Dreamy green courtyard and water-saving garden in San Antonio

My friend Shirley of Rock-Oak-Deer in San Antonio recently uttered the magic words: Come see a few gardens! So last Friday I hopped in my car, drove south to the Alamo City, and met Shirley to tour three gardens. Two of the gardens will be on this year’s Watersaver Landscape Tour on October 24. I’ll give you a sneak peek at those soon, but first I’ll show you the one featured on last year’s tour.

This is the garden of Linda Peterson, who, with her husband, built this home in the northwest San Antonio neighborhood in which Linda grew up. As a teenager, she told me, she and her friends would bike to this then-vacant property to lounge under a 100-year-old live oak whose lowest limbs sprawl along the ground. It was all part of an old estate that was being developed into her suburban neighborhood. Years later, when she and her husband had an opportunity to buy the lot, they did, and built their dream home here. They preserved the beautiful live oaks as they constructed their home and garden around them.

A grayed-out mint-green stucco wall encloses a courtyard garden at the front of the house, sheltering it from the street and creating an outdoor room that gracefully transitions between the interior of the home and the public-facing garden outside the walls.

Stepping through the arbor-shaded opening you enter a generously proportioned patio garden designed for all-seasons relaxing. A hammock sways invitingly in the shade of the long-armed oaks, and a pot fountain splashes quietly behind matching agaves.

Chairs cluster near a focal-point outdoor fireplace. Curving seat-height walls provide plenty of extra seating for parties.

It’s a marvelous use of space, bringing the outdoors inside through a window-wall in the house and making this corner-lot, front garden feel as private as a fenced back yard.

I could move right in.

There are already several other residents, however, including this large metal iguana…

…and this rhino mama and calf, seemingly deciding whether to cross a river-rock stream.

Small metal lizards scurry down one of the live oaks — hoping to snag one of the almonds Linda puts out for the birds?

Linda collects not only metal animals but lanterns, which she hangs en masse from tree branches (as well as indoors in her entry hall), to striking effect. They add a distinct San Antonio-via-Mexico flair to her garden.

Paving is green-hued Pennsylvania bluestone, which matches the gray-green walls. It swirls around a central live oak and leads from the entry arbor to the front door, around the courtyard, and out past the fireplace to the back garden.

Wide planting beds curve around the perimeter of the space, softening the walls with drought-tolerant plants like vitex, prickly pear, variegated American agave, and soap aloe. Caramel-hued round gravel mulches the beds, aiding drainage and giving the widely spaced xeric plants a finished look.

Linda plants up striking pot displays too.

She boldly mixes metal cactus with real cactus, like this wonderful combo of steel golden barrels and spineless opuntia. Green and purple sweet potato vine meanders among the golden barrels, enhancing the color scheme and giving almost a pumpkin-patch appearance.

Linda created these abstract flowers of copper tubing herself, using leftovers from another project and pinching long copper tubes around them to make “stems.” I believe the wiry branches rambling below are grayleaf cotoneaster (Cotoneaster glaucophyllus).

Next, Linda led us around the side of the house, where a metal porcupine snuffled past potted succulents.

A side deck is lightly screened with a wire trellis, which is strategically hung with pots of asparagus fern. Fig ivy cloaks the trellis that extends below the deck, making an evergreen foundation.

A metal star attracts the eye skyward.

Along the gravel and flagstone path, intimate seating areas catch your eye, inviting you to sit and enjoy the garden.

This one, made for two, anchors the bend of the path. The umbrella offers not only sun protection but screening from neighboring houses.

More metal lanterns hang from a nearby tree. Even unlit, Linda’s lanterns foster a wonderful mood, promising festivity and late evenings in the garden. They also lift the eye off the ground plane and bridge the middle space in a heavily treed garden.

In the narrow back garden (the house is sited at the rear of the lot, leaving plenty of room up front for the courtyard garden), a small patio is sheltered from neighboring view by a unique, contemporary-style metal screen. Linda and her husband creatively constructed it themselves out of leftover metal roofing strips that they riveted together.

The patio shelters a tropical assortment of potted plants, including a tall palm and a coppery-leaved banana. Floor-to-ceiling back windows bring this space right into the home as well. A spiral stair leads up to the roof…

…where Linda enjoys a bird’s-eye view of the courtyard garden. From here you can see how the outer streetside garden buffers the courtyard walls.

I admired a soap aloe “river” at left. I know how much maintenance this requires; those aloes pup (produce offsets of baby plants) like crazy. You have to pull or snip off the pups frequently to have single rosettes like these.

Zooming in on the hammock corner, I noticed what a nice combo variegated American agave and bamboo muhly make. This would work just as well in full sun.

The fireplace view. A narrow balcony overlooks this space — but not as high as we are now!

Climbing down from the roof, let’s head out into the front garden — the only part of the garden that most passersby ever see. It’s a treat too. A metal agave, forever in early bloom, echoes the form of an Agave weberi behind it. Along the path, society garlic and foxtail fern are massed for effect.

