Tag Archives: landscape design

Show and Tell

Pam Penick- a homegrown garden writer asked to come visit my personal garden last week in preparation for next spring garden tours.  The request sent me into a bit of a tizzy.  I specifically chose not to plant this garden as a “show” garden.  I want it to be a garden of ideas and feelings.  Feelings are evanescent.  And how much of that do we want to tolerate in our garden? Personally, I feel this is the garden’s soul-  the comings and goings.  And that is how I like to think about blooms in the garden. The jasmine blooms, the wildflower blooms, the bluebonnets, the asters….In my private garden,  I plant loads and loads and loads of the same plant so when it does it’s thing it makes a very large impact.  I have a neighbor who has written me snail mail thank you letters for the breadth of the aster blooms on the perimeter of my garden that face her house.  I want to look forward to the swaths of bloom, watch them emerge, watch them reach their full vulgarity, watch it all fade & then remember it- contrasted with the rest of the year.

But in real life- when blooms are on the way out they are limp and brown.  The bluebonnets and wildflowers must go to seed so the brown stays until it explodes.  I fear I might have appalled our esteemed garden writer- my meadow does her thing in March and April and is crisping up come mid May- the time of our visit. (Although for the record I must say that everything else but the lower meadow was looking ok.)

And here of course lies a designer’s ultimate challenge- how to manage the comings and goings.  Gardens are nature improved non?  So the current thinking in my garden is how much can or should I manage les petites morts. Can we just liken it to post coital bliss? It’s got the same  messy aftermath.  But there are those who hop up and those who loll around in it.  Nature will have us loll around in it.  A highly designed garden does not loll around in funk.

There is a particular garden master – Fernando Caruncho- who is doing a lot of thinking about this. In his famous garden mas de las voltes, Sr. Caruncho features geometric fields of wheat.  The wheat emerges annually- is green, then turns gold, then is harvested and the bales placed in specific locations in the field. Note that he harnesses all this nature in a strict grid and juxtaposes it against evergreen structure of the garden.  Thus we can meditate on the agricultural cycles.  He expertly manages the death/the harvest of the plants.

His work is genius.  I’ve visited his personal garden, and it is well- quite personal. More personal than any of his client projects I have encountered. For a while now,  I’ve been wondering what the difference is between a designed garden and a designer’s garden- his had similar elements but had a different feeling.

While doing research for this I discovered that large portions of his famous garden had succumbed to a disease and had to be pulled out.

When I visited,  the garden looked like this- the shaped hedges are his signature.

This little red pavilion is more colloquial than anything I’ve seen in his estate gardens. We had lunch there with his little dog and wife Maru. His kids play in the shallow pools.

Now his garden looks like this:

The following is from an Architectural Digest story on the new plantings:  “For a year Caruncho tried every possible cure, but there was no hope. In despair, he ripped out everything that had flatlined, from the expanses of clipped boxwood to mounds of mature Escallonia that had lapped the garden kiosk like emerald waves. The scarred earth rebuked him: Caruncho himself had sparked the destruction. Now the magical retreat, a youthful triumph he had always assumed would remain the same, was gone. But its structure—the walled enclosures, the mysterious flights of steps, the U-shaped pergola topped with rebar lattice—had not changed. As he soon realized, it was simply waiting for him to cast off his grief and cultivate another incarnation.

“Gardens, like people, have a cycle: They are born, grow, mature, and die,” Caruncho observes. “For the first time in my life, I understood that. I needed to accept the new conditions but return to the original ideas.” As for the wounded acreage, he adds, “I began to understand it more deeply, as when you love someone who has been in your life for a long time.”

Today the garden’s famous austerity has given way to rational exuberance. For the past several years, Caruncho has filled the beds with thousands of white cosmos, an annual whose self-seeded display—what he calls “a moment of splendor,” with a catch in his voice—makes a joyful contrast to the architectural severity that encloses it. Flowers rise up, chest high, swaying in breezes, spreading like great clouds, and offering months of heart- stopping tenderness before vanishing from sight…..

