the natives are nice once you get to know them


So last year, remember, we were beginning on a garden for a client who is extremely knowledgable about native plants-past president of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, some sort of secondary degree in garden healing and has a few gardens around the nation. The neighborhood had been hit by not one but 2 tornadoes in the last 2 years and her front garden had gone from shade to sun and it was time for an overhaul. She keenly wanted to prove that one could use Texas native plants in a formal garden vocabulary. And she wanted people to get the design immediately. She is also a friend and lived 2 doors down from me and our temporary office- so we had plenty of reasons and time to fret about the design.

You know I don’t have the best relationship with native plants, so she sent me out to Native Texas Nursery to scout around for loot. It’s a design challenge because as you know as you cruise green house after green house out there there are many different types of plants that seem to have all the exact same leaf shapes and texture. And to add to the challenge, the client wasn’t keen on cactus saying: It’s hard to pay for things I rip out of the ground in the ranch- which is indeed an excellent point. But to me, cactus was the only way I could really throw in some evergreen structure and of course some differently shaped leaves and plants. We cajoled her into trying these beautiful blue agave. She had already started the yaupon hedge outlining the beds- I wrassled together a blue and yellow theme and began to take a whack at it. We were all too scared to move the beautiful sagos that were in an awkward position and of course not native- but prehistoric sometimes takes precedence. So we sketched in these super tall dishes to counter balance them. Which they almost did.

side with dishes.jpg

We added some lovely Vitex specimens and esperanzas and a bevy of sages, germanders, snuck in a plumbago, found some sages in her back yard that we were sure would croak because we pulled them up in July – but what the hell – popped them in the ground. I confess i’m enamored with our idea of planting the agave parryi like bedding plants with some knock out roses behind. (she threw me a bone bless her when i told her that we actually did purchase them at Native Texas Nursery).


The back yard we kept more lush- it is under full live oak shade- so all oak leaf hydrangeas, mock orange, obedient plant, native ferns, some transplanted yaupons from the front beds (boy did they sulk), some manfredas, beds of spider lilies for old school charm, turks cap, honeysuckle and lantana here and there. Mostly going for a white and pink palette to match the house and light up the shade. She already had spectacular evergreen wisteria and some specimen beauty berries which was a lovely start.


As the summer wore one, I was still trying to cajole her into some more meaty cactus here and there and a yucca collection in the corner yard. But it was getting to be July and planting time was O V E R. We came back in late fall and sprinkled some wine cup seeds in front by the datura. But jeese- these natives are some scrawny ass scraggly plants when you first put them in the ground and it was only mildly satisfying when we pulled out. Of course- she could see what it would look like because she is so conversant in the palette and seemed quite satisfied.

She doesn’t keep a gardner per se, a fact that worried me- but she has no lawn and these plants are tough right? Of course I drove by everyday on the way home and the garden was looking quelle festive- all happy yellow bells. But we had a drama winter for us- and when we came back in early March to do the winter clean up – dios mio. I was a sad mama. Talk about scraggly ass. She of course was just fine about it all- Julie the soils not warm yet- which is hard to remember when it’s 90 degrees out. I had low hopes that these little plants had grown at all and i could tell a few had just up and croaked.


Regardless, it was clear that we needed some more evergreen structure to keep the front garden relevant in the winter- we also had moved those giant sagos leaving a big hole in the garden. So we’ve begun round 2 of plantings. And several weeks later when we came to install, we saw that indeed most of the plants were quite busy over the winter – the esperanza and passion vine are super slow coming back but everyone else seemed to be well. Until I tried to move a few to put in my new additions. It’s really a one shot deal once you get these babies in the ground right? So i killed a blue sage bush and a germander bush by transplanting them trying to make room for my new sotol and to reward the little agave mediopicta that made it through the winter in a dish by putting her in the ground. I added some Jerusalem sage, some majestic sage and man whatever those blue sages were that we just tossed in there from the back went nuts and are now stupendous. We asked kindly if we might put some cold hardy cactus in the dishes so they’d have some meat in them during the winter and she acquiesced. By the time we had found and planted all the new babies, last years were beginning to put on their show. So finally, i’m feeling much more proud of this native garden.



Probably more importantly, her ulterior motive SO worked on me. I’m planning a garden out in Deerland, Westlake and I’m all over it. I heard myself saying to the new client (who has moved here from Greenwich) the thing is with these types of plants is…. Well truth be told I’m not wanting to use them in the formal garden way, but rather a la Mr. Oudouf. …whom we think is a hero. I’m feeling lots o coneflowers next year.



Note Justin last spring at the high line with planting designs by Mr. Oudolf. We’ll see how the client digs the concept….wish us luck….

i’ll keep you updated on the native wonderland. I’m a bit obsessed with it. xojb