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A Texas-style crevice backyard – and neighborly collaboration – brings midcentury Austin house to vibrant life


January 18, 2022

On the finish of October, when Loree of Hazard Backyard was on the town for her Backyard Spark speak, we finagled an invite to the tropicalesque backyard of John Ignacio. John in flip launched us to his buddy and neighbor Coleson Bruce, who kindly allowed a few strangers to come back see his Austin-meets-Palm Springs backyard close to Bull Creek in northwest Austin.

A couple of issues make this one of many extra particular gardens I visited final 12 months:

  • Two artfully constructed and Texas-appropriate crevice gardens anchor the entrance yard. I’ve seen a couple of crevice gardens in personal gardens in Colorado and at botanical gardens (together with Denver, Betty Ford, and Kew), the place the main focus is on alpine crops. However I’d by no means seen a large-scale crevice backyard in Austin, nor one with crops that may thrive in our brutally scorching summers plus humidity plus occasional killing freezes.
  • The backyard was constructed throughout an intensive, 6-month collaboration between pals, and who doesn’t like to see that? John shared his in depth plant data, experience, and even his crops, and Coleson — a busy lawyer with a younger household, who’d by no means picked up a trowel — soaked it up like a sponge and utilized his personal creative eye towards making it spectacular. The 2 did the work themselves, even inserting the biggest rock slabs within the crevice gardens.
  • Coleson’s home sits excessive throughout the street from Bull Creek, and past the creek, the tall limestone bluff of the Balcones Escarpment is seen. Additionally, the midcentury home is uniquely confronted with fist-sized, honeycomb limestone rock (typically referred to as holey rock). Each the pure and artifical rockwork make the stone-heavy crevice gardens really feel inevitable reasonably than plunked down in a softer panorama.
Earlier than

To see the place Coleson began, right here’s a 2016 picture from a realtor itemizing, earlier than he moved in. Shaggy junipers crowd the muse, and in any other case it’s simply uninspiring garden. The trendy, concrete-slab stroll and floating steps remained, however the whole lot else bought pulled out.

Island crevice backyard

Let’s flip round to see what guests see after they first arrive: a big crevice backyard in a canoe-shaped island mattress between the round drive and avenue. Palms dot the outer fringe of the mattress, presumably to display screen the street as they develop.

Uplifted slabs of limestone nestle on the diagonal, with chunks of holey rock and decomposed granite filling the gaps. Barrel cactus, cholla, little grasses, and moss rose (portulaca) take in the Texas solar and thrive with roots dug into the cool crevices.

I requested Coleson what impressed his imaginative and prescient for the backyard, and I’ll quote from his detailed reply:

“I’ve some background in desert biology (having lived within the Mojave over 20 years in the past as an assistant park ranger) and in sculpture (working with bronze and clay, purely as a interest and inventive outlet). The desert rat and sculptor in me have been drawn to the thought of, in essence, a succulent-heavy rock sculpture.

I’ve vivid reminiscences of working within the granite mountain vary of the Mojave, the place from a quarter-mile away the fluorescent flowers of a single echinocereus (claret cup or hedgehog cactus) mound would appear to mild up a complete valley. Having a contact of that exterior my entrance door was definitely a part of the backyard’s imaginative and prescient. Every of my two crevice gardens prominently function their very own large echinocereus mound, and by no accident!”

Within the heart of the mattress, I seen a intelligent resolution to a typical gardening impediment, irrigation valve bins or water meter lids: go away entry so upkeep could be performed and employees don’t crush your crops, and construct rock edging round it.

I requested Coleson how he realized to assemble his Texas-style crevice gardens, and he defined:

“Round 2018 John launched me to the thought of crevice gardens, and after that the imaginative and prescient of a crevice backyard in my entrance island rattled round my head. I dived into YouTube. A number of distinguished names in crevice gardens have on-line movies relating to building methods, concept, and many others. Whereas drawn to the normal alpine focus in each stone and plant choice, I wished (or wanted) a extra Central Texas model. So I took what I’d realized and pivoted towards desert crops and Texas limestone rockwork.

