April 20th, 2008
Inside Austin Gardens Tour 2008

Stocker Garden
The strong underlying geometry of Jenny’s garden balances the exuberant plantings and keeps the garden from chaos.

I’m becoming more and more fascinated by people who make gardens–that is, in contrast to people like me, who merely grow flowers (and the occasional vegetable where sunlight permits).

I just realized that most of the gardens I’ve visited are private English estate gardens turned public, Hidcote Manor, Arley Hall, Tatton Park or civic gardens such as the instructive Springs Preserve in Las Vegas or the Japanese garden in San Francisco.

Japanese Garden San Francisco
Japanese Garden, San Francisco

These are gardens of extraordinary effort: to design, finance, construct, and maintain. As much as I love visiting these gardens, I don’t find lessons I can immediately apply to my garden. (The basic lessons in design are there, of course, but the scale of the gardens is such that it inhibits rather than inspires my creative urges.) I look at grand gardens the same way I do houses in Architectural Digest, admiringly yet outside my purview, beyond the range of possibility. I could never do something like that.

Yesterday I had the chance to visit the gardens of ordinary people. And when I say ordinary I do not mean it as a slight but as a compliment. Tremendous personal effort and vision went into each of the gardens I visited. My point is that these are personal not civic efforts. These private gardens were made by individuals, not teams of hired gardeners, by “plain folks” who transformed their typical city or suburban lots into extraordinary places. And just as encouraging, these gardens were built right here in Central Texas, gardens that suffer the same challenges of climate, drought, flood and scorching summers punctuated by thunderstorms, high winds, and hail as my own.

In short, these gardens excited and inspired me because they teemed with possibility. Maybe I could do something like that.

The tour was sponsored by the Travis County Master Gardeners Association and focused on sustainable gardening. The point we were supposed to take away, I think, is that sustainable gardening does not mean sacrificing pleasing design, beauty, or creativity.

Link’s Garden

Link’s garden is the closest to my own geographically in laid back south Austin. I’m guessing that most people will remember it as the “found objects” garden–an amazing collection of the mundane and the discarded reclaimed as garden art.
Davidson Garden
What’s a south Austin garden without painted tire planters? The unique touch is the cymbals on rebar sculpture.

What impressed me most was the creative use of space, the amount of garden packed into a tiny lot on a steep hillside. At the top of this narrow winding path, there is a deck with two chairs that look over the garden. The fence to keep you from stumbling over the edge is made from old seatless wooden chairs painted bright colors.
Davidson Garden
Rusting lawnmower as artistic statement in a garden where all the lawn has been torn out. And if you can’t grow barrel cactus in your climate, what about turbine fans?

Mary and Clark’s Garden

Mary and Clark’s garden astonishes on many levels. First it’s plopped right in the middle of bland suburbia…
Bakatsa Garden
…and stands out from its neighbors with an aggressively planted front yard herb and butterfly garden.
Bakatsa Garden

Mary and Clark have a completely lawn free yard. The house is topped with solar panels, they harvest rainwater, and have a huge compost pile. Way to go suburbia!

The length of back fence, a short fence providing little privacy with large bushes on the neighbor’s side seems like an impossible place to grow anything interesting. And yet roses bloom in what seems like too much shade and fruit trees line the path.

Bakatsa Garden

The garden celebrates edibles, providing food for the family with excess shared with neighbors and donated to charity. In addition to the all-season vegetable garden, Mary grows olive and apple trees and has harvested grapefruit from a tree grown from a seed. None of these trees are typically grown in Austin, which demonstrates that sometimes I need to break the rules and take more chances in my garden.

Bakatsa Garden

Walt’s Garden

Krueger Garden
Inviting entry. The garden is enclosed in the back away from the ravages of deer.

Walt’s garden, Serenity, is a collector’s garden. His plant list numbers over 300 and most of them are shade plants…just the kind of inspiration I need. Although he has lived in the house for over 20 years, building the stonework retaining walls and pathways really began when he retired in 2001. He terraced the entire hillside by hand, mixing concrete in a wheel barrow. He said that he was strongly influenced by Japanese gardens and it shows. Rather than relying on the flashy color of annual flowers for interest, Walt focuses on the textures and shades of green. The variety in Walt’s garden comes from the sheer number of different plants in his vast collection.

