The Weed Garden, My Garden Wild

At Diana’s yesterday, with Bonnie and Pam, stuffing welcome packets for the Garden Bloggers Spring Fling, I realized how comparatively few garden plants I have in my garden. I decided I’d better set expectations for any Spring Fling visitors who are stopping by before Friday’s dinner at Matt’s El Rancho. (Anyone on the Friday dinner list is invited. Let me know if you need directions.)

Noted Austin landscape architect, Ivan Spaller said of me and my garden, “[She] spends her days toiling away in a weed-infested garden…”

And so I do. My garden is big and my budget is small. So I rely heavily on weeds to fill in the empty spaces.

Zanthan Gardens Wild
Visitors are often drawn to the bright fleshy leaves of the false dayflowers, Commelinantia anomala, only to recognize them close up and say in disappointment, “Oh. It’s that.” But I love how fresh and crisp the foliage looks and who can resist a flower with a face like this?
Commelinantia anomala

I also rely heavily on the false dayflower’s cousin, the spiderwort. It was in full bloom when I first saw this house and, in part, is what made me fall in love with this place. I try to confine it to the mini-woods but it insists on popping up in the meadow, the lawn, and the vegetable garden.
Commelinantia anomala

The cilantro, which I grow to eat, has taken over the meadow. It bloomed a month before the larkspur this year and makes an excellent filler.
Zanthan Gardens Wild

I do manage my garden of weeds, edit it. In order to give it some semblance of a garden, I think it’s important to clump like weeds together–a drift of cilantro, or baby blue eyes, or spiderwort. I will pull the lone larkspur out of a clump of Love-in-a-mist. I transplant self-sown plants where I want them rather than where they’ve come up. Imposed order is what differentiates the garden from nature. And yet, in a wild garden one must have a light touch. I was made very happy when two different people asked me if my violas had self-sown (no) because they were not planted in the typical straight lines of bedding out plants.

Zanthan Gardens Wild

I think I’ve always been guided, unwittingly, by a poem I wrote when I was seventeen–before I ever imagined myself a gardener.

I am a garden wild;
Growing thriving,
Reaching leafy green tentacles
In curious search.
I am, they say, haphazard, untamed,
Existing most improperly
in a world full of gardeners.

Springs Preserve: Garden Design 101

Whether I love something or hate it, a strong emotional reaction piques my desire to explore why. I immediately fell in love with the gardens at the Springs Preserve and having grown up in the American southwest and seen many desert-themed gardens in my life, my first reaction was curiousity. How did the did the designers at the Springs Preserve do it? What’s special about these gardens? What makes them stand out?

Not being much of a designer myself, I’ve always cast the gardener’s dilemma as an either/or choice: some gardens sacrifice good design to the owner’s love of plants (the category I see myself in) and some gardens eschew plants in favor of good design. But the gardens at the Springs Preserve demonstrate that you can indeed have both. Containing over 1200 species, a true botanical garden, the Springs Preserve does not skimp on plant choices. Conversely, the designers did not set out the gardens in some boring, orderly way, grouping the plants in rows by genus and species as I’ve seen in some botanical gardens. They created plantings that “Wow!” the eye.

The gardens at the Springs Preserve are primarily educational. Run by the Water District, the purpose of the gardens is to teach water conservation to the many people who have retired to desert living after living in climates where water usage was something they didn’t think much about. A lot of people view any plea for conservation as a request to “do without”. The Springs Preserve demonstrates that water conservation does not mean having less or going without; a new climate is an opportunity to explore new and more appropriate ways to garden, one more adapted to the climate in which one gardens. In other words, rather than complain about a lifestyle that is lost, why not use good old-fashioned American inventiveness to explore new, more efficient ways of doing things? (This is what our immigrant forebears did; abandon the ideas of the old world and embrace the challenges of the new.)

The designers at the Springs Preserve did not just come up with a list of plants suitable for desert climates. They sought to educate the public on how to use these plants together to create striking gardens. One of the demonstration gardens is devoted to explaining and exploring 8 elements of good design: symmetry, line, color, balance, texture, proportion, rhythm, and harmony. In a circular display, 8 mirrored stations are set up with a mirror, plantings, and short explanation of each design element. The lesson I learned was that it is important to consider the relationships among all elements in the garden.

Below are the notes I took, with some of the example plantings.


“In your garden, lines–the edge of a walkway, a curving plant bed, or a tree’s branches–lead the eye, too. Horizontal lines create a calm environment while zigzag lines are playful and lively. Vertical lines make a view look narrower. Horizontal lines seem to widen a view.”
Springs Preserve
The Springs Preserve uses lots of concrete edging and other borders and paving to define space. Like the square paving stones inside the circular walk above, they use a combination of shapes so the design isn’t boring. Many of the plants, like the palm trees, or the saguaro cactus in the background provide provide dramatic vertical lines.


