Garden retreat under the oaks in San Antonio

May 24, 2019

An invitation to tea — the real deal, with scones, clotted cream, cucumber sandwiches, lemon tarts, and champagne — was treat enough to entice me to the San Antonio home of two sisters I’ve gotten to know through a friendship with their mother. But when I arrived at their house, I realized another treat was in store: a lovely garden designed for relaxation and decked out for company.

Let’s tour! The large backyard was just lawn, live oaks, and nandina when they bought the house in 2012. They shrank the lawn — still plenty big for fun and games or tea parties — to the center of the yard and dug gently curved, generously proportioned garden beds all along the perimeter. In one corner, an inviting hammock stretches between two trees…

…and a metal kangaroo peers out from a patch of silver ponyfoot.

Looking back toward the house, a split-level 1962 ranch, you see a small patio with black rocking chairs and robin’s egg blue umbrella, a pretty yet sophisticated color scheme repeated throughout the garden.

The patio and garden beds are laid with coarse, tan gravel edged with old bricks that the sisters unearthed throughout the yard. It’s amazing how many bricks they turned up, enough to edge and lay narrow paths throughout the garden. Notice the charming tree-stump table.

Along the side fence, a simple trellis of black-painted iron pipe supports a young Lady Banks rose, positioned to screen a neighbor’s shed. Across the top bar, a curved section of stiff wire gives the rose something to clamber on. In the foreground, a swath of grassy bicolor iris takes root.

Several features of this garden really appeal to me: 1) the openness of the plantings, with breathing room around paths and plants, which I imagine prevents the claustrophobic vibe I often get from my own densely planted garden in the sticky heat of late summer; 2) the seamless transition between path paving and gravel-mulched planting areas, with the gravel acting like a mat for a piece of art, only with plants; and 3) the creative use of recycled or utilitarian objects in the garden.

For an example of the latter, see the photo above. The sisters turned clay chimney flue pipes from a local building supply store — “way cheaper than pots,” they say — into lush planters that screen the A/C from view. Such a clever idea.

This may be my favorite view in the garden. It’s only a side path, you might say. But look how well it’s executed: a curving path of limestone pieces set in a wide bed of coarse gravel (room to breathe!) leading the eye to sky-blue chairs and a focal point of antique doors in the distance; a cascading tumble of artfully pruned gray leaf cotoneaster (Cotoneaster glaucophyllus) sparkling with tiny white flowers, which follows the curve of the path; and a sextet of bronze pots, identically planted, pulling double-duty as an unobtrusive safeguard along the edge of an elevated patio. Perfection!

Look up (or turn your camera vertically), and you see the sinuous trunks of Texas persimmon and live oaks that echo the hue of the pots and cotoneaster — continuing the color scheme of black, robin’s egg blue, and of course green.

The main patio (goodbye, huge swath of thirsty grass!) is built around an in-ground fire pit and offers multiple seating options: two black Adirondacks by the fire pit, a bench swing hanging from a tree, and blue Adirondacks facing the lawn, backed by a nicely pruned vitex mulched with river rock in a green pot. The swinging bench once belonged to their grandparents, giving it sentimental value.

The wonderful arched screen doors “came from an old grocery store in some random town. Our grandmother and her best friend used to drive around Texas looking for nifty stuff and picked them up without having a plan for them. They were in storage for probably 50 years before we found the right spot!” Indeed, they make a perfect focal point for this spot and distract the eye from jumping over the fence into the neighbor’s yard.

Blue Adirondacks and potted vitex

A side-yard path of flagstone and recycled bricks leads past more chimney flue planters, red yucca, and rosemary. Note the big drum fan pointed at the fire pit patio. It made a warm, humid day feel much cooler and kept mosquitoes at bay. As soon as I got home I went online and bought outdoor fans for our deck and upper patio, bringing my outdoor fan total to three. (I won’t even try to count all the indoor fans we have. I’m a fan fan.)

The fire pit patio overlooks a still-large lawn with deep, deep borders of waterwise plants planted en masse for impact and easier care: bamboo muhly, rosemary, Mexican oregano, salvia, pittosporum, and more. The gray mounds may be santolina? A vitex marks the entrance to a nearly hidden path…

…leading to a blue-green pot fountain with concentric rings of brick paving rippling outward. Giant alliums — the sisters were surprised to see them grow so tall — tower giraffe-like behind the fountain.

Fountain and paving detail

The alliums were nearly 6 feet tall!

I never see alliums like these in central Texas (perhaps our unrelenting heat and humidity trouble them?), so I had to gawk.

A romantic canopy of netting, hung from a tree and staked to the lawn, made a gauzy pavilion for a table of appetizers. What a lovely set-up to make guests feel special.

Vitex flowers

Now let’s tour the front garden, taking a serpentine flagstone path that leads from the fenced back yard to the front lawn.

The design concept echoes that of the back garden: shrink the lawn by at least half and surround it with deep, gravel-mulched beds of waterwise plants. It makes for an appealing curbside view, with plenty of green lawn remaining to offset the tans and sparser plantings of the surrounding beds. This tan granite gravel is easy on the eyes, too, not glaring like whiter limestone gravel and not as prone to weeds or compaction as decomposed granite.

A diagonal view from the street shows how much lawn they’ve removed over the years, replacing it with deep planting beds under the oaks. Over the past 6 years, they’ve expanded their beds multiple times to take advantage of coupons/rebates offered by SAWS for waterwise landscaping.

I love this homemade bench near the front door, made of two flue pipes and painted boards.

The house needed a lot of updates when they bought it, including a cramped and unwelcoming front walk. The original builder-grade walk made a sharp turn on a fairly steep slope to cut back to the driveway at the base of the porch, between the flue pipe planters and oaks. They jackhammered that out and poured a new concrete walk in a gently curving arc that starts midway along the driveway, leading visitors into the garden before delivering them to the front door.

Flue pipe planters elevate a trio of bicolor iris, with enough height to soften a tall foundation. The sisters replaced the generic porch railing with a new design of wavy rails set within a simple black frame. With front doors painted robin’s egg blue, that wonderful color scheme is set right at the front door.

My thanks to the sisters, who wish to remain anonymous, and their mother, who assisted with the garden design and the tea, for a truly lovely afternoon!

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