Lesson learned: I should stop complaining about my shade and do something with it.
Krueger Garden
Serene green refuge from an Austin summer.

Jenny and David’s Garden

Taken as a whole, Jenny and David’s garden borders outside the range of my potential. I can’t imagine a huge walled garden on my lot no matter how much I’d love to have one. However, if I could have any garden in the world, this is probably the garden I would want. It is the perfect blend of my mother’s New Mexican adobe house dreams and AJM’s mother’s English cottage garden. And it feels familiar because I love and I grow many of the same plants.

Stocker Garden

Because Jenny and David’s garden is divided into smaller rooms, it never overwhelms or seems inaccessible. Each room has such a friendly atmosphere that I can imagine just sitting and being almost anywhere here.

I took AJM to see the paving stone courtyard…David poured the concrete pavers himself. “See. We could do something like that.” I nudge AJM, encouragingly. “Couldn’t we?”

Stocker Garden

by M Sinclair Stevens

29 Responses to post “Inside Austin Gardens Tour 2008”

  1. From Jan:

    What lovely gardens. People who make their own gardens are the ones whom I consider to be true gardeners. You have to get your hands dirty to understand nature. These are the gardens I like to visit. Thanks for sharing them with us.

    Jan @ Always Growing

    Making a garden is more than just getting your hands dirty, though. I do all the work in my garden myself and get my hands plenty dirty, but I haven’t “made” a garden in the same sense as the gardeners on this tour have. — mss

  2. From Kim:

    Wow. I totally want some turbine fans now. And that red rose along the fence looks suspiciously like my ‘Dortmund’ that I love so much… but then, I love it so much that I tend to think that every potential climber with red petals and a white eye could be “my” Dortmund. lol.

    I think you’re right about Jenny’s garden and all of that geometry. You seem to have some of that in your garden already, though, given what I’ve seen of the spring fling pictures. I distinctly remember some walls in the middle of exuberant meadows…

    Ah, the wall. I think you’re referring to the remains of the failed garden house project. I suppose it’s a start. — mss

  3. From Bonnie, Austin:

    I’m so glad you enjoyed the tour. It was wonderful to see you and meet AJM.

    I’m glad we ran into you. I could have stayed there all morning but AJM seemed a bit restless, didn’t he? — mss

  4. From Pam/Digging (Austin):

    Great tour, MSS. I only made it to Jenny’s garden (couldn’t miss seeing it again!) and Mary and Clark’s garden, which impressed me with the large vegetable garden, beautiful stonework in the pool surround and patio, rooftop solar panels, and olive trees. Now I wish I’d had time to see Walt’s lovely shade garden too.

    I couldn’t decide whether or not to use my photo of the pool but now you’ve given me an excuse. The limestone and waterfall give the pool a very Hill Country swimming hole feel.
    Bakatsa garden
    I had to go back to visit Jenny, of course, and take AJM along so he could see the pavers I’ve been raving about.

  5. From Diana Kirby:

    I couldn’t make it but your photo tour makes me feel like I was there. Thanks for sharing.

    My pleasure. — mss

  6. From Layanee:

    I have thought about what makes a garden vs. a landscape and I believe that it is the constant hand of the gardener shaping the space and adding the plants. Lovely pictures and post.

    Yes. Seeing all these different gardens has given me lots of food for thought on what it means to be a gardener. — mss

  7. From Karen, Savannah:

    Goodness, I envy you that garden tour. What wonderful gardens. Jenny and David’s is simply gorgeous, but I am intrigued by the many ideas for shade, which we so need here in summer.

    The gardens on the tour were inspiring on so many levels, a reinvigorating experience. They really make me feel like I’ve been puttering around and not making a real commitment to my own garden…that I need to get out there and do something with what I have instead of just grumbling about the weather and the shade. As you point out, in the south, shade is a good thing and necessary. — mss

  8. From Amy:

    Thank you so much for sharing photos from your garden tour. These are so incredibly beautiful and inspiring! I need to make sure I taken in our local garden tour weekend this July and see what other people are growing in my area.

    Please take lots of photos when you do and write up a post. By July, Austin will be sweltering and it will be nice to look at some pleasant northern gardens. — mss

  9. From Robin at Bumblebee:

    What a fabulously rich post!