Do you like energetic contrast or a muted palette with few accents? Choose carefully because colors have a powerful effect on human emotion. Colors interact with each other so when you are choosing colors for your gardens, think about their relationships.

Like Japanese-style gardens, desert-themed gardens do not rely primarily on color but focus instead on the texture and forms of plants. However, when cacti bloom, they do so in neon colors that can’t be ignored. Color in the garden is not limited to flowers. The Springs Preserve used many different colors of mulches to create patterns. We should also consider the colors of our garden benches, sheds, pots, and other ornamentation.


You can feel texture or see it. Smooth textures are subtle, and rough textures create a more raw feeling. Contrasting textures can be very striking.
Springs Preserve


“Your size is relative to what’s around you…Trees, plants, and pools should be in scale with each other and the environment.
Springs Preserve
I find it difficult to figure out proportions in my garden. First of all, those dang plants are always growing. And then, just as they reach maturity, we get a drought or a freeze or a flood that kills them off and leaves a hole in my planting. Lastly, I design too small, too conservatively.


“Symmetry in your garden creates a formal, orderly feeling. An asymmetrical garden, which is not divided down a visual midpoint, creates a more casual, natural feel.”
Springs Preserve


“Objects in a garden have relationships. If they are in balance, the garden will look and feel complete. A garden doesn’t have to be symmetrical but you should feel that the elements at any point balance out those around them.


“Repeating a shape over and over moves the eye moving along. Repetition can be boring after a while. Spice up your design by slowly changing shapes, colors, texture, or direction.”
Springs Preserve
Notice how the form, shape, and texture repeat and diverge in this hardscaped area.


Springs Preserve
Somehow I failed to take any notes on harmony but I think the garden above captures it all. Look at the different colors and textures, at how the strong lines draw you into the garden, at the balance of elements and how they are in proportion to each other, the use (but not overuse) of repetition.

Now I’m going outside to examine my garden with new eyes.

Springs Preserve: Botanical and Demonstration Gardens

I make a trek to Las Vegas every couple of years solely because three generations of my family settled there. I never would have thought that Las Vegas held any interest for gardeners even though lot has changed since I went to high school there. All the new developments have a buffer of desert landscaping between the street and the concrete block walls that define each neighborhood. The new parks are all planted with waterwise landscaping. There is a lot more public art including some wonderful giant tortoises underneath the tangle of freeway near downtown. Even the cell phone towers are disguised as palm trees. Some people hate this but I think it shows a sense of humor and it looks better than a plain cell phone tower.

“Las Vegas” means “the meadows”. Ancient peoples and westward trekking pioneers found water and forage in this formerly bountiful valley. By 1962 the springs had been pumped dry and the original heart of Las Vegas languished. It’s now bounded by Highway 95 and The Meadows shopping mall. In 2002, Las Vegans voted to create the 180 Springs Preserve, overseen by the Las Vegas Water District. Not only does the preserve contain historical and archaelogical sites, the future home of the Nevada state museum, and an interactive exhibit hall, it is a model of instruction on how to live and garden in a desert. Las Vegas survives on borrowed water. It is not just an ecological disaster waiting to happen, it already happened.

The gardens at the Springs Preserve are designed to teach water conservation through water-efficient landscaping–to show that xeriscaping does not have to be zero-scaping (as my Illinois-born dad calls it). The Springs Preserve shows us when we stop taking our way of life for granted, we can tap into our creative potential and discover better ways to live.

Springs Preserve Las Vegas
The cactus gardens were designed by someone with a master’s eye for form, texture, balance, and harmony. All the plants are carefully labeled, as they should be in a good botanical garden. (I hate discovering a plant I love at a garden without being able to find out its common and botanical names.)

Springs Preserve Las Vegas
The variety of plants was astounding. Over 1200 species were moved from the original Demonstration Gardens to the Springs Preserve Garden Walk before its opening in 2007. The plantings at the Springs Preserve made even some of the English estate gardens I’ve been to seem rather prim and dull. After looking at these incredible textures and forms, don’t beds of pansies or tulips seem a bit tame?

Springs Preserve Las Vegas
I’ve never been a big fan of cactus gardens but that apparently because I’ve never seen a really well-designed one before.

