Drive-By Gardens: Aloes abloom in modern dry garden of Karen Lantz

‘Blue Elf’ aloes, purple prickly pear, gold sedum, and smooth sotol and silver ponyfoot in the steel ring, with an Opuntia “tree” behind

I’m hearing from many of you how much you enjoy my Drive-By Gardens posts, and so I’m pleased to offer a third this week. (Click here for the first and second.)

My friend Diana gets credit for spotting this one. We were in Houston for the Open Days tour last Saturday and had just left an austere, nearly plantless garden — and were feeling a bit let down — when this swath of ‘Blue Elf’ aloes in bloom came into view on Banks Street. “Stop the car!” she said, and we leaped out with cameras in hand and began maniacally shooting the scene. We really are garden nuts.

A wider view shows a modern home with a surprising dry garden out front (surprising for Old-South, azaleas-and-boxwood Houston) and a courtyard garden behind a tall steel-and-chain-link fence partially screened with privacy slats. Silver ponyfoot and sedums create a shimmering, groundcovering carpet atop the rock mulch.

Steel pipe remnants hold a ‘Blue Flame’ agave and succulents. Be still, my heart!

As we were exclaiming over the aloes and marveling over this Austinesque garden in Houston, a man on a bike cruised into the driveway, and I called out that we weren’t stalkers but were just admiring his garden.

A moment later, a woman popped her head up over the steel half-wall of a rooftop patio (visible at top left) and called out, “Would you like to see the rest of the garden?”

Would we ever!

It turns out this is the garden of architect Karen Lantz. She designed and built the house, and her quest to use only American-made materials in its construction was featured in the New York Times in October 2012. (More information about her home can be found on the website of her firm, Lantz Full Circle.)

Karen also designed the garden and chose plants for the front yard that she’d never have to water. Out came the lawn and in went, after berming a layer of sandy soil over the Houston clay, aloes, prickly pear, agaves, sotols, cape rush, sedum, and silver ponyfoot. She found this Opuntia “tree” at Cactus King, which she suggested we visit. (Sadly, we ran out of time and didn’t make it. Next time!)

Inside the fence, Karen grows edibles in steel-edged raised beds (viewed here from the rooftop patio). This is where she’s willing to water. Open fencing panels at the corner and near the entrance keep it neighbor-friendly and admit breezes and light.

A current pool tucked right up against the house’s expansive windows is both a place to exercise and stay cool in summer as well as a sparkling water feature to enjoy from the living room.

Trained up mesh fence panels is a plant I mistook for a euphorbia. Karen told us that it’s a dragon fruit cactus, or pitaya, which is native not to the U.S. Southwest but the jungles of South America. It likes good drainage but, unlike most cacti, enjoys extra water and fertile soil. It fruits prolifically, she said.

A view of the courtyard garden from inside the house

Karen worked hard to make her house as sustainable as possible. Aside from solar-panel roofing over the rooftop patio (like the ones at Austin City Hall, she noted), deep overhangs to shade the interior, and a lawnless, low-water garden, Karen installed an underground, 1400-gallon water-storage tank. Water feeds into the tank from gutters on the home, and a pump allows them to use the water as needed. Karen said during construction people couldn’t understand her desire to collect rainwater in flood-prone Houston, where rainfall averages nearly 50 inches a year. She felt justified when the Texas drought intensified in 2011, affecting even Houston.

In back a covered porch offers contemporary-style seating and dining areas. Prancing Labradoodle Willy Wonka, possibly the cutest dog ever after Cosmo, kept us entertained throughout the tour.

The back garden is small and Zen, with a bamboo screen and gravel flooring. Karen bought this clumping bamboo (I forget what kind) from Utility Research Garden in Austin.

My sincere thanks to Karen for generously sharing her home and garden with us. I always learn so much from visiting other gardens, and this one was especially interesting in contrast with the traditional, estate-style gardens that we were seeing on tour that day (I’ll be posting on those soon).

I hope you enjoyed this Drive-By that turned into a “come on in!” For my traveling companion’s perspective on this garden, visit Sharing Nature’s Garden.