“It is possible to have a garden that lasts forever but also is ephemeral,” Caruncho explains, noting that the cosmos’ fragile beauty has affected him deeply—professionally as well as emotionally. “Rebirth is the miracle of gardens, and that is something that will be with me for the rest of my life.”

This new information about his personal garden has really affected me.  I think about Sr. Caruncho often- his intellect, his skill, his discipline & importantly the way he seems able to get his clients to go along with his advanced ideas.

And yet- he and I have arrived separately at similar personal gardens.  Echoing the same themes. Must he too arrange his garden tours to avoid swaths of post orgasmic cosmo aftermath?  It seems as if it’s worth it to him- and his family- as it is to mine.

I guess a question that I will continue to ponder will be- if it is this important to us – we who could design anything- shouldn’t we offer our clients the same opportunities for extreme catch in your throat beauty?  Don’t they also know that the best orgasms come with a bit of clean up afterwards?

Go East

The Violation made BRS do some quick and deep thinking about needing to move office.  Brilliantly- Selena and Dylan founded BRS on the East side of ATX in 1994.   After 22 years- the east side is a big part of the firm’s identity.  Personally, it took me a little time to get my East Side on.  But soon our neighbors were like family. The 6th street cowboy gives me a shout out. img_4646

When the churro trailer set up next door, I knew not to assume that they were frying this gringa up to serve to tourists. Or actual dogs for that matter. I stopped trying to find the home of every chicken  I found wandering on the street and finally stopped bringing fabulous shiny piñatas to every party.

And when we looked in other parts of town to office- they just seemed a little too. too. not BRS.  Thus our buckling down to try and stay put.  Last week we took a trip to the history center to see if historically there was parking with this building.  img_8403

This photo is from sometime b/t 1903-1914.  But even before that in 1887 Kunz Groceries and Beer was on this corner.  First street seems to have always been a mix of commercial and houses.  It’s understatement to say that the history and politics of this neighborhood are very tough.  After settling in our new home for a few years,  dsc07268

we arrived at work one morning to see our neighbors Sergio and Monica’s shop being bulldozed. This shit actually happens?  I felt like a complete gringa asshole once again- never mind the fact that I had a yelling street fight with the new owner of the demolished building when he came to threaten me and my business the week before. The new owner told the Statesman — he wanted his building to be beautiful just like Big Red Sun.  It’s confusing to become part of the fabric of this old neighborhood- we are valued in some ways but I’m sure also vilified for gentrifying.  The CoA has contacted the business owners on Cesar Chavez about creating an IBIZ district- we sat in a CoA meeting and shuddered as we contemplated the city “solving” for “connectivity” issues on the street.   This charming neighborhood has infected me.   Last one in-  shut the door to change.   I’m sure that’s not the answer- but we do know that we have to honor this neighborhood, these neighbors and the changing city.  And if the CoA is asking for our help- we’d be remiss to leave.


So- remember how shitty 2016 was? It ended for BRS with a parking code violation called in by one of our neighbors.  As a result, the city has asked us to pave our courtyard garden to make it available for parking.

As a garden design firm, our garden is obviously an important part of our business identity. It’s also a hardworking space for our business-

For instance:


wait- there’s also a video (it’s worth a click)

This is just a day in the life of our hardworking garden. 2017 note- when someone comes and asks to film an underwear commercial in your garden ALWAYS say yes.


When we leased this building- the garden looked like this.  l1070322

We cut the door into our space for loads of light and also so we could have a constant connection to the outdoors. Good for our soul and morale. Not to mention our baby plants- here grow our flower seeds we are starting for the Josephine house summer garden. img_8394

The courtyard has been a showroom/role model  for our high end synthetic turf that we try and suggest to almost every client. This is an installation shot of the lawn.


We are a garden design and maintenance firm that does NOT own a lawn mower on principle.   We have to have saved millions of gallons of City water from installing these all over town. It’s a big leap of faith for someone to put in a plastic lawn (!) so it’s great to have one that can be test driven.