The 2 crevice gardens in my yard collectively incorporate a couple of tons every of Texas limestone, with stones starting from fist-sized to a quarter-ton. The bigger stones have been delivered as close to as potential by forklift. From there the rocks have been put of their last positions by equal elements ingenuity, manpower, and poor judgment. At one level there was a two-week break to permit my again to heal from some dangerous selections. 

On the subject of rockwork and crevice building, there’s a secret I realized and want to share: you have to be prepared to take all of it aside and begin over. A couple of instances after I’d constructed important parts of the rockwork, I’d sleep on it and later notice it merely wasn’t appropriate, aesthetically. I’d tear aside the offending parts and edit. A couple of times, out of laziness, I’d attempt to ignore a problem, after which John would inevitably say, ‘Does that look proper?’ thereby confirming my personal suspicions and in addition motivating me to get it proper.  my backyard at the moment, I can see in my thoughts a dozen prior variations that, had I not been prepared (or satisfied) to bust aside and begin over, would have resulted in a lesser backyard.”

Along with cacti hardy to our zone 8b, the crevice gardens embrace…

…small agaves like artichoke (A. parryi var. truncata), ‘Blue Glow’, and ‘Quadricolor’, in addition to heat-loving perennials like blackfoot daisy, firebush (Hamelia patens), purple trailing lantana, and silver ponyfoot.

I’d by no means seen golden-spined Christmas cholla, additionally referred to as tasajillo (Cylindropuntia leptocaulis) — besides at John’s backyard, in fact.

Coleson says John shared crops with him freely:

“I ‘inherited’ a good portion of my crops from John. His house and his hundreds of sq. toes of greenhouses have for many years been the educational assortment of a mad plant scientist. So, whereas developing my gardens, we have been typically simply ‘procuring’ by means of John’s gardens and strolling them a couple of streets again into my yard. I view my gardens as an extension of his assortment.”

Desert-style entry backyard

For those who can tear your self away from the island crevice backyard, one other awaits you to the appropriate of the crimson entrance doorways. It’s balanced on the left by bristling Yucca rostrata softened by salvia, lantana, gopher plant, blackfoot daisy, and silver ponyfoot, all mounded up with limestone boulders.

Coleson cheerfully admitted that he’d pulled aside this whole crevice backyard after his first try felt off to each him and John.

If I recall appropriately, he informed us he’d initially lined up the vertical rocks parallel to the driveway, reasonably than perpendicular to it as they’re at the moment. However when he realized it wasn’t proper, he tore it out and rebuilt it. That’s delight of workmanship.

I imagine John mentioned that’s a blue noticed palmetto (Serenoa repens) at left. It’s even prettier with that upright, skinny prickly pear behind it. Containers tucked among the many rocks maintain different attention-grabbing desert crops, like blue torch cactus, claret cup cactus (I feel) within the massive spherical planter within the center, and spiral cactus.

Blue torch cactus (Pilocereus azureus) with dyckia in entrance

Spiral cactus (Cereus peruvianus ‘Spiralis’)

A woolly opuntia makes itself at house in a crevice. On the porch, a dangling skeleton (I visited in late October) echoes its ghostly hue.

Talking of skeletons

I’m shocked to see as many ocotillo — a plant native to the excessive desert — round Austin as I do. Coleson’s is without doubt one of the happiest I’ve seen, undoubtedly because of the superb drainage of the rocky backyard.

Right here’s a greater view of it.

And one other of the bristling entrance stroll

An extended view

Yucca rostrata and prostrate rosemary

I requested Coleson how his cacti held up after the deep freeze final February. He says, “For essentially the most half, my plant choice leans closely towards excessive desert, permitting for each drought and chilly tolerance. In a traditional winter, I ought to be capable of possibility out of protecting something, as long as I don’t thoughts some marginal die-back. The few species I show that aren’t chilly tolerant are in pots, so they might be moved indoors in a big freeze.”