    I suppose of all the gardens I must admire the suburban gardeners who were bold enough to give up the lawn and create a butterfly retreat. I’m sure some neighbors love them and others hate them. But the audacity! I love it!

    I wish I had more opportunities to see “real” gardens. As gardeners, we are fed so much unrealistic stuff from the magazines. I suppose it’s the equivalent of looking at unbelievably skinny models in fashionable clothes. Who can live up to that? And what is real?

    Robin at Bumblebee

    Perfect analogy…magazine gardens are like magazine women: unreal. It’s been insightful looking at other Austin gardens, Lucinda Hutson‘s and, of course our TV celeb Pam/Digging‘s, at Spring Fling and now these non-blogging gardeners. — mss

  10. From Michelle:

    What beautiful gardens! I love shade gardens, myself. What with all the different shades of green and all the different textures.

    I may curse the shade in April, just as the spring flowers are at their peak, but I love the shade in July. Walt’s garden demonstrated that a lot of interesting plants can be grown in shade–even Austin’s hot, dry shade. — mss

  11. From bill/prairie point:

    i love garden tours. thanks for posting some pictures of them.

    My pleasure. — mss

  12. From Kim:

    Oooh… I hadn’t realized that was how the wall came to be. Maybe you’ll like it more if you think of it as the intentional wall instead of the failed garden building?

    I like the wall. I just wish we had a decent place to sit in the garden. — mss

  13. From Jenny - Las Vegas:

    I’m so glad that you are able to share your experiences and photographs with us — it’s the next best thing to being there in person. In a year or two when Grace is older, we will definitely make a trip out to visit.

    Come in April, then. — mss

  14. From Gail:

    From your first sentence I knew I was going to sit back and enjoy your commentary and the tour…and I did. These are lovely gardens and your thoughts and comments made it easy for me to imagine being there. I would have preferred to be there but this was nice, too! How delightful is the suburban garden with no lawn up front and vegetables for family, friends and charity. So much to think about from this tour: geometry, lines, shade, texture, conservation and sharing.

    I’m glad I went even though I was drained afterwards. Spring Fling taught me that making an effort to interact with other gardeners is well worth it. — mss

  15. From M2 in Bothell:

    Wow. The whole tour — through your eyes — seems magical. I don’t know which site I admire more. But … maybe I will start doing something with the plant spaces outside my house. Hmm.

    You live in such a great climate for gardening now. Of course you do have slugs. And dogs. I’m sure there are lots of inspiring gardens for you to visit in Seattle. — mss

  16. From Ki:

    Thanks for sharing views of some fabulous Austin gardens. Poor AJM I know the feeling. My back aches in sympathy. 🙂

    I passed along your sympathy and AJM replies that you don’t know how clever he is at wheedling out of my project plans. — mss

  17. From Annie in Austin:

    You’re really good at taking us on tour, MSS – fine photos and a lot of insight. Thank you!

    While I love the vegetable gardens you show, the pessimist in me can’t help wondering what will happen as those housing developments age and the trees grow large enough for colonies of zucchini-chomping squirrels. Dang tree rats!

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    Pessimist indeed! You sound like me. (Shakes fist at trees.) I thought that Mary’s garden had a lot of shade already and was surprised to see how many roses she had blooming in the shade. The vegetable garden proper is in a cleared plot. As for the squirrels, I didn’t know they munched on zucchini. I always attribute all the damage in my garden to raccoons. — mss

  18. From Sarah Laurence (England):

    MSS, thanks for the gardens tour. The Japanese garden is an interesting interpretation with a New Age Californian flavor. I’d love to see it. I once took a summer course in Landscape Architecture and learned to appreciate the careful planning that goes behind what looks like effortless grace.

    “…the careful planning that goes behind what looks like effortless grace.” That’s always the case, isn’t it? Not just in gardening but in so much art. — mss

  19. From Barbee', Kentucky, USA:

    I love seeing the ideas other people have and how they do things in their gardens. There is so much original thought and ingenuity in personal home gardens.

    Seeing the gardens in life (and not just in some magazine) really made me feel that such things are possible. I need to be doing a lot more with my garden than I am. — mss

  20. From Yolanda Elizabet:

    Thanks for taking me on a tour around these lovely gardens. Each and every one is unique and that they are made by ordinary people is a real bonus. I’ve had it with these overdesigned gardens I see more and more over here. Boring!

