October 24th, 2009
Inside Austin Gardens Tour 2009

Cheryl Goveia
Cheryl Goveia’s garden

My favorite Austin garden tour each year is sponsored by the Travis County Master Gardeners Association. Not only are the gardens lovingly handmade (as opposed to contractor-installed) but gardeners and all the volunteers are full of plant knowledge. The plants are well-labeled and every site on the tour includes an extensive plant list. It’s a day-long field trip into what you can accomplish in a Central Texas garden.

I’m sure all the gardeners participating breathed a huge sigh of relief when the weather cooperated. Austin had a good rain on Thursday, it was clear Friday to dry out the gardens a bit and to allow for last minute straightening after the storm, and today we had the most perfect weather any garden tour could wish for: cool, dry, with beautiful blue skies.

Even more fun for me, I carpooled with Diana @ Sharing Nature’s Garden and Robin @ Getting Grounded. At lunch, we met up with Pam @ Digging. So, you can imagine it was six hours of non-stop garden talk. I’m sorry that we didn’t have time to see all of the gardens–but we really enjoyed the ones we did. Thank you, everyone of you who shared your garden with us.

Garden of Cheryl Goveia

I met Cheryl Goveia last year when a couple of carloads of Austin garden bloggers trekked to Peckerwood Gardens. Her blog is named Conscious Gardening and it’s obvious from the moment you step into her garden that she applies herself to everything with passionate and rapt attention.

Cheryl Goveia

The yard is an ordinary city lot but it feel huge for two reasons. It is partitioned into a series of small, garden rooms and every space is crammed with plants and ornaments. It doesn’t feel stifling or claustrophobic though. It feels like a garden layered in secrets. Everywhere I looked were little witty jokes (like the “snakes” made of strings of bottle caps in the beer garden). Or the metal rooster next to the bottle of tequila and a sake cup on a table made from a painted stump overseeing the henhouse (not in the photo).

Cheryl Goveia

Notice the painted hub caps on the fence. Mirrors, paint cans, and bowling balls were some of the other repurposed objects woven into the tapestry of the garden. Cheryl said that she didn’t follow any master plan for the garden as she transformed what had once been an empty St. Augustine lawn. The spaces grew naturally from how they were used–including the need to fence off areas from her dog.

Garden of Eleanor Pratt

Eleanor’s garden (in the same neighborhood and with the same sized lot as Cheryl’s) has a more conventional layout, a pecan-tree shaded lawn surrounded by borders. She had many plants that left us asking the volunteer Master Gardeners, “What’s that?” All three of us were particularly taken with the Chinese ground orchid. And where did she find this exotic beauty? On sale at Home Depot. Despite all the negative things I’ve read about shopping at the big box stores, one of the surprising things I learned on this tour is that there are some real plant bargains to be had there–not just in price but in unusual plants.

I especially liked the pigeonberrry and when Eleanor said that it reseeded easily and filled in any space, I bought one for myself. Unfortunately the light wasn’t very good for photographs when we were there, so I only snapped one picture…of the pigeonberry, of course.

Eleanor Pratt

Eleanor blogs at Garden of E.

Detour: Backyard Salvage and Gardens

As we drove east on Koenig headed for our next garden, we saw
Backyard Salvage and Gardens which Renee Studebaker had recently written about in her Statesman gardening column. It didn’t take a 1/10th of a second for the three of us to agree on a little detour. I immediately fell in love with the pallets of old brick and many types of stone. In addition to the architectural salvage materials, there were also piles of composts and gravels. And plants. After seeing the variety and number of plants at the first two gardens on the tour, I was feeling pretty plant-deficient–so I bought a pretty little succulent.

Garden of Randy Case

Randy Case

The first thing I fell in love with at Randy’s garden was the low stone wall in the front. Not only did it have plants tumbling over it it actually had little planters built into it. Next to the driveway, Randy had built three large wooden planters, sort of like inverted ziggurats. (He said he was inspired by the Guggenheim Museum although we all agreed that building an inverted spiral would have been a bit more complicated.)

