A quick Austin roadtrip, and what did I see? Too much for one post, or even ten. Here’s a broadbrush of my first summer drive between the desert and the green world Austin rests in.

The miles grinded, as I pondered how landscapes could reflect such changes, though abstracting that into a smaller space is much design & intellect. I grouped my stops into how arid each is (& ecoregion), then average yearly rainfall and plant forms – even samples of how one ecoregion can look different when moisture or soils vary. Climate info sources – here and here.

Photos are from 7/29/2015; musical pairing from Jon Dee Graham is here


Arid (Chihuahuan Desert)

Dropping 2000′ in elevation across 4+ hours in the above photos, the humidity started to go up; average rainfall waited to about the Pecos River, except what the mountains did further west.

Even the landforms changed, and soils went from limestone to blow sand to granite, then back to clay and limestone.


Semi-Arid (Southwest Plateaus and Plains Steppe)

Yet, a few still recite the mantra, “plants don’t know boundaries”.

Oh yes they do, and we know by them, how they grow, and climate data. Gradual changes, then abrupt changes and many plants, insects, etc change over. Then more subtle changes, then something more abrupt. Repeat. Celebrate.

Out of semi-arid and short grasses, into a greener and even more humid world.


Sub-Humid (Texas Hill Country)

One might see “Half Pint” of Little House fame running through the Harper scene. How about in Ozona or especially Fabens? Not so much.

That trip’s diversions took less time than it would have taken to get pics of the throngs in skinny jeans, beards, glasses, etc. in just 5 blocks of Austin :-) But beyond the ecoregions, do not fret – there’s still more than plenty of what’s original – a live show awaited, just up South Congress.


What are the differences you see in my drive? Would you divide it differently?

Surprise, Surprise! Extreme Shrub Shaping

I’ve seen these Texas Sage / Leucophyllum spp. for several years, and since I’ve lived blocks away for over 2 years, they’ve done this all three monsoon seasons.

Intense flowering in spite of all the things that normally cause problems. A happy exception in the tightest, most undersized-for-a-large-plant space one can imagine – things other informed horticulturists and I educate against, because we see countless examples as proof.


blows my mind every summer

Exceptions aren’t rules.

Regardless of bodacious blooms, larger shrubs can only be kept smaller so long. Plus, if they’re going to prune something tight or shape it, at least it should be done right: learn first.

Hint: lifting up bottoms of shrubs usually fails.

Failure includes an entire plant’s lower parts dying, then premature death for the plant…and no more flowering! You can read more online, or just watch it happen somewhere near you.



This is a higher road for that Texas Ranger, though.


ahhh…thoughtful placement (room), letting the shrubs do their thing


By the way, a benchmark of dos and don’ts for desert southwest shrub pruning is found – here

Garden Break on the Sultry Side

Either I forgot four summers living in Alabama as a kid, it’s worse in central Texas, or I’m spoiled living around the high desert for 23 years.

My camera fogged up once I stepped outside the “Imperial Mansion” that was lodging in east Austin. Their sultry air is intense, especially in the morning. So bad, Austinites like to invoke “Houston” in comparisons.

Photos from about 8/1/2015 –


A business park on the SW fringes of Austin:

not bad desert willows

not-bad-desert willows, so far from the desert


the client and designer had fun with this great design


not desert skies, but that green has a price

Plus, I get to go back to the desert when done with my visit; the 70-110 people every day who move to Austin don’t. They park on I-35 to and from work.

I get to park on I-10, spending 2 hours to run a couple errands 5 miles away, and 3000’+ closer to the sun’s surface. When I should just stay in my office, and use mail-order. Yipee ki yay, vaquero!


The Bevo Belo Center landscape at UT:


3 years, it’s even better…mesquite bosque filling in, plants not cupcakes

I was visiting the first year this landscape was installed, in late August for this interview. (I’m not even that mellow, the excellent host did it :-)


Buttonbush (had to look it up), reeds, and a water feature

Modern, yet soft. Do visit if you’re nearby. I might post more on what I saw that day…I feel better that even C. Ten Eyck / Co. deal with the same jive as mortals like this LA. Yet mostly good.


and 13 million years ago …


I often use both Yucca pallida and Anisacanthus quadrifidus, but together they’re even better

On to a truly world-class garden like some I know – design and thought meet realism and potential. With few exceptions, but that’s another post.

You’ll notice the murky skies cleared, as the front that sagged in the day before, died and vanished.


The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center:

WFCtr-SummerDormant Parth

summer dormancy I’m used to…Woodbine turning in August not so much

WFCtr-Chairs Parth

even the furnishings are primo, and pair well in the setting

People living in Austin must be really tough: outdoor seating everywhere and most was being used. Not at the Wildflower Center, though.

To this LA, that beats the opposite attitude of agoraphobia – vacant dining patios unless a trendy spot, or if not between 78 and 82F, humidity and wind just so.

Evident were a number of outdoor misting systems in ATX, quite effective in the dry west but do little to nothing for their patios, but some places attempt them anyway.


mistflowers, mariposas


the hardscape and planting design are almost perfect


also good and simple…common used uncommonly…and real prairie


imagine working out here, but in a better climate?


or imagine a great climate with this, instead of horticultural hording


work that texture, work it! (said like Isaac Mizrahi)


this was good in the spring, better now

Combine a wet year-to-date where the average is already moist at 30″+ / year, I can see why plants look so happy here, the same more lean where I live. After dark, the afternoon’s fade of humidity returns, and a woodsy scent appears – the quality is like mesquite and oak, both common native genera in the area.