    BTW I’ve been to the Japanese Garden in SF too, but that was a looooooong time ago.

    How interesting that we’ve walked in the same garden. I hope to go again soon. — mss

  21. From Helen - UK:

    I totally agree with you about private gardeners. I belong to a garden club and in the summer we visit private gardens that are only open for a day or two and I think it is much easier to get inspiration from these than the ‘civic’ gardens. Plus the owners are normally available to talk to you as well.

    All of the Master Gardeners were very “available” to us visitors, answering questions, providing plant lists, and such. They were so wonderful to share their gardens with the crowds. — mss

  22. From Jenny (Austin):

    It was lovely to see you again and to meet AJM although I have a feeling he just doesn’t want to get roped in to doing pavers. I have really enjoyed reading all the postings about the tour. I managed Walt’s and Mary’s on the Friday but needed to get back to my own in the afternoon. So it was nice to see Link’s. What I really need to get back to now is the posts on Hidcote. The day we went it was closed so we had to do the one close by. If you are like me you visit these gardens and you can’t wait to get back to transplant the ideas into your own.

    I’m sorry you missed Hidcote as it is a truly spectacular garden. I think it requires many visits–perhaps I can go again the next time we drive down to Oxford. — mss

  23. From Carol, May Dreams Gardens:

    I really enjoyed this tour of more Austin gardens. I like what you wrote, “take more chances”, that could apply to all the gardens… try different plants, make a garden that’s different from your neighbors, use found objects or whatever.

    Thanks for taking us along on this tour!

    I realized that I think “too small”. I’m afraid of making drastic changes. — mss

  24. From kate:

    It was fun going on tour with you – I like the way observing other gardens expands our ideas of what could be possible for our garden. It’s invigorating and exciting.

    I’d love to see more of the edible garden – this is a direction I want to go in this summer. We just need to stop having snow.

    I have been interested in trying olives in Austin but have been told it was too cold here to grow them. Apparently not. — mss

  25. From Beka in Austin:

    I create my garden. I am an oil painter, or was before we started our store. I am as conscious of color interactions in the yard/garden as if I were applying paint to canvas. I use a diagonal edge to carry the eye back to something beyond. I contrast textures. I feel it is a creative endeavor using plants instead of paint. When people say I could pay others to incorporate my design (health reasons), I shake my head no. Not the same. I want my hands in the dirt, I want one-on-one interaction with the plants. And I often create as I go along- there is no master drawing nor design. Same as I’ve done my paintings- no preliminary sketches just a feel. I am creating 3-D paintings! I sculpt the ground and add color and texture as I go along (plants/mulch/pavers/rock/logs)! My husband wants niches, so I am making vignettes!

    Sounds like you have an amazing garden. I’ve never been able to get any plants to bloom together the same way two years in a row so I’ve given up on trying to “paint with plants”. — mss

  26. From Esther Montgomery Southern England:

    Although a lot of work has been put into the gardens on this post – but I love their apparent informality.

    I love the dense planting too – which constantly gives the impression that there is ‘more beyond’ – whether there is . . . or whether there isn’t!

    Bonnie said her impression of the gardens was that she needed to go home and plant a lot more plants. I felt that way, too. — mss

  27. From Melissa NH:

    Great posting!

  28. From vbdb in austin:

    I’m always working Patty Leander’s vegetable garden during the tour and really loved seeing everything through a visitor’s eyes! You really captured the essence of what was my favorite Inside Austin Gardens Tour yet. Just more evidence that I have so much to learn from you …

    Someone once told me she wanted her garden to be so full of flowers that she wouldn’t notice the weeds. Looking at your photos, I see it’s not a bad concept.

    Unfortunately, the one garden I didn’t photograph was Patty’s because I was busy talking to you and Vertie. I think I apply the flower theory to my meadow. And now that the flowers are going to seed, I’m very aware of all the weeds I hadn’t noticed last month. — mss

  29. From Cheryl in Austin:

    Hi MSS,
    Loretta Fisher, who is the organizer for this years ’09 tour sent us your article to read! It is wonderful and I hope you’ll make it out to my garden this year!

    Have a great day,


    I look forward to it. The tour is in October this year, isn’t it?