Randy Case

Randy also makes good use of mirrors to provide the illusion of the garden beyond the fence. After seeing all the bamboo muhly, I finally succumbed to the plant that everyone in Austin has been gaga over and bought three.

Randy had a beautiful, ginormous ‘Double Purple’ Datura metel and was kind enough to share seeds with us when we asked for some. You can see some more of his many flowers at his blog Horselip’s Horse Sense. Scroll down to see the transformation of his garden from plain suburban lawn and the “Guggenheim planters”.

Garden of Gail Sapp

In the tour brochure, Gail Sapp writes, “I like my plans bright, bold and big.” She is not kidding. In comparison, my garden looks like a big space with a few Lilliputian plants scattered here and there. Gail’s yard is typical suburban lot. Her plants are huge and dramatic.

Gail Sapp
The bamboo which screened the garden was not your ubiquitous fishing rod type bamboo. It was the clumping Giant Timber bamboo. It was the most beautiful bamboo I’ve seen in Austin. The stems (trunks?) were thick and the bamboo towered over the two-story house. When the wind blew through them, the trunks struck each other musically sounding like a set of bamboo wind chimes.

In the front yard, Gail had a brugmansia twice as large as any we’d seen on tour and it was covered in yellow flowers. Behind it was a huge palm. The garden felt rich and full but the forms of the plant were distinct. To offset some of the lush wildness, several box shrubs were clipped into perfect globes. I liked the contrast between the constraint and the lush jungle-like wildness.

Gail Sapp

The real stop-dead-in-your-tracks plant was this pale silvery palm, a blue fan palm. None of us had recalled ever seeing anything quite like it. Where could she have gotten it? Home Depot, was the answer. Apparently it is highly adapted to desert-like conditions. In sharp contrast, was a diminutive dark-leaved ornamental pepper ‘Black Pearl’ with globular fruit which start out bright red and ripen to black.

Garden of Lindy McGinnis

Lindy McGinnis

When we were at the salvage store, Diana told Robin that she drew the line at having a bathtub in the garden. When she saw Lindy’s tub transformed into a pond covered with fig ivy, she stepped bravely over the line.

Lindy McGinnis

I was particularly drawn to the patch of chrysanthemum because they didn’t have any of the stiff formality of the potted mums you see everywhere this time of year. They were shorter, looser, freer–I didn’t even recognize them as mums at first.

Lindy McGinnis

Lindy’s was another garden just packed full a variety of plants. In the front were agaves, aloe, cactus, and other succulents mixed in with grasses and sages and a hundred things I’ve forgotten. In the back were more shade-loving plants. Diana pointed out a night-blooming jasmine, and I wanted one immediately.

I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to take more photos or do more justice to the myriad of confused impressions and inspiration I felt. You can see a video clip of Lindy McGinnis’s garden which aired on Central Texas Gardener.

The bottom line of the tour for me this year was to make me feel that I want more. I want more plants, more different kinds of plants, more garden ornaments, and sitting areas, and little secret spaces, and fountains. I want more mulch and more stone and more defined spaces.

I came straight home and got to work.

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by M Sinclair Stevens

14 Responses to post “Inside Austin Gardens Tour 2009”

  1. From Eleanor, Austin:

    Thanks for the nice writeup on the tour. And it was nice to meet you yesterday! Just wanted to let you know that my blog was accidentally listed as “Backyard Salvage and Gardens” and as a link unfortunately leads to a dead-end.

    Sorry about that! It’s fixed now. (I neglected the end quote.) It was wonderful to meet you, too, and to see your garden. Thanks so much for having us. I’ve already planted the pigeonberry in a new bed that’s in progress here. — mss

  2. From Pam/Digging:

    You’re fast, MSS, with a great write-up of the entire tour. We noticed many of the same things, but I missed the pigeonberry at Eleanor’s house. I used to have some in my old garden, and I brought over a transplant but it died. It is a nice little ground cover though, and in some seasons it carries both red berries and pink flowers simultaneously, like Barbados cherry.

