Life in the City

by | Feb 1, 2013 | Native Plants

CREATING A NATIVE GARDEN in a rural setting is fairly straightforward: Draw from the surrounding landscape. In urban settings, however, it can be harder to find native landscapes to emulate. In Austin, we have a tale of one city and two distinct urban landscapes – one center-city and one a bit more suburban. Two homeowners sought to replace the standard swaths of St. Augustine lawn and one-dimensional plantings of shrubs and trees with water-conscious, perennial, native landscapes. Yet each homeowner faced different challenges and needs.

At a home in southwest Austin’s Legend Oaks subdivision, landscape designer/contractor Russell Womack with Capitol Landscaping was called in to address drainage issues along the driveway, aging plants and high water bills. The corner lot home is set back from the street, affording a generous front yard and a cozier back yard – and ample possibilities for a stunning native plant design.

Womack designed and installed the new water-conscious landscape over the winter of 2009-2010, focusing on a “deciduous, herbaceous, evergreen mix” of native and adapted plants with drip irrigation in the beds and low-voltage accent lighting. The owners report that the new irrigation system and drought-tolerant landscaping have reduced their water bills by about 30 percent.

With two energetic terriers, they wanted lawn in both front and back, where Womack replaced thirsty, temperamental St. Augustine with hardier Palisades™ zoysia grass, developed at Texas A&M University.

Native San Saba sandstone and boulders edge the curved, loosely landscaped beds covered in crushed Fairland pink granite instead of wood mulch. Boulders and pavers from Texas standstone cover corners along the sidewalk in front areas that receive high pedestrian and bicycle traffic and add interest in the back. Whimsical sculptures by Central Texas metal artisan Wayne Rossi are positioned to delight and surprise throughout.

From the corner, Womack’s design gently increases in height, using plants like mimosa-looking fairy duster (Calliandra conferta), Mexican native Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha) and gulf muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris). Plantings along the sidewalk form natural privacy in the yard closer to the house. A Mexican white oak (Quercus polymorpha) and a chinquapin oak (Quercus muehlenbergii) eventually will shade the now-sunny front yard.

The back of the house opens onto a stone-paved patio – replacing the previous one of concrete – that looks out onto the snug backyard. Womack created a stonework combination planter and bench filled with silver ponyfoot (Dichondra argentea) against the house. Although the ponyfoot grew beyond expectations, cascading and covering up the bench, the owners liked the flowing look and decided not to trim the vines.

Along the back fence, Womack separated and trimmed the existing tall uniform hedge of Will Fleming yaupon (Ilex vomitoria ‘Will Fleming’). By selecting a few for removal, Womack formed an interesting 4- 3-2 pattern and opened up views of the neighbor’s live oak (Quercus fusiformis) and Texas persimmon (Diospyros texana). He transplanted the rest along the sidewalk outside the fence.

Womack added native plants such as an Autumn sage and dwarf Mexican olive that provide color and texture and gradually descend in height from the fence to the grass. He left a few understory trees including a mature redbud (Cercis canadensis) as well as a few heirloom roses. More Rossi sculptures appear among the plants. “I recommend yard maintenance three times each year to trim, deadhead, weed and apply more gravel or mulch,” says Womack.

In the central Austin Rosedale neighborhood, traditional 1930s and 1940s bungalows intersperse with trendy contemporary residences. Drawn to Rosedale in 2006 by a newer modern home situated on 1 1/2 lots, the move for Jill Davis was not initially without sacrifice. She left behind an established native landscape in hilly far west Austin that included a 14-foot limestone cliff with a cascading water feature, both designed by ecologist/landscape designer David Mahler of Environmental Survey Consulting.

Davis’ new yard had an austere look with a lot of lawn, trimmed hedges, and one yucca and one mesquite tree serving as bookends on the front curb. She contacted landscape designer/contractor Cathy Nordstrom of Sans Souci Gardens, hoping for a woodland landscape that would provide privacy, lower water use, add year-round color, texture and dimension – as well as a backyard water feature. Nordstrom and Davis agreed that the best plan would be for Nordstrom to create the front yard and for Mahler – who specializes in water features – to design the back.

Both designed complementary lowmaintenance landscapes that were installed around 2007 and featured on the Wildflower Center’s 2010 garden tour. Thick vegetation provides color blocks and solid cover, largely eliminating the need for weeding and mulching. In keeping with the home’s angular, urban architecture, the front yard has a geometric feel created by mixing the bold lines of yuccas and agaves with the softer, more delicate look of Barbados cherry (Malpighia glabra), rock rose (Pavonia lasiopetala) and big muhly (Muhlenbergia lindheimeri). More freeform, the backyard brings to mind the look of a pleasantly overgrown meadow.

Tucked behind the garage, Davis installed two 3,000-gallon rainwatercollection tanks that supply the lot’s irrigation system. Pea-size sifted decomposed granite covers the entire front yard, giving a nod to both the house’s contemporary architecture and a native Hill Country landscape. Nordstrom says that granite also seeps minerals into the soil, feeding native plants.

Nordstrom achieved natural-looking pathways without edging delineating garden beds, “instantly making it look more natural,” she says.

Beginning along the driveway, Nordstrom installed a rock berm and a mound of caliche to create “a Hill Country soil situation” and some elevation. Surrounding the remaining lone yucca, she planted a mixture of agaves and grasses. Large rocks placed throughout the front landscape add additional structure.

Along the side of the house, the landscape subtly transitions from Nordstrom’s to Mahler’s design. As understory trees and shrubs mature, they will not only grow into a natural arch leading to the backyard but also hide the air-conditioning unit and provide a sound block. Instead of gravel, buffalo grass (Bouteloua dactyloides) – interspersed with rain lilies (Cooperia pedunculata) – form the pathways for cool, soft barefooted backyard excursions.

Visible from the back porch are lowgrowing wildflowers and flowering shrubs with a constantly changing color palette from purple and pink in spring, yellow and orange in summer, to more yellow and purple in fall. Plants gradually rise in height as they near the yard’s perimeter; eventually those along the fence line will screen views from neighboring yards.

Mahler’s water feature is to scale with the size of the small backyard. White water lilies (Nymphaea odorata) float on the water’s surface, and maidenhair ferns (Adiantum capillus-veneris) perch on the moist surrounding rocks. Mosquito fish keep the pond in balance and don’t need additional fish food. The continuously flowing water provides a soothing musical accompaniment to the constant chatter of songbirds attracted to the garden’s berries and blooms.

Written by Andrea Abel