Farewell visit to James David’s Austin garden, part 2


A grand limestone staircase bisected by a rill leads from the back of the house to a large pond in the lower garden.

Yesterday I showed you around the upper level of James David’s magnificent garden, which I visited in late March and which is currently for sale as the owners prepare to relocate to Santa Fe. Today let’s take the paths that lead down into the ravine behind the house and back up to the detached studio.


Behind the house a large cistern collects rainwater from the roof and seems to spill surplus water into a stone trough. In actuality, I think this must be an illusion because otherwise the water would soon run dry — even though our current rainy spring might suggest otherwise. I’d guess the rainwater is actually stored for use on Gary’s vegetable garden, visible in the background. This running faucet must be plumbed via a hidden pipe, creating the illusion that the cistern is the source of a long water passage through the back garden.


The water reappears a few steps below, spilling from a hidden stone channel into a small, stone-edged pool.


A wider view shows glossy holly ferns (Cyrtomium falcatum) doing a good air plant impression by sprouting from gaps in the wall.


A collection of fossils and pretty stones adorns a corner of the wall.


From the pool, water flows below ground into a simple metal pipe, which spills into a stone trough that’s been repaired with board-formed concrete. A second, smaller trough accepts an overflow stream. These troughs, with their musical splashing, sit next to the dining patio shown yesterday.


Underground the water goes again, and then it reappears at the top of the most dramatic feature of the garden: a grand limestone staircase bisected by a rill that runs a trickle of water all the way to the rectangular pond at the bottom of the stair. Behind the pond, an off-center stone stair leads up to a lap pool. Another path leads to a large greenhouse.


Here’s the view from behind the pond, looking back at the grand staircase and the house. ‘Will Fleming’ yaupon hollies once lined each side of the stair, creating a vertical screen, but these days it’s edged with boxwood.


Detouring to the right, let’s follow a path that leads up the side of the garden, past a low retaining wall beautifully made of various materials, including urbanite (broken concrete) on top.


Variegated agaves behind the wall


And a chicken coop!


Turning around, let’s head back down to the lower garden. Ahead is the large pond, and beyond that are pollarded Mexican sycamores.


Hardscape in this garden is masterfully crafted and enticing. You want to explore every curving stair, cross every bridge, investigate every long path framed by arbors and shrubs. But there’s also an element of danger to many of the walks, which universally lack handrails. They imply, you will be mindful of where you put your feet. I find it delightfully adventurous. But you definitely don’t want to get so distracted by the plants or the views that you fall backwards off a wall.


Now we’ve found the swimming pool, which sits well above the pond. Flowering shrubs and trees screen one side…


…while the other is open and offers a lovely view of the pond garden.


I was smitten by this flowering tree at the end of the pool: jack tree (Sinojackia xylocarpa), which James said he got from Forestfarm online nursery. They don’t seem to have it in stock now, but I see that it’s also grown by Texas grower Greenleaf.


The flowers dangle like white parachutes, reminiscent of those on white potato vine.


Stone stairs by the greenhouse are used to display potted agaves and other succulents.


Beautiful, but mind your ankles.


They are such camera hogs. They know they look good from every angle.


Potted cacti line a long limestone shelf along the front of the greenhouse.


A few tropicals, like this clivia, add colorful flowers to the mix.


Looking back toward the house you see the grand staircase and, closer, a wooden bridge that crosses a dry stream and wet-weather garden. The Mexican sycamores (Platanus mexicana) are planted in a grid, their pollarded canopies creating an umbrella effect.


Crossing the bridge, which is lined on one side with more potted plants, you get another view of the sycamores and their white and green mottled trunks.


A stone stair by the greenhouse descends to the dry creek.


I’m sure the dry creek has seen a lot of action this spring.


On the left, another view of the pond


Pulling back a little, you can appreciate the lushness of the garden, with purple flowers of Texas mountain laurel (Sophora secundiflora) in the foreground. Now imagine that we’ve crossed the wooden bridge again, walked behind the greenhouse, and followed a decomposed-granite path that leads to the right…


…and to the newest section of the garden: a semi-wild meadow garden behind the award-winning concrete studio. A ruler-straight path leads the eye and foot between stone pedestals topped with cornucopia-like urns, across a metal bridge, and up some steps to a concrete wall that supports a contemporary pond (shown below). Notice the concrete balcony jutting out from the topmost window? I’ll share a picture from that vantage point in a moment.


A topiaried oak. James told me he’s not afraid to try topiary on any kind of plant.