Back to our violation

The City’s request is for 9 parking spaces and a fire lane on the property that must be paved. PAVED?! the antichrist to gardeners.

The trashy little secret is that we do park in this courtyard and drive all over it…. storing trucks overnight etc. I’m telling you this turf is tough. img_8402

Thus after some major whining and flopping around, we’ve decided to take on the challenge of trying to abide by city’s needs while being green and staying beautiful in the process. We know the city also wants to encourage new thinking in terms of parking surface solutions, run off containment, heat reduction and tree health (note the heritage pecan at our fence line).

BRS will try and update our field notes here as we navigate the halls of our great city to find a kinder gentler alternative to paving the playgrounds of our scantily clad brothers and sisters, puppies, butterflies, bees and flowers.

Olivier Filippi vs. Home Depot – Round 1

We just finished up our fall planting here at BRS for clients and also for my San Gabriel and Vance garden.   I always feel like such a crotchety old lady with my preference for only planting in the fall. Of course, we plant in the spring as well. But it does always feel odd to do stuff for clients that I hesitate to do for myself… but in the end, it is just a plant.


One thing that I do stand firm on, is laying out my own planting schemes. I’m such a stickler for plant placement that I left my 3 week old bambino with his daddy to come and lay out a client’s garden this spring.  Maybe not the best idea to engage in 95 degree weather client relations on 4 hours of sleep per night, but, you know.  We laid out the garden on a Thursday and began to plant on Friday.  When we returned the next Monday,  there were mysterious extra plants from Home Depot placed between our plants- which was puzzling and unfortunately,  really annoying.  I asked the homeowner with as much patience as I could muster (let’s hear it for Botox) what’s the story?  And they told me that the plants were just so much bigger at the Home Depot so why didn’t we use them along side of the nursery grown ones that were the same pot sized but smaller plants?


The frustration melted away.  You know that is actually a good question, and we actually have a really good answer for it, not that I had the bandwidth to explain it that day.  We put the extra Home Depot plants in and 3 weeks later when several of them had expired we helped pull them back out.   We knew in our guts why those plants had less of a chance of survival.


But I will say that the person who really made the point crystal clear, such that you could explain it to clients, was the slyly sexy nursery owner Olivier Filippi who’s nursery and garden we visited outside of Montpeillier earlier this spring.

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The gardens are handsome too.

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Olivier is a highly respected plantsman, who with his wife,  travels the world to research the propagation of drought tolerant plants.  He’s written a bible called The Dry Gardening Handbook that I’d highly recommend.  Anyhoo- handsome Olivier has pioneered the use of a new type of grow pot that is long and skinny so that the roots of drought tolerant seedlings can grow properly.

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His proven theory is to sell drought tolerant plants that have a root structure that is 3x the size of the plant above ground. This he deems a healthy plant that is most likely to survive outside of nursery conditions.  To engineer this, he encourages the root growth by heavily pruning the plant for a couple of years in it’s long grow pot.  The long pot allows the proper root growth of the 2 types of roots drought tolerant plants utilize. These plants first grow a long tap root to go for water deep in the ground.  Then the plant grows side and surface(ish) roots to capture surface water.  In the wheelbarrow behind him is how a taproot grows in on itself when pot bound.  Plants that don’t have their taproot will not thrive.


And here’s the part that made me feel better, these plants generally grow their tap roots in the winter because that is when it rains and also when their above ground growth is slow allowing the root to go for it.  And if they live through the first summer, they will begin to put out their side roots. And if they live through the second summer, the plants are established.

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A newly planted area – note the water wells.

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The first summer, Olivier supplements his plants with water in a tough love fashion waiting for them to wilt several days before finally giving them water and then he doesn’t water them again. Ever. If the plants die, they weren’t meant to live there. After all, it’s just a plant.

Ladies and Gentlemen, start your clippers.

Where has everybody been? Here at Big Red Sun, we’ve been working towards our PhD in City of Austin building codes. It’s scintillating. But somehow, I made time to make a last “pre-baby” run to Provence to mainline some contemporary garden design. We signed up for an uppity garden tour led by Mediterranean garden scholar and author Louisa Jones. Poor John Spong had no idea what he was in for.


