Not voting these survivors off the island garden

Summer’s heat entices chaste lilac, or vitex (Vitex agnus-castus), to send up an explosion of purple spires, adding a dash of rich color to the xericsaped island bed in the circular driveway.

This bermed garden bed, shaded all morning by live oaks and hit with late-afternoon sun, is not on the irrigation system, and I try to remember to water it at least every other week in summer, never in winter. Tough, drought-tolerant plants that are distasteful to deer make up this largely evergreen (and gold and silvery blue) garden.

Right now, the vitex is the belle of the ball, showing off long, tapered bloom spires that attract bees and coarse, palmate leaves that could be mistaken for marijuana foliage. But beware. With fast-growing, thickety growth, vitex requires a firm hand with the pruning shears. I don’t recommend it unless you’re committed to regular pruning after each bloom cycle. Vitex is on Austin’s invasive-plant list, which is a shame since it performs so well in our extreme climate — hence its designation, confusingly, as a Texas Superstar plant. If you want to grow it or already have one, to be a good environmental steward I suggest cutting it back after every bloom cycle, preventing it from going to seed, and pruning it back to about 8 to 12 inches in winter, keeping it shrub-sized.

Actually, several plants in this bed have seeding-out tendencies (only in my own garden; they never invade my neighbors’ lawns or beds) — namely Mexican feathergrass (Nassella tenuissima) and gopher plant (Euphorbia rigida) — but I love them anyway.

The wide view. The left side receives a blast of the Death Star in the afternoon; the far-right side is shady. The main players, roughly from left to right, are gopher plant, ‘Color Guard’ yucca, wavy prickly pear, vitex, Mexican feathergrass, ‘Powis Castle’ artemisia, Mexican oregano (Poliomintha longiflora), softleaf yucca (Y. recurvifolia), turk’s cap (Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii), heartleaf skullcap (Scutellaria ovata), and Texas dwarf palmetto (Sabal minor).

To illustrate how far this bed has come, let’s pop back to 2008 for a “before” picture. Even then it was lawn-gone, thanks to the efforts of the previous owners, who’d planted groundcovering Asian jasmine, trailing purple lantana, and a few other plants. But I wanted something more dramatic and interesting since visitors pass this bed on the way to the front door. It’s also our view from the front door and what we see each time we pull into the driveway. Moreover, I desired screening from the street, and taller plants on the crest of the berm provide that.

I planted this garden bed in March 2010. Subsequent years of drought and blisteringly hot, dry summers slowed its growth but couldn’t thwart it, and deer-resistant plant choices have kept the antlered pests’ depredations to a minimum, although the four-nerve daisies in front proved tasty and had to be relocated to the fenced hillside garden. (We’ve also changed our house color since then, painting the cream siding a warm gray.)

The recent cold winter hardly nipped the island bed, and this year it’s really taking shape. Don’t you love it when reality finally catches up to the vision in your mind’s eye?

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

44 Responses

  1. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    This bed has filled in beautifully. It has so much color and texture I bet you and your visitors never tire of looking at it.

  2. Those cool blues, greens and purples look wonderful.

    Left to its own devices where there is space, Vitex makes a wonderful understory tree that butterflies find attractive.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      It does make a pretty tree, but unfortunately it’s on the invasives list here in central Texas. So for area gardens I recommend cutting off the spent flowers, preventing seed dispersal. Keeping it shrub-sized is the only way to manage it. —Pam

  3. deb says:

    Looks really fantastic!

  4. melanie says:

    So pretty. Love it.

  5. Alison says:

    Such a vast improvement, and it has filled in quickly. It IS wonderful when the garden finally matches our vision.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Ha — it doesn’t seem quickly to me, as I’ve been critically eyeing this bed for a few years. It’s so public that I wanted it to look great right from the start. —Pam

  6. Tamara says:

    oh my gosh, it’s soo gorgeous,Pam. You are truly talented. I am amazed how much it has grown in! Really lovely when your plans and patience pay off.

  7. Looks really good.

    It has really filled in nicely. I’m always amazed at what you can get by with there, with the dear little deer, that just won’t work here.

    I love the Vitex. We had a tree-sized one, in our last garden. It was white, and looked like a giant snowball in spring. Difficult to prune in tree form, though.

  8. Lori says:

    It looks gorgeous! I love it when patience finally pays off.

