May 10th, 2008
Possumhaw Hollow

Tom Spencer's Garden

“That’s one of my favorite shots,” Tom Spencer said to me as he caught me pointing the camera at my feet to take a photo of his limestone pavers. “The arrangement is based on a pattern I saw in Japan.”

Tom Spencer's Garden

Of course, any photo I take of Tom Spencer’s garden is redundant. Few gardens I know are as beautifully photographed as his Possumhaw Hollow. Tom Spencer has been “exploring the garden of life” via his site Soul of the Garden since 2000. Looking at his year by year photo albums documenting the making of his garden from in an ordinary old suburban yard, I’m left awed. (Even AJM appreciates that here is a man with a plan.)

Tom Spencer's Garden

The strong geometry of the garden appeals to me. You see it both in the layout (a series of corridors connected like Tinker Toys with circular rooms at each junction) and in the grouping of smaller elements.

Tom Spencer's Garden

Each little garden room forms a kind of sacred space. There is a quiet, meditative feel to each of them. And they each contain their own set of relics.

Tom Spencer's Garden

I love all the different textures in Tom’s garden. The paths are decomposed granite sand, while chipped granite in the beds echoes the color but has a rougher texture. Contrast that with smooth river rock or metal edging. Pools of blue glass or pieces of pottery draw the eye like mini-oases in the sand.

Tom Spencer's Garden

by M Sinclair Stevens

12 Responses to post “Possumhaw Hollow”

  1. From Pam/Digging (Austin):

    You scooped me this time, MSS. I visited Tom’s garden first thing, but I haven’t had time to even look at my shots yet. One thing I know—they won’t be anywhere near as beautiful as his own photos of his garden.

    However, yours are quite nice. I especially like the perspective you chose in the next-to-last photo. I haven’t seen that angle on his blog. And I somehow entirely missed the rock (seashell?) trio of balls.

    It’s not easy to scoop you. You raise the bar pretty high. I didn’t get to Tom’s garden until late in the day and it was the only one I visited (as AJM had a triathlon). So I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of the tour through the lens of your camera. The balls are made of some sort of woven grass. I think it’s water hyacinth. — mss

  2. From Carol, May Dreams Gardens:

    The other day when it was raining here in Indiana, I watched a YouTube video of Possumhaw Hollow, so I am “somewhat” familiar with this garden, or at least I heard Tom describe it in his own words. And having also heard Tom speak at the Spring Fling, I can imagine how he sounded when he told you about those pavers being based on a Japanese design. No wonder you were drawn to them, it is a unique design.

    I like how he has made a garden with a lot of person spaces, sacred little spaces. And I will enjoy all the posts about the garden tour, as I’m sure each person who saw it, saw it differently and was drawn to different parts of it.

    Thanks for sharing your perspective of it. Now as you and AJM make your own pavers, will you be incorporating that Japanese design someplace at Zanthan Gardens?

    I wish you could have visited the garden together. I’d like to see it through your eyes. Many of the gardens I’ve visited lately have made me realize that I don’t have enough ornamentation in my garden. Tom’s taste is closer to my own, than say, Lucinda’s is. As for the pavers, I may have found some acceptable ones at Lowe’s–AJM might be off the hook. — mss

  3. From Helen:

    What are those balls made of?

    They’re woven of some kind of plant material. I think Tom said it was water hyacinth reed.

  4. From Julie:

    Lovely. By the time I got to Tom’s garden, it was noon and we’d trooped through two others plus the Wildflower Center. This place was broiling hot! I couldn’t imagine sitting to meditate anywhere within it.

    The garden visits yesterday reminded me how much I really do like grass/lawn for its coolness. These gravelly gardens, while sensible in Central Texas, turn into ovens as the sun rises.

    I hope I have an opportunity to visit it again at a more temperate time of day.

    I was there at the hottest part of the day, between 3 and 4 when Austin’s temps hit 95F. Everyone was standing in the bald cypress allee. I agree that granite sand absorbs heat like a pizza oven, but I thought there was also plenty of shade and green to balance it. — mss

  5. From Pam/Digging (Austin):

    Julie makes a good point about the heat of an open, xeric, gravelly garden. My front garden turns into an oven in the late afternoon also. It’s a space to use in the morning or the evening, and I’m sure that’s how Tom treats his as well. Since those are typically the hours one would be off work and at home, it would work fine for many people.