The octopus-like arms of the sprawling live oak, whose trunk anchors one end of the hammock inside the courtyard, seem to writhe out of a hole in the wall, reaching out to encircle a stump-constructed table and stools. Its limbs dip into a cushiony groundcover of trailing purple lantana.

Glancing back along the path, you see masses of variegated flax lily and a gray leaf cotoneaster on the left and a large silver-blue agave (A. weberi) on the right. I admire Linda’s confidence in allowing open spaces between some of her plants, like the architectural agaves (as they’d have in a desert setting), contrasted with masses of softening groundcovers. The result is quite lush, even though the plants are all drought tolerant. Linda has no irrigation system and waters everything, as needed, by hand.

A stone Aztec-style crocodile looks fierce but tamely carries succulents in his plantable back.

Linda recently planted a swath of ‘Blonde Ambition’ grama grass, and it looks more erect and happy in full sun and gravel mulch than in my part-sun and wood-mulched garden. I love its color echo with the yellow stripes on the agaves in the background.

Let’s take a closer look at those stripey agaves. Also notice how beautifully a painted stucco wall sets off xeric plants.

A blue-green Agave weberi guards the path toward the driveway.

A handsomely pruned prickly pear stands sentry alongside the wall.

A wider view of the front-side garden. To orient yourself, you’re looking at the back of the outdoor fireplace (the taller wall section at the far right).

Linda likes to prune. I like to prune too. The key with pruning, if you’re into it, is knowing when to stop but also being willing to take chances, to seek out a beautiful form without poodling a plant. I admire Linda’s pruning skills with various shrubs, like cenizo, which she prunes up like a small tree, enhancing the natural airiness of the plant, but still allowing it a wide, graceful form — so unlike the tightly pruned and stunted cenizos commonly seen in our area.

Now we’re at streetside, looking at the front garden (you can see the octopus-like live oak in the background). I was intrigued by the bushy, silver-green shrub at right, which Linda told me is silvery cassia (Senna phyllodinea).

Silvery cassia seedpods

Two palms make a bold statement and offer additional screening.

Unusual Gregg dalea (Dalea greggii) spreads like a ghostly head of hair across the ground. Common-as-dirt rosemary, however, captured my complete attention because of Linda’s unique pruning. She’s gotten under the plant and pruned out the lower branches, lifting it up like a full skirt hanging just above the ground — for air circulation, Linda said, but also just because she likes the look.

I love it.

A curling and stretching agave looks like it just woke up and is trying to get itself moving.

More gracefully pruned-up cenizos, which create a silver scrim rather than a view-blocking hedge

A prolific pupper, variegated American agave produces lots of new plants for Linda to mass for effect.

The flagstone path widens near the end of the garden, making room for a simple wooden bench backed by a cloud of bamboo muhly.

A tighter view. Focal points like these give the eye a place to stop, even if your bottom will never grace the seat.

Linda knows to provide an equally pleasing view from the vantage of the focal point itself, so no matter where you stop or which way you look, you have a framed view or vignette to appreciate.

Linda designed the garden herself and does her own maintenance, and her attention to detail is evident at every turn. It’s a beautiful space, and the fact that it’s a low-water garden makes it even more inspiring. Thank you, Linda, for sharing your garden with me!

Up next: An evergreen garden that’s low-maintenance for easy living, for the Foliage Follow-Up meme on 9/16.

All material © 2006-2015 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

46 Responses

  1. TexasDeb says:

    Oh…my…. *sigh* Such a wonderful garden, start to finish. I can only imagine the hours of maintenance the open spaces require due to the well noted tendency of so many of the more structural plants to pup out prolifically. And hand watering alone? Really! Just…wow. I am in absolute awe.

    Truly a garden lover’s garden. Beautifully representative of our area yet so idiosyncratically lovely it would be a welcome addition anywhere. Thanks to all three of you (Linda/Shirley and yourself) for so generously sharing this inspirational setting. And hats off to Linda. This is a masterwork.

  2. A great, low-water garden. And, some great inspiration.

    I like her pruning, too.

    Thanks for taking us along.

  3. Jenny says:

    Stunning. I could move right in their too. Linda must be an artist to have created such a space and decorated it with perfect garden ornamentation. Luck you to have visited. Can’t wait for the rest.

  4. Alison says:

    Oh, what a fabulous (and large) garden! Thanks for sharing your experience of it. I do like how she pruned that rosemary. I have a couple that are getting pretty big, maybe I’ll try something similar. Those mint green walls match the paving perfectly. It’s so cool that she bought the land where she used to play on the live oak, and then kept it, made it a feature of her garden.

  5. hoov says:

    Really terrific garden in so many ways. The color scheme is so effective–grey, grey-green, black, and the brighter green and silver/silver-blue of foliage. Then the oak trunks almost black. Lordy I wish I had that discipline! What an effect that unified color palette creates.

    Thanks so much for the post, really enjoyed this garden.

  6. Jenn says:

    Love it. That green is so soothing in harsh desert light. And all those rusty critters! Perfect!

