Turning a neighborhood median strip into a garden

A few years ago I toured Colleen Jamison’s beautiful garden in central-west Austin, and a few days ago I had the pleasure of a revisit. It is still wonderful! But here’s what wowed me before I even stepped foot in her garden: a median strip down the middle of her street that she’s transformed, little by little, into a garden for her neighbors and passersby to enjoy.

Wow, just look at this lovely space, with staggered benches inviting one to rest under an allée of crepe myrtles. Colleen says she started planting the median years ago to block an unwelcome view of trucks parked directly across the street from her house. And then she just kept expanding it.

As you’d expect, the median lacks a water source for irrigation, so Colleen chose tough, mostly native plants that can thrive without regular watering once they’re established, like Mexican feathergrass and crepe myrtle, shown here, as well as retama, Texas mountain laurel, iris, blue mistflower, prickly pear, and agave. (Note: she does water new plants by hand until they’re established.)

Colleen’s eye for design is evident in the repetition and massing of relatively few species of plants, which also makes maintenance easier, and in the way she breaks up the bowling-alley effect of a long, narrow space by zigzagging benches along the length and creating a focal-point mound of blue mistflower in the center of the path.

The blue mistflower mound marks the end of the crepe myrtle allée and the start of a retama allée.

Turning around and looking back toward the middle, you get to enjoy the effect all over again.

So inviting! And so well maintained too.

The allée pathway widens in the midsection of the median to embrace both sides of the street, inviting access.

Directly across from Colleen’s garden, the median is more densely planted in cottage-garden style — the better to hide those trucks! Actually, the trucks may be long gone now, but this was the earliest section she planted, and it’s lush with Texas mountain laurel, prickly pear, iris, and agave. A metal sunflower makes a cheerful accent.

From the median, here’s the charming view of Colleen’s house and front garden. What a gift she’s given to the neighborhood with her own garden and the median garden.

For fun, here are a couple more images from Colleen’s garden, including a ruffled kalanchoe in a mint-green vase…

…and this peaceful side-yard garden with a classical fountain, a pillow-strewn bench for comfortable lounging, and masses of pretty shade-garden plants.

Don’t you wish you were Colleen’s neighbor?

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36 Responses

  1. That is one handsome median. I wonder if anyone ever uses those benches? I wonder if anyone ever steals any of the benches? They look so nice. Her garden is a treasure. That is a beautiful fountain.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      I would use those benches if I still lived in the vicinity. This is a couple of blocks away from my old garden, and I used to walk by Colleen’s garden all the time — back before I knew her. —Pam

      • Colleen M. Jamison says:

        People do sit on the benches sometimes, and I’ve even seen folks picnic there! I was worried about things being stolen too, and I was conscious of not putting anything out there that I would feel too bad about losing. But so far, not one thing has gone missing. Isn’t that cool?

  2. deb says:


  3. Steve Blackwell says:

    She’s done an excellent job. I’d love to be her neighbor. Oh, and is the furthest end of the strip planted with some sort of Acacia or Palo Verde rather than Crape Myrtle?

  4. Such a generous gift!

  5. That is an amazing project. Best part appears to be that the city has not come along and said it has to go. Hope she gets some kudos from folks on her street.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      I was thinking that too, Linda, and also glad the city maintenance crews haven’t come along to “help” with crepe myrtle pruning. I hate it when a landscaping crew comes along and butchers a beautiful row of crepe myrtles by topping all the branches in the winter. It’s so common throughout the South to commit crepe murder. —Pam

  6. Yes! I wish all us gardeners could be neighbors. And the rest of the bunch could do live elsewhere. What a wonderful thing she’s done.

  7. Alison says:

    I would love it if all my neighbors were gardeners. That would be the best! What a fabulous gift that median is. Those graceful masses of feather grass! Mine never look that good.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      The feathergrasses are always so beautiful in the spring. They can get a bit matted later in the year. They require some finger grooming to look their best after they set seed. —Pam

  8. Pat Webster says:

    I love what Colleen has done but wonder if there have been any issues with the municipality. Did she have permission? Has there been any official response?

  9. ks says:

    This is so nice ! It reminded me of the fabulous median strips in one of the Buffalo neighborhoods when I attended Garden Walk, this one with many neighbors involved, and water needy plants-summer rains make quite the difference. Looking at this my cynical side wondered how the benches are protected from being stolen …are they anchored in somehow ? In any case we should all have a neighbor like Colleen !

  10. I love it! The movement of the Mexican feathergrass with the benches, the pathways, and the other plants creates magic! Her design sense is impressive. Truly inspiring work.

  11. Evan says:

    What a beautiful garden! I’ve never seen Mexican feather grass so lush and green. I always see it in its more tan stage. The median garden looks so inviting I’d be tempted to sit there for a spell if I lived nearby. I hope it’s not a very busy street.

  12. Lori says:

    WOW. This is a big change from the last time I saw that median!

    And Colleen’s garden is one of my all time favorites from garden tours. Do-able in scope & materials for the average homeowner’s budget, and she has a really exacting eye for form and color.

  13. Margaret says:

    How wonderful – Lucky neighbours indeed!

  14. Laura Munoz says:

    Very, very nice and also self-less. The City didn’t pay Colleen for her time, labor, materials or plants. It just couldn’t look better!

  15. Adriana says:

    Hi Pam. I keep thinking about this lovely garden. I love the simplicity and functionality.

    Do you know how she would have constructed the DG path? Maybe just several inches of DG?

    I figure if she used DG in this application, then it’s got to be one of the easiest to install. Hardscape is intimidating for me.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Adriana, Colleen kindly answered your question in her reply below. DG is pretty easy to install, but I do recommend eliminating weeds first (especially Bermudagrass) and then tamping down at least 4 inches of DG to make a path. You can use a handheld flame weeder tool to keep the new path clear of weeds or pull them by hand after a rain. —Pam

  16. Colleen says:

    Hi Adriana,
    Since the whole median was weeds, we laid cardboard down when we planted the trees and then mulched over it generously. For the paths we just put the dg in and tried to keep control of the inevitable weeds. We did not use metal edging to define the paths, but that is an option to keep things tidier.

    Hardscape intimidates me too. :)

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Thanks for taking the time to reply, Colleen! —Pam

    • Adriana says:

      Thank you Colleen and Pam for the advice and taking the time to reply.

      I know something like this could be done with a bobcat depending on the size, but I am hoping we could tackle small projects with shovels and wheelbarrows. The mulch and cardboard combo is a great trick but the bermuda grass is so tough. I wish bermuda grass could disappear from parts of Texas. It’s as bad a fire ants.

      • Pam/Digging says:

        I would use weed killer on it, Adriana. But first I’d try to smother it with cardboard and mulch or solarize it with black plastic, after first watering the area to help create a greenhouse effect. This summer is the perfect time to do it, and just let it bake for a couple of months. Any Bermudagrass that returns or wasn’t killed by smothering or solarizing, you can zap with herbicide a few weeks before planting this fall. It’s not the perfect organic solution, but it’s better than giving up and not gardening in a space that’s infested with Bermudagrass. —Pam

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