Springs Preserve Las Vegas
I’ve never been a fan of palm trees either. And yet I stood amazed at how artfully the palm trees had been arranged. Again, this is first a botanical garden, so the main purpose was to show the great variety of palm trees available. (Compare my favorite, the Canary Island Date Palm, on the left, with the others.) But the designers went a step further and created a beautiful planting.

Springs Preserve Las Vegas
I fell in love with this Canary Island Date Palm, Phoenix canariensis, because of the texture of its trunk and the unique bulge at the top. (Should I buy one?)

Springs Preserve Las Vegas
After writing about my own maintenance headaches with rain gardens, I was happy to see a lovely example of a rain garden gone right. Hints: create rain garden away from trees and install waveform sculpture. (Isn’t it clever without being too cute?)

Rain Gardens Gone Wrong

Living for a time both in the American desert southwest and Japan, I’m quite attracted to the aesthetic of gravel gardens and dry creek beds. As there is no shortage of rocks of all sizes in my yard, I group like rocks together in various configurations. Because I live on a slope, I often arrange rocks to follow the topography, creating an informal dry stream.

This year rain gardens seem all the rage (4,080,080 hits on Google or check out Pam/Digging). And they always look so clean and tidy when first installed, while at the same time looking natural. However, in my experience, they don’t remain clean and tidy very long. My biggest problem is leaves. In Austin, leaves can start falling in September with the cedar elms (if it’s a typical summer–2007 was wet and the leaves held on until October) until February with the live oaks (which haven’t started dropping their leaves yet). In my yard I also had hackberry and chinaberry trees (which I cut down this year) and red oaks. So for five months, leaves are clogging my dry creek beds and I can never keep them clean. The cedar elm leaves are the worst because they are small and break down quickly. They mess up my gravel courtyard and my gravel walks, too.

rain garden

Then there’s the weeds. Gravel is an excellent medium for sprouting seeds. It doesn’t matter if you put landscape fabric underneath the gravel (I did on my paths but not in my garden which is more free-form). The seeds fall on top of the gravel, work themselves down, and then sprout. I spent all afternoon digging that hated horseherb and spiderwort out of this small section of the meadow so that I could replant it with larkspur and California poppies.

So what’s the secret to maintaining gorgeous rain gardens? Do I have to move back to a treeless landscape? I guess I’ll start reading some of those 4,080,080 articles…but I’ll have to finish weeding first.

Paradise Regained

Commenting on the September Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day post, Yolanda Elizabet of Bliss said, “I’ve noticed that a little bit of rain makes all the difference in Austin, TX.” How right she is! Maybe some of you, especially those of you suffering from drought this year, are tired of hearing me exult in Austin’s rain this summer. Longtime readers of Zanthan Gardens might remember that a year ago, when Austin was in the middle of a devastating drought I posted a video of what was left of my garden. My garden was fried. Half my roses died. The fall rains had not come. Even my oxblood lilies were holding out for better times.

I look at that video now and want to cry all over again. I can’t believe I was able to go on, to walk back out in the garden and keep weeding and watering and tending and hoping.

Then in March 2007 it began raining and continued raining for the following six months. Austin’s lakes are overflowing. In the first six months of the year we had almost doubled the amount of rain we normally get. The 100 degree day was a rarity in the summer of 2007. This was the best summer in my memory of 30 summers spent in Austin.

Several people have encouraged me to make another video to show the rejuvenation of the garden and here it is. Pictures from September 2006 are followed by the same shot in September 2007. In both years the photos were taken in the second week of September.

Some notes. (Sorry no audio.)
1) I have not watered my lawn this year, nor do I feed it any commercial fertilizers. I give it coffee grounds from Starbucks and fill in any patchy places with Texas Native hardwood mulch.
2) I probably spent less than $50 on new plants in 2007. I bought 100 daffodil bulbs, a 4-inch pot of Lindheimer senna, a 4-inch rudbeckia, 3 4-inch pots of Mexican wire grass, a packet of orange cosmos, two packets of sunflowers and sweet peas, and 4 4-inch pots of summer vegetables. Since May my garden has been torn up in the construction of the failed garden house and so I’ve had neither time nor money to invest in new plants. I hope to do my main planting this fall which is the best time in to plant in Austin anyway. Thus, the growth you see is mostly from plants that survived the 2006 drought.
3) Not all plants liked the rain. Half the lavender died out and most of the bearded iris rotted away. I garden on the side of Austin that is over rich black clay. Xeriscape plants generally require very good drainage. Even without actual rain, many Mediterranean plants dislike Austin’s high humidity: they will wilt, mildew, and succumb to rot and bugs.
4) I need to do some serious weeding and pruning now, don’t I?