    • Pam/Digging says:

      I love the rusty critters too — so fun! I wouldn’t say our light is desert light, even if I do frequently refer to the summer sun as the Death Star. We have too much humidity from the Gulf of Mexico for that crystal-clear desert light that painters love. But yes, it can be harsh for sure, and the gray green did have a cooling effect on the 90+-degree day on which I visited. —Pam

  7. Phyllis says:

    Love love love the pruning of the cenzios and rosemarys.

  8. deb says:

    What a gorgeous place, and she has such an interesting history with it! I really love the color. Thanks for sharing.

  9. MaryAnn Hipp says:

    Wow, as I first viewed this garden it was beautiful; so thoughtfully planted and well planned. However, all the grey green on the hardscape, path, house, even the pillow accent colors became almost unsettling. Maybe it’s my work computer! Overall, this garden and its scope is breathtaking. Thank you for sharing.

  10. Nell says:

    I couldn’t imagine I’d ever be more drawn to a garden than the Burrus garden you posted about some time ago, but this one is just as compelling. It’s an enormous gift to the neighborhood, considering the scale of the garden outside the courtyard walls.

    Very, very few gardens designed and maintained by the owner have the simplicity, unity, and discipline of Linda’s.

    Does San Antonio have the occasional big rainstorms like central Texas? It occurred to me that would be another practical advantage of the way the rosemary’s pruned.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      I like the way you put it: the garden is an enormous gift to the neighborhood. It truly is. Lucky neighbors!

      I think San Antonio is subject to the same weather conditions as Austin, but I’d have to ask Shirley about the thunderstorms. The drought-then-deluge cycle of central Texas is just one of its many challenges. —Pam

      • Shirley says:

        We have similar drought-deluge cycles as Austin which is just 70 miles north. Many xeric plants drowned in several weeks of seemingly endless rain last May while we have had only a few showers since.

  11. This garden is a big WOW. I love the thought of being able to climb to the roof to observe the garden. FUN… It reminds me of a book I read where the people did this regularly. They lived in Spain and could keep an eye on the small town they lived in. Your pictures gave that segment of the book new meaning. I might have to reread the book and imagine this garden.

  12. Saurs says:

    The color of that stucco is simply dreamy. The hardscape choices here are amazing — sophisticated, but very subtle. Beautiful, restrained, very adult garden.

  13. Kris P says:

    I remember seeing this garden in one of Shirley’s posts. I was impressed then but I’m overwhelmed with admiration now. I recalled the way the walls were constructed around the trees but I didn’t remember the clever use of rusty metal creatures and xeric plants. I could learn a lot from Linda’s skill in giving each plant its best opportunity to shine (as contrasted with my own tendency to cram plants together cottage garden style). Thanks for sharing your wonderful photos.

  14. Shirley says:

    How fun to see Linda’s garden through your eyes. You have captured so many of the great details that make her garden such a pleasure to visit. The color is so restful, I always feel relaxed just entering the garden.

    What a great day that was touring three special gardens and meeting the equally special owners.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      We got lucky with the overcast day for photographing, didn’t we? Linda’s garden would have been a lot trickier to capture in the high-contrast condition of bright sun and deep shade. Thanks again for inviting me along, Shirley. I had a great time meeting the owners and seeing their gardens! —Pam

  15. ks says:

    What a pleasant and well designed garden. It seems so soothing and oasis-like. I love everything about it, including the discerning use of garden art. Nothing seems overdone or self conscious at all here. Thank you so much for the detailed tour !

  16. Wendy Moore says:

    Wow! The color/planting scheme is so incredibly cohesive and yet so varied! And I didn’t see a single flower, nor did I miss them. :-) The pictures are stunning, thanks so much for the inspiration!

    • Pam/Digging says:

      That’s true, Wendy — not many flowers, at least not at this time of year. Society garlic, blackfoot daisy, and a few lantanas were blooming, but this is largely a shade and foliage garden. I’m glad you enjoyed the pics! —Pam

  17. Thank you Pam, thank you Linda! What a stunning garden. I am delighted someone who could really appreciate those magical trees bought this land.

  18. Peter says:

    One of my favorite gardens you’ve shown. I think I like it so much because I can apply so many of the ideas to my own. I love the pruning techniques too.

  19. Diana Studer says:

    pruning to a silver scrim, oh yes please! Meantime I’ll practice on the lemon tree and the Australian brush cherry.

    Society garlic and foxtail fern appeals and in my garden they’d be indigenous too.

  20. Nance says:

    What a lovely and tranquil space. Thank you for posting it!

  21. Susan Salzman says:

    I saw this garden on the Water-Saver Tour last year. I live close by and try to pass it during the different seasons. Not only did she do the landscaping herself, but she capitalized on serendipitous finds like cactus pads lying in a street. LOL I couldn’t believe how quickly they had grown for her. I wish you all could walk through the garden and experience the calming effect of her marvelous work.

  22. Les says:

    The handling of the sprawling oak limb through the wall is genius. A lesser person probably would have removed it.

  23. […] road trip to San Antonio, but it’s worth every trafficky mile. Linda Peterson, whose dreamy garden I visited last September, invited a few friends over for tea after the San Antonio Watersaver Tour, and I was delighted to […]