Nonetheless, his backyard was brand-new when the freezepocalypse hit. “I coated the crevice backyard cacti with various sizes of black buckets,” he says, “after which lastly a collection of plastic/blanket covers. My palms misplaced their fronds briefly, however by spring I used to be shocked to search out virtually the whole lot got here again.”

Yucca shadow play

A row of blue pots alongside the left aspect of the driveway comprise citrus, grapefruit largely but in addition a mandarin orange.

Metal planter screening

Past the driveway, Coleson’s entrance yard extends on a downhill slope alongside the road. He and John discovered these rusty metallic containers, lined them up in staggered rows, and planted them up with sotols, purple prickly pear, and different cacti.

Sensible coloring on the opuntia

Extra hedgehog cactus in one of many shortest containers

And a beautiful, spherical opuntia ready to be planted

That’s Coleson in overalls and hat, mentioning one thing to Loree and John. Within the foreground, feathery Satisfaction of Barbados nonetheless has a couple of orange flowers in late October. Within the distance, the limestone bluff of the Balcones Escarpment alongside Bull Creek is seen, capped by a fringe of bushes — a rocky inspiration for the backyard.

I’ll share Coleson’s useful recommendations on eradicating turf and holding expanses of decomposed granite (DG) freed from weeds, for these of us who don’t stay within the desert:

“The 2 foundational points are dealing first together with your historic seed mattress after which managing ongoing seed sources. In my backyard we rigorously eliminated the St. Augustine garden together with 1.5 inches of topsoil, which certainly contained years of historic seed mattress materials. Then remained the difficulty of ongoing seed litter. My entrance garden advantages from a relative lack of bushes or different tall crops to shed seed into the granite — or for birds to perch on and deposit seed. Additional, the entrance yard is a nook lot that shares solely a single border with one neighbor’s garden and its innumerable weed seeds. For those who’re contemplating decomposed granite or different gravelscape, stand within the space and lookup: any bushes or crops bigger than waist-high are your primary seed-litter (and leaf-litter) culprits, second to any close by yard with weeds.

Don’t use a “weed barrier” or comparable approaches in a DG/gravelscape. Such obstacles do nothing to forestall future weed seeds that come from above, they usually do little to discourage historic seed beds that finally come from under.

After eliminating the seed mattress and minimizing seed litter sources, there’s nonetheless loads of upkeep to be performed. My key upkeep aspirations are:

-Stroll the backyard with my morning espresso each different day (aspirationally!), and casually nip any new weeds earlier than they’ve an opportunity to seed. It’s meditative!

-Weed earlier than doing any leaf blowing, or else you’re now disbursing your personal weed litter.

-Weeds love water. After I resolve to irrigate a portion of the backyard, or when there’s rain, my antennae are up {that a} weed sweep might be obligatory within the coming few days. 

-If the weeds get away from you for too lengthy, you had higher not be too uncomfortable with strategic use of correct and efficient chemical weed deterrents. 

After coping with the foundational weed points after which a season or two of vigilant upkeep, my DG has little or no seed load apart from [from my own] crops that I need to propagate.”

Ruby grass and a palmetto

Hangout house beneath a large stay oak

Nearer to the home, a large stay oak makes an ideal spot for a little bit of shady garden, a dangling chair, and a inexperienced stone desk with stools.

Its spreading limbs are as massive round as many tree trunks can be.

Reside oak magnificence

This finish of the home actually reveals off its distinctive rockwork and midcentury fashionable strains.