Looking back, I find this view through the columns very romantic.


I liked this grassy, white-flowered plant, whose fleshy leaves reminded me of bulbine, but I can’t remember the name. Update: It’s St. Bernard’s lily (Anthericum liliago). Thanks, Diana, for the ID!


Native red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) was blooming too.


As you climb the stairs up to the studio, you come to an asymmetrical, concrete-edged pond. Here’s an overhead view from the studio balcony. What looks like a metal bridge from this angle…


…is actually a gabion wall that supports a metal pipe spilling water into the pond. A dry garden planted with Argentine saguaro and other xeric plants offers a contrast between wet and dry.


Koi live in the pond and came running swimming when Gary pulled out the fish food.


The view across the gabion wall and pond to the cornucopia urns and meadow garden


To the left of the pond, the dry garden continues, with Yucca rostrata and a pruned-up Chinese photinia (Photinia serrulata), if I recall correctly. James is a big fan of this photinia, though not of the overused red-tip variety.


More steps lead up to the studio. This is the view from the walk connecting studio and house.


The studio


A porch at the studio door holds a trio of potted plants. I like the circle motif of the tabletops and rear pot.


Ice plant in vivid bloom


James and Gary’s dog Alice made herself comfortable on the porch’s wooden bench.


I somehow neglected to take a photo of James while he was showing me around. But I’m grateful to him and to Gary for inviting me into their beautiful home and garden again. Visiting their garden has always been the highlight of the Open Days tour, and I’ll miss it. But who knows — maybe it’ll be on tour again one day with new owners at the helm. I hope so, and I’m sure James and Gary do too. Until then, I wish them bon voyage and happy garden-making in their new home.

For a look back at part 1 of my garden visit, click here.

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

Farewell visit to James David’s Austin garden, part 1


James and Gary’s entry garden, a gravel garden featuring agaves, aloes, succulents, and other dry-adapted plants from around the world

After 36 years devoted to creating an extravagantly plant-rich, terraced, one-of-a-kind garden on two acres in Austin’s Rollingwood neighborhood, landscape architect James David and his partner Gary Peese are leaving it all behind. Their home — an elegant, contemporary hideaway with a detached, modern concrete studio — is on the market, and they’ve already begun work on a new home and garden in Santa Fe, New Mexico.


Entry garden, with a fringe of Cupressus funebris, aka Chinese weeping cypress (I think), framing the scene

I was invited to visit in late March, when the live oaks were alight with new chartreuse leaves and the Texas mountain laurels were dripping with fragrant blossoms. James gave me a tour of the garden, rattling off botanical names so fast I caught only a few of them, and then invited me into his studio for a brief interview about leaving the garden.


Arbor made of crisscrossing steel pipes with concrete posts, to the left of the entry garden

He told me he is 71 and ready for a new adventure, cooler weather, and a smaller garden. He and Gary have already spent two summers in Santa Fe, remodeling two houses and making plans to build a house on a vacant lot they purchased. Their future garden is, for now, mainly wildflowers, said James.


Shrimp plant (Justicia brandegeana) blooms around the patio, but the largely evergreen garden screens the nearby road from view

I imagine Santa Fe, which recently opened a new botanical garden, will be very happy to have them. Their departure will be Austin’s loss. James and Gary’s influence on the gardening scene in Austin is huge. For nearly three decades they owned and operated the iconic garden shop and boutique nursery Gardens (now closed) and David/Peese Design, a garden design studio that’s given many well regarded designers in Austin and beyond their early training.


James has also served for many years as chairman of the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days program and has opened his own garden to the public many times. I’ve posted about my Open Days visits twice, in October 2006 and October 2010. Thanks to James and Gary’s generosity, attendees of the inaugural Garden Bloggers Fling enjoyed a private tour in 2008.


White irises mark the final resting place of four of James and Gary’s pet cats

Since I’ve never gardened anywhere longer than 7 years, I can hardly fathom the depth of garden making that goes into a 36-year-old garden. James is the primary designer and gardener. (Gary told me he is more of a vegetable gardener, tending the kitchen gardens near the house.) James’s avidity for new and different plants — “if you love the plant you’ll find a place for it,” he declared in a Martha Stewart video about his garden — is reined in by a classic approach to design.


Boxwood pruned into an embroidery of loops and curves

Evergreen hedges, strong hardscape structure, formal axes that lead the eye and focal points that arrest it — these elements create compelling views from inside the home, lead one on a journey of discovery along numerous tempting paths, and provide multiple places to stop and enjoy the garden.