There is oodles to tell- but i think the main take-away is clip your Mediterranean plants to show them your love. Nicole de Vesian, the mother of this style of provencal gardening, began dispersing it via her acolytes- most notably Marc Nucera. Every time I had encountered Nucera’s name, he was always described as a sculptor but/and he is also always described as the guy who clipped trees in these amazing shapes. Beautiful yes. Art? Sculptor? maybe not.


Mas Benoit, Nucera’s work with Idoux


Nucera’s work at Vesian’s La Louve But then we visited a not very well known garden, “Mas Benoit” by another Vesian acolyte Alain David Idoux. On the bus (yep, a bus?!) Louisa explained that Idoux was interested in geometry, the property owners collected contemporary art and greatly admired the artist Richard Long and ” american land artists”. Honestly- this sounded like the path to garden underwhelment or embarrassment- whichever is worse. But oh how wrong. How very very wrong. I have to admit- it was the first time I could conceive of a garden as a successful sculptural installation. The garden was really intense- I think because the intent of the designer was so clear. He was speaking clearly but in a most spare way, working in a truly minimalist vernacular, speaking in a quiet but huge way. I have never experienced anything like it- and clearly I really don’t have a good way to explain as evidenced by the sentence above OR anyway to show it from the pictures- which may actually be the key to it’s success? This man was not designing for a magazine photo- you need to be in this installation. The most I can muster about it’s success may be that it’s elements of construction are all extremely of the earth. There is no false note here. One of the first things you experience walking up to the farm house is this ante space. It features 2 trees in the yard and this broken vista through the clipped oaks to the back mountains. A bit later, one comes across a lavender planting- a wedge shape that acts as a kinetic sculpture as you walk along it’s length. The views open in relation to the sculpted tree in the field. The field relates to the agrarian nature of the region. This is all neat, but I didn’t really “see” it yet.


Up by the farm house, the planting design is luscious but quite spare even severe. (although later in the year i do believe they let the sage and lavender bloom so…voila)


A lawn lays in front of the house, the perimeters all touched by the clippers. Each tree sculpted over the years.


There is no path to lead you- but you know where you want to go- towards a subtle opening to the grass garden, an allée of olives- and towards the mountains.


The contrast of the grasses – which are to show in late summer are lovely with the clipped. As you enter the allée –it all falls into place. Everything you have seen before and what you will see after as you explore the garden. A large clearing is revealed and with in — sculpture trees. There, I said it. Yes, the trees were sculpture. they took my breath away. they are nothing. but… it made my heart ache.


And to the right another clearing and after, a meadow. And with in the clearing- the aforementioned homage to Mr. Long. And what do you know- did it rise above Richard Long or Robert Smithson? I’m not sure- but “i know it when i see it”, and this is art.


The rest of the garden humbly meanders along. There is no path to guide you. See a meadow and a crude bench from which one overlooks the meadow to the spiral.


Some rocks are lined up against the wild part of the garden to delineate. But now everywhere you looked- you saw the components of the garden differently. It’s hard to explain- but the trees, the clippings, the stones placed- all had a character. Not character. A character. They were individuals now. It was an odd awakening.


Walk along these rocks at the perimeter of the garden- come to the end and encounter a twisted olive- not to mention a massive oak that has been trimmed to guard the pool. (These Provençals think of pools as a necessary evil and tuck them away like a mistress perhaps?)


The owners keep the garden as Mr. Idoux intended- (He died prematurely and Mr. Nucera continues the garden) A full time gardener and his family live on the property and the owners visit often. The group appreciated the garden but didn’t love it. They thought it lacked soul, maybe wasn’t a “garden”. And perhaps they are right. There are no concessions to conventional needs (except that pool) but there are shady nooks, lawns, vistas, heart calming vistas in amongst the art- the garden makes you be in the land. not on the land. I have an urge to sum it up here- but I think that’s precisely not the point. more soon! xojb