    The pigeonberry had both flowers and berries at Eleanor’s garden which made it quite interesting. I also like that it is fairly small and an unusual (and I hope prolific) filler plant. I love things that self sow. You took so many more photos than I did. I was distracted by talking and also the bright sunlight created deep shadows. I felt like I was taking photographs constantly but I really missed a lot. Glad to be able to rely on other garden bloggers to fill in my gaps. –mss

  3. From Carol, May Dreams Gardens:

    When I see posts like this one I’m amazed at not just the design of the gardens and the decor used, but also at the resiliency of the plants. It just goes to show that using the right plants for a particular climate make a huge difference in how a garden turns out.

    Thanks for posting so quickly. I saw the tweets about the tour yesterday as I headed out to clean up my garage (so I can bring in the decor of my garden for winter), and thought a garden tour would be a much better way to spend a Saturday!

    The recent rains have awakened Austin gardens from the dead. In the car, we talked a bit about accepting death in the garden as an opportunity to try new plants. That’s another post…mss

  4. From Diana - Austin:

    Great overview, MSS. I had a great time hanging out with you guys, and talking dirt all day! As you said, it was a perfect day for it and your coverage of all the gardens reminds me of all the interesting things we saw. Wish I’d taken my camera, so glad you had yours!

    I wish you had remembered your camera, too. I always find it interesting at all of our different takes on the same place. It was great touring with you and Robin because you kept noticing and pointing out things I would have missed. — mss

  5. From Annie in Austin:

    Excellent overview, MSS, and even though we weren’t together, we noticed and covet the same stuff! Philo & I were also quite taken by the giant timber bamboo, blue palm and bas relief faces on Lindy’s wall.

    It’s also pretty funny that you met at 8:30 AM but didn’t get to all the houses. We had things to do first, so didn’t get our hands stamped until 11:30 AM. We visited all the gardens, but didn’t see anyone we knew at the first 3 so didn’t stop for conversations – must be how we fit all six in!

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    If anyone builds a MacMansion near me, I’m planting that giant timber bamboo. Yes, it’s a shame we missed one of the gardens but a member of our group had another commitment so we had to pack it in at 2:30; otherwise, we would have had plenty of time. Kudos to the planning committee; the number of gardens was just right for one day and they were logically located for driving. — mss

  6. From Jenny Austin:

    You all had a fun time together and going to the salvage store too- I missed that one , but stopped at a garage sale and picked up two little Mexican wall hangings for a dollar. I’m sure I can find a wall somewhere which needs a little bit of whimsy. I bet everyone who saw it fell in love with the bamboo- the sound was incredible. I wonder what it is like when the wind really gets going? That ground orchid certainly looked beautiful and may work in your garden too. I just know it wouldn’t work here. We saw the Sapp house last so when I got home I didn’t feel too good about my own garden. I thought it was looking a bit dreary by comparison with Gail’s luscious growth. My soil just doesn’t support that kind of growth.

    Gail’s planting was so luscious. I bet her garden is really thriving under our shift in the weather. What impressed me was how many of her medium and large plants were dramatic palms or grasses–where most of us would have used bushes or large trees. My garden has old tall trees and short annuals but not much in that mid-range. The middle layer of my garden is boring or non-existant. — mss

  7. From Dee/reddirtramblings:

    I’m glad you had such a good day, albeit probably an overwhelming one. We just had our garden tour in OKC, and I was stunned by the time I finished at how differently creative gardeners are, and how much I want to do and grow. It takes me days to get over all that wonderful input. I wish I’d been there with you and the other Austin ladies. 🙂 ~~Dee

  8. From M2:

    Night-blooming jasmine. How romantic is that? And that silver palm … wow.

  9. From Cheryl in Austin:

    Thank you for coming to my garden and for the lovely write up! Glad you got a shot of my tiny pigeon berry around the ‘chicken bar’ before a few little faerie’s crushed them! Like Eleanor says though, it re-seeds and comes back…so no sweat! Hope to see you again soon!