What will 2008 bring? The forecast for the last week of September in Austin’s predict that highs will remain in the low 90s and there will be no rain. For us that’s a typical beginning of fall.

Let the Sunshine In

The effect of opening up the garden to the sky is a bit disconcerting (in a good way). Have you ever watched a cat enter a room where you’ve rearranged the furniture or put up a Christmas tree. They saunter in, notice the change, and then jump in alertness. “Hmmm. Something’s different.” That’s how I felt every time I wandered into the back yard today or looked out the kitchen window. The change is like a physical blow. Look at all that sky!

When I had trees trimmed last March, I saved some of the work for fall because the meadow was in full bloom and I couldn’t stand the thought of it being trampled on the one time of the year it looks really nice. (No matter how careful the workers, trying to maneuver huge tree limbs to the ground requires a bit of tramping through the flower beds.)

I created the first problem. Over 11 years ago, a cedar elm tree in the middle of our lawn fell in a storm. After the stump was cut down to the ground, it resprouted and I let the sprouts grow. First it was my bonzai project. Then it was a way of creating some privacy for the back porch. Several excuses and 11 years later it was a nuisance, shading the meadow and the iris bed, dropping leaves and seeds into the pond. In order to connect the back patio to the new garden house, I intend to make an entirely new garden. Now was the time to get rid of it.

Zanthan Gardens
The before shot…my bonzai project got out of hand. Lots of good firewood though.

Ever since last year when our neighbor to the north erected a privacy fence, effectively giving us a New Back Yard, I’ve had plans to transform the north border. The biggest problem is the amount of shade. Looking at all the lovely flowers in England this summer, I resolved that I was going to get rid of the weedy hackberry and chinaberry trees.

Zanthan Gardens

I’ve hated this messy chinaberry for years. It drops zillions of seeds, all of which sprout. And it arches over the meadow shading out all the flowers.

Zanthan Gardens

Now the ‘Heritage’ rose (that spindly bush on the right) should get enough light to thrive. And I can get ready for fall planting. Is it time to fall in love with roses again?

Banana Plantation: Update 2007

Dateline: June 2, 2006
Like so much of my garden, the banana plantation evolved out of unrelated events rather than by forethought or design. Last fall I got the stonework on the front of the house repaired. That so improved the look of the house that the yard looked grungy by comparison. So I cleared the flagstone path of St. Augustine grass which encouraged AJM to move the stones to the backyard and motivated me to buy stones for a new path. After Christmas I carted home loads of ground up Christmas trees and and heaped it over the remaining St. Augustine grass and monkey grass.

photo: banana plantation before
2005-10-26. Before.

On another front I attempted to divide my Musa lasiocarpa because the mother plant had died. Most of the pups snapped off at the root an I thought they were dead. I replanted the largest one in the same place, potted another, and put three more without roots into pots. I put a couple into water in a vase inside the house and threw the rest into the spare shower where they could keep warm over winter. To my amazement they all survived.

As far as I can tell Musa lasiocarpa is like some large fleshy above-the-ground bulb. The roots anchor it in the soil, but it sure doesn’t need them to live…at least it can get by over the winter.

Now that it’s warm, all the banana plants were putting out new growth. Where to put them? Ah. Here’s a bare spot. Voila! Banana plantation.

photo: banana plantation after
2006-06-01. After.

Still to do: build a short fence to separate the banana plantation from the driveway. I love the little wattle fencing that they make in England. I don’t have a willow tree, though. So I will have to come up with something similar using native materials.

Update: June 2, 2007
It’s taken almost six months since the first winter freezes for the bananas to start leafing out again. Despite all the water of this very wet spring, it’s temperatures in the 90s that seem to get them going.

photo: banana plantation before
2006-11-27. Just before the first freeze. Notice how this spot goes from full shade to full sun after the leaves fall.

photo: banana plantation before
2006-11-29. I wrap yellowing leaves around the stalks for extra insulation and then mound up cedar elm leaves to cover the banana stalks.

I will have to think what I can plant in the interim period from November to May. Overwintering annuals like snapdragons or violas might be nice as they’re finishing up right about now when the bananas leaf out. However, I do like the simplicity of having just the bananas. Still in winter and spring, until the trees leaf out, this is a very nice sunny area in a prominent place. I should do something more with it. Hmmm…what a wishy-washy gardener I am!

PS. Austin garden bloggers…for those who want them there’s definitely passalongs in your future.

Hanna’s Tomato Patch

After I bought my eggplant and two tomato plants, I faced the Gardener’s Dilemma. Where would I plant them? Not in the vegetable garden. I don’t think that a tomato has produced anything in the vegetable garden this millenium.