    And I agree with you, MSS, that he has plenty of green lushness to visually cool the garden during the hottest part of the day, when one would be inside looking out from air-conditioned comfort.

    As summer strikes, I also view my garden from inside. A lot of my beds are designed to be seen from inside the house rather than be walked through. I wonder if that is more difficult in Tom Spencer’s garden since he’s divided an even smaller space than mine into a maze of rooms. — mss

  6. From Tom Spencer:

    Cool! Or, should I say “hot!” Thanks for the pictures and comments! Seeing the garden through someone else’s eyes was the great gift of the Wildflower Center’s Tour and here you are magnifying that for me.

    Two responses to the comments: First, regarding the views of the garden from the house. The very first step in my garden design was orchestrating the long view featured from both directions in two of the photos above (the ones over the pond.)The window that is on axis with the view is also on axis with our hallway which leads to our living room – the only straight shot view from the most used area of the home to the garden. So, we can stand at the front of our house and look all of the way to the back of the garden. (I stole this idea from the very first garden we featured on Central Texas Gardener – the garden now owned by Gordon White.)

    Regarding the heat… uh, what can I say. It was pretty hot. Patience is a virtue. The allee will soon provide a roof for up to half of the garden and the Possumhaw circle will soon be a cave. Besides, that is what the shade sail is for.



    It’s great to hear from you. I really enjoyed visiting your garden. Thanks for opening it to us. I realized at the time that none of the photos I took really expressed the garden in the same way yours do and I almost gave up. Then I remembered when the Spring Flingers visited my garden how interesting it was to view it through their eyes, so I pressed on. I wasn’t bothered by the heat. I was more amazed at how much shade you had. And, yes, the first thing I was drawn to was the little “cave” of the circle garden. Since hearing you speak, I’ve thought a lot about personal geography and childhood spaces. Your green cave is just the thing. — mss

  7. From Robin at Bumblebee:

    Hey M,

    I am sad that I wasn’t able to be a part of this particular garden tour. After hearing Tom’s talk at Spring Fling, I wondered what his garden might be like. I know so few men who garden, I’m always curious how they put a garden together and what they consider important. (I’m talking personal gardens, not those with professional “help.”)

    I particularly like the addition of spiritual elements in the garden. I keep thinking I would like to add a yoga garden–platform, splashing water, the scent of flowers. That would be a fabulous way to start my day if I could convince the bugs to take a siesta when I wanted to be yoga-ing.

    I hope to get back to Austin someday to see this and Zanthan Gardens. I suspect you and I have extremely different garden styles. Yours is more unstructured and wild. Mine is definitely more formal and tamed. But I also suspect we share an appreciation for the “fun” and unique parts. (I’m thinking tequila garden here, of course.) And, of course, the beauty.

    Robin at Bumblebee

    I hope to be able to visit your garden someday, too. I prefer gardens with a strong underlying structure. Mine doesn’t, primarily I think, because I don’t have a lot of money to spend on hardscaping and I just work with what I’ve got…plants I can propagate or which self-sow easily. — mss

  8. From Lisa at Greenbow:

    A great look at Possumhaw Garden. It is fun to see gardens you feel you know through others eyes.

  9. From Annie in Austin:

    Thanks, MSS! I wasn’t able to go this time, but visited Tom Spencer’s garden before so between your wonderful post and Pam’s, it was a lovely virtual visit. His comment was great! Imagine a cypress allee for a roof and a Possumhaw circle for a cave… that’s one ingenious way to tame a Central Texas summer ;-]

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  10. From Mr. McGregor's Daughter:

    I’m always in awe of gardeners who can pull off the minimalist thing. This is one amazing garden & all his hard work shows.

  11. From Jenny - Las Vegas:

    This is a lovely garden, with many enchanting points, but because I view your own garden more often through your blog, I have grown to love its more wild nature, and actually prefer it to most other gardens.

  12. From Dee/reddirtramblings:

    MSS, I wish I could have toured it with you. Having toured so many others with you, I did feel like I was along for this trip also. I could see your sweet smile as you led us through Tom’s garden.

    I liked Tom’s response because all gardens are constantly in a state of flux as long as the gardener lives and breathes (and maybe after if someone else takes up the standard.) That he has plans for shade makes perfect sense to me. Thank you.~~Dee

    I’m was actually surprised how much shade he had and wondered how the trees would affect the garden in years to come, not only by casting shade but with their tree roots. — mss