    I can’t even begin to imagine all the work you must have gone through–in your garden in any case but especially getting ready for throngs of people tramping through. I’m so sorry they trampled as well as tramped. Hope everything recovers soon. You were very gracious to have us. Thanks so much! — mss

  10. From Steve Mudge(Fort Worth):

    What inspiring gardens! The blue palm is a “Bismarkia”…its a little cold tender though; has it been in the ground through the winters in Austin or does she bring it inside? Perhaps its tougher than I’d heard. For a great cold tolerant (15 degs) blue fan palm try the Brahea armata–Mexican Blue Fan Palm…gorgeous silvery leaves and surprisingly beautiful cascading arches of white flowers when it reaches maturity. I’ve personally seen it growing at 4,500 foot elevation in Baja, where it gets the occasional snowstorm. Another blue palm would be Nanorrhops ritchii–native to Afghanistan and reputedly capable of 20 degrees below zero! I’ve seen the Mexican Blue Fan Palm available in Austin, the other is harder to find.

    Thanks for the explanation of the different kinds…when I looked it up I found only the Mexican Blue Fan palm and assumed that is what it was. I don’t know if she brings the blue palm fan inside but I doubt it. It’s huge! — mss

  11. From Robin at Getting Grounded:

    MSS, still trying to decipher why Firefox doesn’t like your images. When I right-click and select “view image” on an individual image, I get the message “The requested resource
    is no longer available on this server and there is no forwarding address. Please remove all references to this resource.

    Does that help? I’ve double checked settings, and made sure that image loading is allowed for your site. I don’t know what is different about your site from everyone else?

    I tried opening the site from another person’s computer who runs Firefox on Vista and it all worked fine. Looking at the log file, when you’re in IE it sends the referrer URL (the name of the page linking to the photo). For some reason, when you’re in Firefox, it doesn’t. To prevent people from hotlinking my images, we have a script that requires the referrer. Do you have a Firefox plugin that turns off your referrer? — mss

  12. From Bob Pool:

    I didn’t have any problems, your pictures look great. I’m sorry I missed you. You are one of the few that I could recognize. Did you wear your hat? I know I would know you if you had your hat on.

    I’m glad you are joyful about gardening again. I could tell from some of your summer posts that you were dejected about gardening, with the searing heat and all. I can’t wait to see all the new plants that you get and how you use them.

    I had my hat on sometimes but kept taking it off to take photos. The gardens were mostly shady when we were there and I found getting a good photo a bit difficult. I am feeling more excited about gardening again–I always perk up in the cool weather. I’m still trying to hone my garden philosophy. I can’t, in good conscience, plant a garden that demands more water than climate provides. It’s hard to know what approach to take. Right now, I’m still in my “one season” mode. Have a look at my spring garden on the October 31st episode of Central Texas Gardener. — mss

  13. From Mr. McGregor's Daughter:

    Thanks for the tours. It’s so striking how different all the gardens are, and how good they look after such a terrible summer. I don’t blame you for stopping at Backyard Salvage & Gardens, I wish there was someplace like that around here.

    You guys really need a salvage place; everytime I go to Chicago I see deserted buildings with beautiful brick and stonework and look at it all longingly. I hope the recycle/reuse movement starts looking at those slated for destruction. Old brick is a wonderful material for the garden. — mss

  14. From Marilyn Kircus, Dripping Springs, TX:

    I too did the tour and got the Datura seeds from Randy. I was really surprised at the night jasmine. I had it in Houston when I lived near Hobby Airport. In two seasons, it grew taller than my house and many times evening walkers would stop to ask me what that wonderful smell was. My neighbor never let me prune anything without rooting it so I usually had a baby to had out to an admirer. But one fall, we had a early freeze which killed it. I lived in zone 9 and was in a warm microclimate since the warm air from the inner city would blow over me when we had a norther and I still lost the plant. So I was really surprised to see it in Austin. I am always a few degrees colder here so don’t plan to try and grow it again.