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

30 Responses

  1. Cheryl says:

    Your drive-By Garden Posts are always so full of inspiration and great photos and information! Well, ALL your posts are so very interesting. I’m so happy that you do this and that I found “you” way back when. Your comments and photos keep my brain stirred up and at least semi active. LOL. Thanks!

  2. Kate S. says:

    What an interesting garden to find in Houston, and how fortunate for all of us that she happened to see you all and invite you in!

  3. Alison says:

    What an interesting garden! I love that it is ecologically inclined. It was so nice of her to invite you to see the rest of the garden. Especially interesting to me was the view of the neighbors on the street from the rooftop patio — so much lawn.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Houston has a much lusher aesthetic than Austin, and much more traditional too. It’s firmly a part of the Southeast, while Austin straddles Southeast and Southwest. So lawns are quite popular there. This garden was really a unique exception. —Pam

  4. Heidi says:

    Please keep up with the drive by gardens, they are so much fun! It’s great to see different styles and get ideas you could adapt for your own yard. In this post I’m in love with the steel planters and corner mesh panels. Hopefully more gardeners will invite you to tour their spaces. By the way, I think your photos are the best I’ve seen in the blog world!

  5. I enjoyed Diana’s post on this garden and it was fun to see your perspective as well. So many details and fabulous plants.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed the second perspective. We’re trying not to post on the same gardens on the same days, but I am enjoying seeing the gardens through her eyes too. —Pam

  6. Lovely and inspiring! Still, I’m surprised that she only installed a 1400 gallon tank if she was going to the trouble of burying one – maybe that isn’t sucked dry as quickly as it would be here in Austin. As this drought continues, I’m wishing I had room for a second (or even 3rd) 1600 gallon.

  7. TexasDeb says:

    Not only do I have garden envy, I find I am experiencing significant rain collection envy as well. Is there anyone with information (hopefully including their own positive experience) regarding who sells and installs such systems here in Austin?

    • Pam/Digging says:

      A few years ago I heard Dick Peterson give a talk; he consults with people about water collection systems and can recommend what to get — although he does not refer to specific installers, in the interest of objectivity. You might search online to see if he’s still doing that. —Pam

  8. I LOOOOVE this garden. Thank you for stopping! I wish I had an underground tank. It would help so much in our dry summer.

  9. I cannot stop coming back to your blog to drool over this garden!!!!

    • Pam/Digging says:

      So that’s why my keyboard is so wet. ;-) Hey, congrats on your CTG appearance. You were so great — pretty, articulate, and funny! You need your own garden show! —Pam

  10. Linda Draper says:

    I got so excited when I saw your post….since you are in Austin and I in San Antonio…thought I might be able to leave my Elfin Blue Aloes out during the winter for sure. I think I’ll test this coming winter and see how it goes.

    If you are in San Antonio, I’d love to show you my xeriscape …. we dug up everything and totally changed our front yard. Feel free to email and I’ll send you pictures or the process and garden.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      I think you can, Linda. I leave mine out in a pot all winter, and have done so for 7 or 8 years. (It is in a protected spot, though.) Thanks for the invitation to see your garden. I’d love to take you up on it one day! —Pam

  11. mamaholt says:

    DIED and gone to heaven on this one. I mean just DIED. Underwater collection? Where to begin? LUCKY you for getting in!!

  12. How lucky was that?
    Great garden. A lot of good ideas to steal…uh, borrow.
    Thanks for the tour.

  13. Indie says:

    What a great, low-maintenance garden! So well designed! I love all the different colored succulents in the low steel pipe remnant. So pretty!

  14. I am so, so happy that you received such a wonderful surprise from this woman. I can only imagine how grateful you were for her hospitality! And holy cow – what an amazing garden and home. Love the tour!

  15. Shannon, another Austin gardener says:

    What a beautiful garden! Pam, thanks for sharing this although it is clear they don’t have any of our urban deer ready to eat our best plants at any time. :) Underground collection – wow.