Like a distant BBQ, or maybe it is?


Blackfoot Daisy, but industrial – ni-iii-ce

When the Chihuahuan Desert gets our worst heat, it’s June. The spring winds go away, and there’s no smell. None. Like taking a fresh loaf of bread out of the oven, dry and clean but without the smell.

WFCtr-SummerDormant Flwrs

embracing dormancy is more graceful than fighting it

WFCtr-SummerDormant Nasella

grace, class…bones…soft / sharp

Never mind June, this year it’s August. While not obscenely hot, every place from ABQ south to El Paso had 100-ish all week, setting records, plus 50-60F+ dewpoints. I have a swamp cooler, so at 45 it starts working poorly and by 55 it barely does much. It’s not even last August, when I was gloating. Glad my office has real AC.

Anyway, Indio was 115F for a high and 93 for a low; Yuma was 110F and a 69 dewpoint…a 118 heat index. The low desert and Austin are our Houstons :-)

Have you been to a great garden where you live? Even in the “worst” time of the year?

I recommend it…that shows how solid a garden’s design is.

Purple Rain, Warm August Night

Proof positive not only “northern and central New Mexico” get purple rain. What an incredible decompression my latest drive to Marfa was, once off I-10. Photos from below Valentine TX, 8/10/2015 –


distant storms, dry on US-90


Texas…far west Texas


the state grass, Bouteloua curtipendula

Chihuahuan desert grassland in one of its many forms. Too bad the Verbena bipinnitifida in rich, purple bloom by my eyes, was washed out in the photo, no matter what I did. Trust me.


restful is my room at the Hotel Paisano…airbnb fail for tonight, at least


and I got this room

A neighbor 10+ years ago was OK and had a Mustang with the front plate saying “Live Fast, James Dean” on it. I’ve never forgotten about that plate, or how few live fast and live.

His wife and cottonwood tree were not OK. The canyon winds obliterated that valley tree, and his wife must have disliked the place. Try being real, and having a real garden…that’s how one can be civil in an uncivil place :-)


a great end to a stressful day, a drink out in the courtyard

Everything here is like where I lived, except it gets 2x the rain. Never mind, Marfa mornings are cooler yet. I’m the place with 61F :-)

Current-EP Region_2015-08-11

It’s so mellow here Mon – Wed., like purple is.

Yuccas and Rock

After 23 years living in the desert southwest, if a person despises rough terrain and spiky plants, they may wish to move along.

After all, that’s what endures here –


a yucca, rock for mulch, sideoats for grass

I’ve only grown to embrace, not resist, such challenges as something to inform a simpler, more appealing aesthetic for outdoor living. Regard.


yuccas and rocks…add sotol, damianitas and a live oak clump

If you remember some of my past projects, a trick employed is to plant (2-3) – 15 gallon or 24″ box trees like Quercus fusiformis together in a wide hole, root balls touching. Those and many desert trees grow in clumps in the wild.

So, why not the same look in our built landscapes…without waiting years for that to develop from a single, tiny tree?


even large rocks – limestone boulders

Do you have any stories of landscapes and gardens using common plants, even called weedy, but used well?

Roadtrip! Big Bend Towns

Having lived in the high desert for over two decades, there’s romantic appeal to be surrounded by what’s also termed “high lonesome”, then to travel out into it.

The good, the bad; the feel to the air, the blight many do to the land. Truly, the last frontier.

The few towns in the Big Bend region give context to the miles between and beyond them; I picked even fewer and another place that may as well be a town.

Van Horn TX (4,042′ elev) –

As I write this, our monsoon season is bringing El Paso some soaking rains, then the scent of creosote bush and a warm wind. Quite a contrast from dry May and June of 2014, especially to our east.

Alpine TX (4,475′ elev) –

Sorry Marathon, Marfa, Fort Davis, Sanderson, and Shafter – another time. Even Pinto Canyon Road (I have your number, Gary N.).

Chisos Basin (5,400′ elev)  –

Once again, I’m hearing many of those thrashers around where I live and on the trails. Quite a unique call!

Lobo TX (4,010′ elev) –


quite different without the Germans and their hospitality during their periodic film festivals…today, desert grassland reclaiming territory

A soundtrack to read this post by – here.

Roadtrip! Big Bend Plants

From the last post, here are some great plant combos growing on the desert roadsides. I tried to group them by climate zone or elevation, all growing on natural rainfall in their zone.


this Alpine mural is a microcosm of plants I saw on my 5/14 trip

A number of plants were left out, which I had photos of. There were many more common to the southwest, or to certain elevations.

Above 4000′ elev –


One might need to adapt those plants into hotter or cooler locations than where I show them. Most or all don’t have any cute trade names or “designer” prices, but a number are worth the effort to find at those few great nurseries out there.

In fact, more than one are not that available. Even if you have to buy them in seed form, or collect from seed when ripe.

Below 4000′ elev –


Enjoy these arid finds, but consider the groupings they make or could make – aesthetic and cultural.

See any you wish to try?