Let’s follow a few of the paths together, starting here at street level and working our way around the house, down to the lowest level of the back garden, and back up. This formal parterre garden along the street…


…is accessed on one end via a curving, shallow stair. At its foot, an olive jar and round stones attract the eye amid evergreen shrubs.


An especially dark purple Texas mountain laurel (Sephora secundiflora) caught my eye here.


In the shade, tall stems of blue flowers reminded me of English bluebells. Could these be Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica)?


A very narrow path leads from the olive jar through a plane of clipped boxwood (a substitute for a lawn’s negative space, James told me) toward a side patio on the house. I find this path a bit narrow for comfort, but James said he enjoys the feeling of moving through the plants. Maybe if you have a man’s narrow hips? I sidled through.


Stopping at the patio and looking back toward the olive jar, the view is entrancing. Those leading lines…


…they work to pull you in multiple directions.


Let’s head back to the entry garden…


…to admire those gorgeous agaves again. Aloes were blooming too.


Visitors are immersed in the garden before they even reach the front door.


The front door is sheltered under a narrow porch and set modestly to one side.


A patchwork of paving materials imposes a linear design on the intimate entry court, softened by planting pockets.


At the front steps, a dozen rectangular pots and troughs cluster for impact. A collection of spherical stones adds a contrasting shape.


Chinese ground orchid (Bletilla striata) in spring bloom


Some sort of protea? Scadoxus puniceus var. natalensis (thanks, Astra and John)


Texas tuberose (Manfreda maculosa) sending up towering bloom spikes, backed by native ranunculus


While the street side of the property is relatively flat, in back a steep natural ravine has been tamed with a series of elegant stone and gravel terraces, including this narrow one along the foundation. A semicircular stone console table under a window displays a pot of succulents.


Along one axis parallel to the house, a double line of squat, pyramidal boxwoods leads to a pyramid-shaped shed with a dogtrot-style doorway running through the middle.


Sheathed in galvanized metal siding and roofing, it’s a striking focal point from several paths, including this one that runs below it.


Pass through the open doorway and you come to a stone walk that leads to the detached studio (which I’ll show in part 2). This is the view looking back through the pyramid shed. A Texas mountain laurel in full, fragrant bloom leans on the path.


Another view, with Gary and their dog Alice


Taking the lower path back around the pyramid shed…


…you come to this vignette. Under a flowering Mexican buckeye (Ungnadia speciosa), a weather-aged pot sits empty atop a limestone plinth.


Texas mountain laurel and Mexican buckeye are native, spring-flowering trees that make a pretty pair.


Another view


Ahead, the path straightens and enters a pyramid-shaped, trellis-walled gazebo. Triangular benches in each corner offer a place to rest and enjoy a lovely view back to the empty pot on the plinth — centered, you’ll notice, in the doorway of the gazebo.


Chocolate vine (Akebia quinata) climbs the gazebo, its clusters of burgundy flowers dangling like parachutes. I’d love to see the sausage-shaped fruit that follows in the fall.


A wider view of the trellis gazebo shows a Chinese fringe flower (Loropetalum chinense) pruned up tree-form, its burgundy leaves offering a color echo of the chocolate vine’s flowers.


Turning the opposite direction, the axis continues parallel to the house, leading to a secluded dining table hemmed in by low retaining walls. A double line of string lights tracks above the space to the dovecote structure that terminates the sight line. On the right, behind the lower wall…


…is a built-in BBQ for entertaining. An oversized stone finial echoes the pyramid shapes that appear throughout the garden.


On the wooden table, a beautiful potted amaryllis echoes the burnt orange of the metal chairs.


Beyond the table a gravel courtyard with a steel fire pit offers another gathering place. It’s also the center of a perpendicular, downward-leading axis from the back of the house through the lower garden, which I’ll show in part 2. The shallow steps at left lead up to the house and the street-side garden. Turning to the right you’d see the most dramatic view of the whole garden: a grand staircase with a rill running down the center that leads to a large pond. Coming up next!


I’ll end part 1 with a framed view of spring-green trees, as seen through the limestone dovecote window…


…and a sweet pink-and-cream rose.

Up next: Part 2 of my farewell visit to James David’s garden

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

Screech owlet waiting to be fed


I stalked this guy from the deck last night as dusk fell and he waited impatiently for his parents to bring him dinner.


I wasn’t quick enough to get a shot of the feedings, but I did witness a couple. The hungry chicks — there are at least two — sure keep their parents busy.

Night-crawling bugs and other small creatures had better watch their backs.

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