Helen Thompson
Helen Thompson
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Nearly all of the state of Texas is now listed as being in either “severe” or “exceptional” drought by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s drought monitor, despite recent rains. You also probably guessed that 2011 was the driest one-year period on record for the state. Of necessity, making a garden nowadays must be about components other than plants. “These days my main concern is water usage,” says Austin landscape designer David Wilson. He recently reworked a 70’s-era yard in Westlake Hills using both old-fashioned and new-fangled ideas that make the most of a bad situation, rain or shine. Take note of two very effective strategies:

  1. Reconsider native plants that are just plain tough. Wilson likes boxwood, mountain laurel, cactus, crepe myrtle, yucca, and bamboo. Wilson has even used a plant reviled by many, the—gasp—aspidistra. “Also called “cast iron plant,” aspidistra gets a bad rap,” he says, “but it’s indestructible.”
  2. Give your plants a job: Wilson likes shapely plants (whether natural or courtesy of the pruning shears) that create enjoyable spaces, allow light into a garden in a beautiful way, and offer creative opportunities for shade.

Wilson sculpted the crepe myrtles—his flattering term for them is “old character plants”—to frame the front yard. He floated limestone pads (about 32″ x 54″) in pea gravel to create a more modern entry system.

Inside the front courtyard, more limestone pads in pea gravel (at intervals that make for a comfortable walking rhythm); boxwoods massed in a square are part of the formal grid pattern that allows the more casually arranged plantings to complement the design. Wilson kept another old character plant, the rose of Sharon, and added a weeping Japanese maple, low-lying leopard plants (with the glossy leaves that resemble lily pads), and deer-resistant and heat-tolerant Berkely sedge.

In back, a deck commands a sweeping view of the Austin skyline (see next image), which is irresistible and compelling. Wilson decided that plantings shouldn’t compete with the view. “Instead,” he says, “we added the low-lying line of boxwoods that underscore the view beyond, and punctuated the view with potted plants that have an architectural silhouette.”

Cylindrical Italian terra cotta pots hold a pom pom juniper (left) and and foxtail ferns. Other pots hold agave and succulents.

A better look at the pom pom, which does have to be pruned from time to time, and the foxtail ferns which are virtually maintenance-free. The homeowner kept the original railing and the decking, which is a composite material.

“We used gravel so that you don’t have to mow and edge,” says Wilson, “and we opted for cactus and agave instead of masses of greenery.” The designer also chose a drip irrigation system for the potted plants. “That way, water goes straight to the roots and isn’t wasted spraying into the air and on sidewalks.”

Wilson designed a limestone-block retaining wall that’s also a planter. It runs along the property line separating this house from its neighbor, which is higher up on the hillside. Planted with European olive, Mexican feather grass, trailing rosemary, Italian cypress, and bamboo the wall catches and filters water that cascades down the hill after a rain. And, it looks good.

Wilson’s attention is captured by all kinds of landscaping problems, both big and small. So, when the seemingly unattractive service entrance in the side yard caught his eye, his design gene went into overdrive. “I recognized that this space could be special. Once we figured out we could move the propane tank, the potential opened up.” Wilson placed three-foot-square limestone pads in the pea gravel, moved the propane tank to another location near the driveway, concealed the HVAC units behind louvered metal panels, built a trellis, and added oxidized steel wall panels at the property line for privacy. “Basically,” says Wilson, “this is now a little jewel.”

In addition to cactus and agave, Wilson selected Will Fleming yaupons, Japanese black pine, yucca, wisteria for the trellis, and European olive.

Nothing says “old character” plant like the sansaveria here.

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