Drive-By Gardens: Modern garden with gravel and steel boxes


On a cold, blustery Thursday, while driving through Austin’s Clarksville neighborhood, I spotted this intriguing, lawn-gone garden at a contemporary-style house. The mix of spiky and feathery plants caught my eye first. When I slowed down to rubberneck, I noticed that much of the garden is planted in rusty steel boxes. A low, concrete wall defines public and private spaces.


I do love a nice squid agave (A. bracteosa), and steel planters rock. This one is meant to be an address marker, however, and the squid has simply grown too large, obscuring the numbers. Might be time for a replant in the spring?


I like the wall. The dry-loving plants are fabulous, and look how green the garden is, even in mid-winter, after several hard freezes. This homeowner no doubt enjoys a very low watering bill and has no need of a lawn mower.


The right side of the garden is a little more southern than western, with sago palms and Texas mountain laurel under shade trees.


Interestingly, their neighbors are into the rusty steel containers and spiky plants too. A widely spaced row of what looks like ‘Green Goblet’ agave in steel planter boxes lines the neighbor’s driveway and blends with the garden next door. A difference in gravel color is the only giveaway of the property line.


This is part of a very spare contemporary garden fronting the cottage next door.

What do you think? Do you like the drama and architecture of a modern garden like this? Is it a good response to a drought-prone climate, where water is increasingly viewed as the precious resource it is? If you go for a dry garden in front, would you feel justified in creating a lusher garden in back? Let’s discuss!

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

30 Responses

  1. Alison says:

    I do like the sparseness and drama of these gardens. I’m not sure about the bare concrete wall, but I love the steel boxes. I think it looks more appropriate with that first house, with its more modern lines, than the ranch house next to it. In your climate, with your water problems, I still wouldn’t feel justified putting in a lush garden in back. Although I might go for a few more flowering xeric plants.

  2. Shirley says:

    I love the look of spare gardens like this one and it works very well with the house.

    For my own front landscape I went with a denser planting to cover more gravel. Even with the denser planting visitors have commented that it looks like a yard full of cactus.

    The lusher backyard is about using water where we spend the most time although I enjoy my dry gardens so much I repeat some of the plants in the back.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      I think it does work well with this style of house, although I also like modern gardens with updated cottages with contemporary paint colors and detail. That’s funny (or sad) that your front garden has ever been characterized as a yard full of cactus. You have so much more going on! —Pam

  3. I love them both, and oh what I would give to have those big ‘green goblet’ agaves in my garden! (complete with the planter boxes of course). Since I have created a lush backyard garden I guess I have to say yes. Although I will be going with less water needy plants in the new area to the north of the patio.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Those ‘Green Goblet’s are pretty fabulous. I’m working on growing a couple of those monsters myself — and I’ll have pups to spare when you finally come visit. —Pam

  4. Kris P says:

    I like the steel planters a lot but I’m not sure about the concrete wall – to me, it interrupts the movement of the eye in following the steel pieces. I respect the commitment to creating a drought tolerant garden but I’d probably try to carve out at least a small area for special, more water-needy plants. With California’s drought problem spiking, I may need to do a lot more of this myself.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      California’s terrible drought has recently made the news here in Texas. We’ve been so focused on our own awful drought that perhaps it took a while to for us to realize that other parts of the country are suffering too. I feel for CA gardeners. We know the pain of drought. —Pam

  5. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    In your climate I would probably do something similar. I would definitely want a little lush to relish near where I would sit around outside.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Everybody needs a little lush, don’t they? Of course I find many agaves and yuccas can give that lush feeling if planted more densely, especially with a few tough, flowering perennials. —Pam

  6. peter schaar says:

    I too like the overall minimalist look with good contrast of form and texture. The formed concrete is a little industrial for my taste. The main deficiency is that there is almost nothing for wildlife (pollinators, etc) in the garden. A “lusher” garden in back would help that a lot. It wouldn’t need to be a thirsty garden, either.

  7. Les says:

    I love the mix of plants and stark industrial materials, but I love them in other people’s landscapes. While this landscape is a nice fit to the house, and to a southwestern climate, there is too much bare earth for me. All I see is opportunities to put in more plants.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      One would have to be a very disciplined gardener to have a modern garden. I enjoy seeing them, and they photograph well, but like you, I enjoy plants too much to have that style of garden myself. —Pam

  8. Bob Pool says:

    The more I look at the metal, the more I like it. The concrete, not so much. Rock is still my favorite though.

  9. I like the metal but the planting is just too minimalist for me. I wouldn’t need a lush garden in the back, just more drought resistant plants.

  10. This is great, particularly that the next door neighbors share the same general style. They are lucky to have the tall shade trees as well.

    I envision a small back yard with decking (continue the no lawn), a small fountain of some kind, maybe another Texas mountain laurel in a corner, a little more lush grasses/native flowers combination.

  11. Gail says:

    I love it and if I gardened in a xeric climate I would go for this look, but like Lisa I would need a spot of lush planting where I sat outside. I would probably stain the concrete wall, not sure which color though. There are several spare contemporary gardens in nearby neighborhoods, but they require lots of weeding in the Middle South where we get over 45 inches of rain a year.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      I bet they do, Gail. We can have that same weed-in-the-gravel problem here in Austin, with an average of 32 inches of rain a year. Funny how the weeds grow just fine, even in drought. —Pam

  12. I live in S CA (20 min from Debra Baldwin) – yes, big time drought!! I love that landscaping!! The colors are terrific & that the neighbors follow thru with same colors & plants only expands the whole picture & their landscaping. One of the BIG items are the shade trees – enough for some cooling but not enough to give deep shade. Our favorite flowering & drought resistant are Fremontadendron, Desert Willow and the Palo Verde,Desert Museum. Don’t know if they can take the Austin cold. A shady oasis in the back yard would be wonderful & very appropriate, and can be very water wise.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Hi, Margaret, and welcome! I’ve never seen the Fremontadendron here in central Texas, but desert willow and palo verde (Parkinsonia aculeata) are excellent, drought-tolerant native trees. The ‘Desert Museum’ cultivar is used here; I’m curious to see how it survived the mid-20s we’ve had so much of this winter. —Pam

  13. ricki says:

    This is the kind of garden that I admire…from a distance, because I could never make that kind of a commitment. While admiring but not adopting, I like the concrete wall too, and the way the garden style bleeds into the neighboring property, where I find it equally successful.

  14. This house and garden look so wonderful together – The garden with the house – or house with that garden, are what really make it INCREDIBLE to me.

  15. Denise says:

    I just prowled a commercial project featuring prominent retaining walls, so walls have been on my mind. The opportunities for planting against either side make it very appealing to me. Finding ways to make gravel and desert landscape interesting, such as the use of low walls, mixing up height with the walls and containers — this is the future for low rainfall areas like ours. I admit it possibly looks like an odd design choice to those who live where rainfall is abundant.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      I really love colorful walls in desert gardens. You don’t see colored walls much in Austin, which is a shame. Why should Arizona and New Mexico gardeners have all the fun? —Pam

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