I put the vegetable garden on the south side of the house where the grass died because of a slope. When a friend of mine was building a house in Steiner Ranch, I carted several RX-7 car-loads of limestone blocks and built a small wall to form a terrace. Then I hauled in horse manure from another friend’s horse ranch near Hamilton Pool. AJM put in a timed drip irrigation system for me.

In the intervening years, trees have grown. A pecan and red oak have shot up on either side of the vegetable garden. In the summer, any spot gets only 3 hours of sunlight if I’m lucky. Not enough for summer veggies. This year I stopped fighting the obvious and renamed it the winter vegetable garden.
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New Back Yard

I suddenly have a new back yard to garden in. I haven’t moved but I’ve got a new neighbor. He’s renovating the duplex to the north of me, living in one side of it and looking to rent the other. He approached me a couple of weeks ago and asked me if I would mind if he removed the chain link fence which divides our yard (and is on my side of the property line) so that he could put up a wooden privacy fence. After dancing a little dance of joy, I calmly agreed to his plan.

Unlike some people, I’m happy that none of my other neighbors choose to spend any time in their yards. Looking west towards the back, my view crosses four yards which are green and woodsy and almost always empty. Once in awhile someone will bring his boom box outside and throw back a few beers with friends but those incidents are few. If my new neighbor finds a privacy fence necessary, is it because he’s going to be outside a lot? Or is our shed really that tacky? (Definitely a factor.) Or does he come from a neighborhood (Boulder, CO) where people just have privacy fences as a matter of course? Whatever the reason, I hope my new neighbor is going to enjoy his yard (and his newly-installed hot tub) quietly and without pesticides.

Very quickly he had men out to tear down the fence, chop out the hackberry trees which grow in the fence (and which I try to kill every year) and erect the new fence. My back yard looks completely different. And it’s motivating.

First of all, the visual boundary makes the yard look more like a garden. Even my son, who isn’t at all interested in my outdoor projects, was amazed at the transformation. “Wow. It really looks like something.” “A garden?”

Secondly, the transformation allows me to see the garden with new eyes. Instead of seeing the same old border and the same old chores, I see possibilities! I can get rid of a lot of the nandina and make a nicer perennial bed. This is one of the best spots in my yard to garden because it gets southern winter sun. The privacy fence makes it protected and cozy both for me and the plants. In fact, the little bend in the path would be a perfect spot for a garden had I not just spent a couple of days transplanting my ‘New Dawn’ rose which I grew from a cutting. (It’s seems to be thriving. Well, when it dies I’ll put a seat there.)

Zanthan Gardens North Border
2006-12-15. When I planted my rose bush, I was already itching for ways to improve the north border.

Many of you gave me suggestions to improve the north border and block my view of the duplex. And now I don’t have to do anything (but I’m able to do the fun stuff). This is the second time procrastination has paid off.

I’m learning the wrong lesson.

New Perspectives

My garden shares little with the Adachi Museum Garden except the idea that my design for the planting relies a lot on how I view the garden from within my house. Although my garden never achieves the standard of a “living painting”, I do think a lot of how it looks from indoors from our uncurtained windows. I’ve always been drawn to the Japanese concept of visually blurring the distinction between indoors and out. During Austin’s hot, humid, mosquito rich summers, I spend most of my days inside. As I stand washing dishes, I think, “There’s a space that needs a plant. Look how the light highlights that empty spot in the mini-woodland.”

During our kitchen remodel we removed the standard small over-the-sink window and replaced it with a window that spans the counter where we do most of our prep work. Now instead of a narrow portrait of the garden, I’m confronted with a CinemaScopic™ landscape. The new window is higher up than the old window, which constrains the foreground view of short people like me. I planted more flowers near the house which I can’t see at all any more.

My predilection for gardens as private spaces might have misled you into thinking that mine was surrounded by tall hedges or brick walls in the style of Arley Hall Gardens. In fact, two sides of my back yard are separated from my neighbors with nothing more than a short chain link fence. The long south side has a new privacy fence constructed by new neighbors with small, incessantly yapping dogs.

Rather than try to screen my neighbors’ back yards, I try to incorporate them into my view. My theory is that a hedge would foreshorten my view. So I planted several small trees instead creating a mini-woodland which provides glimpses of something in the distance while obscuring the fact that it’s just my neighbor’s garage. As the trees have grown taller, I’ve added to the understory planting. Then at ground level, in the spring, Tradescantia takes over and in the fall, oxblood lilies.

This is not much of a garden to walk in but it does provide a pleasant view when working in the kitchen. Now that I can see much more of it, my mind is whirring with new ideas for filling in the planting.