  9. Jamie says:

    Where could I buy the curly cactus? Would be great here in the Hill Country around Kerrville

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Mine was a passalong from a friend, Jamie. It’s pretty common here in Austin, and if you spot one you can ask the gardener for a pad. It roots easily if you lay the pad on the ground. Or check with Backbone Valley Nursery in Marble Falls. —Pam

  10. Your driveway bed looks perfect! I love Vitex agnus-castus. We call it chaste tree, and our is a real tree. It’s in full bloom right now, and the branches are drooping under the weight of the flowers. It’s not invasive here; I don’t think I’ve ever seen a seedling. Maybe ours is sterile? Or maybe our climate is just too dry.

  11. Jenn says:

    “Don’t you love it when reality finally catches up to the vision in your mind’s eye?”


  12. Jenny says:

    Your bed is beautiful Pam. I was just wondering if you cut it back hard this spring as I know what a big boy it can become. I just this morning removed two huge arching branches from mine that were interfering with the dwarf Yaupons. I love the smell of this tree but cutting back is a must. I do have one that I planted in my wild areas outside and it has made a lovely tree. Planted in very poor soil it does not grow very much. It sends up very few water sprouts. Well done on your design.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Yep, I whack it back hard in February — to about 8 or 12 inches. I’m determined to keep this one under control, unlike the one in my former garden. —Pam

  13. TexasDeb says:

    Pam – is it your impression Vitex could work in a container? I’ve wanted a Vitex for over a year but already struggle with other invasive plants here so didn’t want to put one in the ground. I have a new large planter and was thinking Vitex could be striking with a low underplanting to spill out underneath. Perhaps that might keep the pruning and manageable?

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Good question, Deb. I think a large container would work — whisky barrel sized, maybe? I’ve seen them growing wild along the rocky cliffs at Lake Travis — part of the invasive spread, I’m sure — in what looks like very little soil. A container should help to keep it small, making it easier to deadhead before seeds develop. —Pam

  14. You certainly are committed with that Vitex! It’s beautiful and they do look so much better pruned into a pretty, sculptural shape.

  15. Your before and after photos are always such an inspiration – stunning plant combos, great color and texture ideas, and proof that the mature size of those tiny transplants really must be considered. Ever consider making them the basis of another book?

  16. Meems says:

    You did a great job designing this difficult area (sun on one end and shade on the other). I love the variety of foliage textures and colors. I wish ‘Color Guard’ liked my garden better. I have several, but they just don’t stay dry enough during our wet summers.

  17. peter schaar says:

    To Meems: The issue is drainage, not rainfall. Try planting your Yucca on a mound with shallow sloping sides composed of half (or more) drainage rock or expanded shale and half potting soil (nothing with peat moss, though).

  18. Pam I love your combinations of foliage and the Vitex is breathtaking! I enjoyed the before and after photos-makes one just want to jump right into the photo of the mature garden…so beautiful and inviting!

  19. Kris P says:

    Pam, the bed looks breathtakingly beautiful! I’ve looked at that Vitex in nurseries but was always fearful of it due to the quoted dimensions. I wouldn’t mind cutting it back on a diligent basis if I could keep it shrub sized like you have. Maybe I’ll have to try it!

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Kris, it’s really not much work to keep it small. I treat it like my native herbaceous perennials and whack it to the ground in mid-February. —Pam

  20. Katina says:

    Yes, your bed looks gorgeous (and is the main reason why I wanted to try gopher plant…despite it’s emergency room visit tendencies…)

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Just give it good drainage and plenty of sun, and it’ll reward you with beautiful foliage and spring flowers. And remember to wear gloves and maybe goggles when you prune it. ;-) —Pam

  21. Polly says:

    The bed is gorgeous and this post is a great lesson in patience. Thanks for sharing.

  22. Les says:

    Amazing what a few year and a good design will do for a spot.

    Vitex agnus-castus is not invasive here, but V. rotundifolia is very invasive, especially in critical dune ecosystems. In fact, it is outlawed. Usually we let V. agnus-castus get small tree sized here and rarely cut it back. Removing some of the smaller, lower branches, a beautiful gnarly trunk is revealed.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      I’ve seen V. rotundifolia, aka beach vitex, sold here in Austin, Les, but haven’t heard about that one being invasive here. Of course we don’t have beaches. —Pam