always head to the front to ogle the sidewalk garden along the street. What a gift to the neighbors this garden is! Toothy, giant agaves hulk next to feathery grasses, the yellow in the variegated agave echoing the tawny Mexican feathergrass. Slightly akilter, tall poles tightly wound with twinkle lights mark the entrance to the nursery.

Agave closeup

The Big Red Sun look: yucca, grasses, and succulents improbably sprouting from a rusted-steel cylinder. Height, movement, shape, texture, evergreen foliage—this planter has everything but fragrance and color. Yes, it would look really weird plopped down in the center of a lawn. But in the xeric garden of a contemporary house it would be an accent to madden the neighbors with jealousy.

Don’t forget the lawn. Yep, that can be planted in a container too. How to mow it, though?

Occasionally while driving around Austin, I’ll spot a container tower like this and wonder if Big Red Sun designed it. There’s an elementary school in northeast Austin that has installed two or three planter towers, and I always wonder, How in the world did their PTA pull off that coup?

My second thought is always, How do they water and tend it?

Agaves are big here, in every sense.

Despite the dusty, old-West image a lot of people conjure when they imagine Austin, 7-foot-tall cacti like this one are not native to central Texas. This giant pairs beautifully with the pole of the planter behind it, which contains another large cactus.

All manner of yuccas and agaves spray out of tall, narrow cylinders at the gift-shop door—an evergreen fireworks display.

On the ground, a smaller agave in closeup

Near the entry, a trifoliate orange tree (Poncirus trifoliata) stretches out curved, thorny claws.

A closeup of the trifoliate orange’s claws

Through the arched gate, you enter the nursery proper. It’s a little sparse right now but still interesting. An immense circular, steel planter is on the right, currently planted with what looks like lettuce and chard, with silver ponyfoot cascading over the edges. A Buddha reclines in the center.

If the Buddhas look relaxed and happy, this grassy chaise lounge offers just the right place to put your own feet up. Hmmm, except for those pesky grass stains.

Lovely blue pots for sale

Ganesha resides in another planter filled with pebbles.

Cinderblock stairs have been playfully brightened with a mosaic of mirror shards. Alas, “employees only.” Sorry, kids.

Blue Buddha and pot

Big Red Sun’s mingling of western desert plants with eastern religious imagery is anything but middle-of-the-road. Serene yet playful, structural in design yet loosely planted, BRS’s style is unique and immediately recognizable. If only the Middle East and the West could be brought together so harmoniously.

Update 2010: Big Red Sun no longer operates in Austin. This shop is closed.
Update 2011: Big Red Sun has reopened a few doors down from its original location, at 1311 E. Cesar Chavez Street.

10 Responses

  1. Stephanie says:

    I just bought my first house about a year ago, and I am just starting to learn about gardening. I don’t have anyone to learn from, so I have spent a lot of time looking at books and blogs. Your blog has helped me with ideas and inspiration, as well as showing me all the best nurseries around town.


    Wow, thanks! I’m glad to have helped. Thanks for commenting, Stephanie. —Pam

  2. bill says:

    Some of this looks fun. And some of it just looks weird to me. But then Austin is supposed to be weird, right? I think it gets people’s imaginations going.

    I tried one of those trifoliate oranges outside a window once. It made a really good security barrier.

    Their bold, metal planters are not for the faint of heart. It doesn’t suit my cottage garden, but at a different house, with a more contemporary garden, I would definitely try one of those tower planters filled with cacti. One thing I like about Big Red Sun is that even while the nursery is heavily design-oriented, it’s still all about the plants. —Pam

  3. Thanks for the tour Pam – and I’m hanging my head in shame for never having seen this amazing place in person. I need a ROAD TRIP! My mind is boggled at the presence of those tall planters in the school yard.

    Did you go to Stephanie’s cool blog? She has us in her links!! Thank you Stephanie!

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    Yes, I did visit Stephanie’s fun blog, and got a kick out of the close-up of her dog, Monster. —Pam

  4. Carol says:

    Winter, indeed. It all looked quite interesting and intriquing to me. The only plant I recognized was the grass. Another wonderful “travel post”!

    It kind of looks like another planet to me too. But it’s fun. Thanks for stopping by. —Pam

  5. LostRoses says:

    Thanks for the “tour”! I’ve never seen those towers before and as for the grass chaise….! Fascinating stuff and fun to look at.

    You’re welcome. Thanks for commenting. —Pam

  6. I’m always amazed how you get away freely taking snapshots of commercial designs at places like Big Red Sun and the Natural Gardener. The few times I’ve tried it, I’ve had my hand slapped (so to speak). Did you ask first? Did you tell them you were going to write them up in an article?

    I did ask permission from a staffer at Big Red Sun, explaining that I’m a local garden blogger showcasing my favorite nurseries and giving her a business card with my website address. She graciously gave me the go-ahead. I wanted to take photos of the amazing succulent arrangements for sale in the gift shop, but I thought that might be pushing my luck.

    When I photographed the Natural Gardener and the Antique Rose Emporium, I did not ask permission and no one gave me any trouble. My kids were with me both times; maybe that made a difference? Both of those nurseries have large display gardens, and I figure they must expect that people will photograph them for ideas and then buy those same plants right there.

    I plan to showcase my favorite nursery, Barton Springs Nursery, when spring rolls around. I’ve spoken to the owner about my blog—while urging her to get at least a basic website to publicize the nursery—and I’ve spent thousands of dollars there over the years, so I hope they’ll let me show what I love about it. —Pam

  7. […] In January I posted a photo tour of this hip nursery and mentioned, but did not photograph, their to-die-for arrangements of succulents. A few days ago, while shopping for my Valentine, I returned and met Monique Capanelli, the artist who creates those stunning arrangements. […]

  8. […] Check out the August/September 2007 issue of Garden Design for a 10-page spread on a dramatic Austin garden designed and installed by Big Red Sun. Terraced with plates of rusted steel and planted with sculptural eye-catchers like agave, sotol, Italian cypress, and horsetail, the garden is a contemporary-design showcase. For all those native-plant doubters out there, this design illustrates how you can use them to create a striking garden that doesn’t look messy, boring, or even naturalistic, if that’s not to your taste. […]

  9. […] hot gardens, including a few from the local gardens of Austinites Jill Nokes and Selena Souders of Big Red Sun, and Peckerwood in Hempstead, […]

  10. […] a go-go dancer at a small-town prom, Big Red Sun‘s theatrical streetside display garden stood out from the crowd of surrounding businesses at its original location on E. Cesar Chavez. Its […]