Coleson calls it honeycomb limestone, and it faces not simply the outside but in addition sure inside partitions. The truth is the inside of the house blew me away. It’s one-of-a-kind, and whereas I want I may share it with you, Coleson and his household deserve their privateness. Right here’s slightly backstory in regards to the eccentric builder, which Coleson offered:

“The builder and designer was named O.T. Sims. He was not an architect, however as an alternative a customized house builder within the Nineteen Sixties. He constructed this house in 1967 for himself and his household and used it as a present house. Accordingly, he seems to have tried to showcase all of his expertise without delay in a single constructing anchored by late ‘60s and early ‘70s design developments. The built-in, 12-person, lava rock eating room desk with central 48-inch fire is the center of the home, and one thing an individual both can’t imagine or can’t stay with out.”

Let’s simply say I’d fall into the latter class. As Coleson is aware of, I went nuts after I noticed that round lava-rock desk with its wood-burning cooktop and conical, lava-rock fire hood, giving off every kind of tiki vibes. I beloved it. The home is fabulous.

Bull Creek cliffs and greenbelt view

Within the yard, a pool and surrounding deck look over the treetops of Bull Creek and throughout to that white limestone bluff. A beautiful view.

Round within the aspect yard, one other massive outdated stay oak holds courtroom.

A earlier proprietor constructed a contemporary-style pond right here, edged on two sides with low concrete partitions.

Previous the pond, a mod row of Lueders limestone sq. planters shows ghost plant, a hardy succulent. John explains about their genesis within the feedback part of Loree’s submit about Coleson’s backyard, so test it out for more information.

I’ll shut with one thing Coleson shared with me, which I feel sums up properly the soul-healing worth of gardening and of discovering a gardening buddy:

“I befriended John as a neighbor, who occurred to be an skilled gardener and botanist, with greenhouses stuffed with succulents, orchids, and many others. Over time we’d often chat about concepts for my yard. When COVID lockdown dragged on, about April 2020, John and I [started working on] the entrance island mattress. Finally, mission creep would drag in your entire entrance yard, in addition to some important work within the again and aspect yards. About 6 months later we “completed” (do you ever, actually?). I joke, I hope not too morbidly, that these are my COVID gardens.

For me it was a 6-month crash course on crops and gardening, with John downloading to me a piece of his in depth data. At first, not realizing crops or gardening, I might describe to John the shapes, textures, and quantity of crops I’d wish to see in a given spot, and he would reply with plant choices, repairs concerns, and many others. By halfway by means of the 6 months, he may anticipate my aesthetic objectives, and I may do a not-too-bad job of anticipating the plant choices that might accomplish our objectives. By the top of the 6 months, we have been finishing each other’s sentences. 

Whereas it’s true that I compensated John for his time and experience, that was irrelevant. These gardens have been simply two pals having a superb time that bought a bit out of hand!”

And there you’ve it. You by no means know the place a gardening friendship will lead you. Nice story, Coleson, and thanks for sharing your backyard with us!

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Digging Deeper

Want design assist together with your yard? Rent me as your private backyard coach! Perhaps you want alternative plant concepts after the large freeze. Or perhaps your landscaping has grown drained, and also you need recent curb attraction. Or maybe you’re able to eliminate some garden and create a pollinator backyard, chook habitat, or hangout house for you and your folks. I’m right here to assist! Contact me to let me know what’s happening, and let’s determine it out collectively. My vary is Austin and suburbs inside a 25-min. drive of NW Austin, however I’m versatile and may journey farther with a surcharge, so let me know the place you might be. Weekday morning appts. solely.

Be a part of the mailing checklist for Backyard Spark! Hungry to find out about backyard design from the specialists? I’m internet hosting a collection of talks by inspiring backyard designers, panorama architects, and authors a couple of instances a 12 months in Austin. Take a look at the 2021-22 schedule. These are limited-attendance occasions that promote out shortly, so be part of the Backyard Spark e-mail checklist to be notified upfront. Merely click on this hyperlink and ask to be added.

All materials © 2022 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized replica prohibited.

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