Streetside gardens, colorful murals on Austin’s South Congress Ave

January 12, 2019

South Congress Avenue, SoCo, a street of eclectic shops and restaurants just south of downtown that epitomizes “weird,” welcoming Austin and converts tourists into residents. Fewer and fewer of those shops remain now that Austin has grown so expensive, but it’s still a playful, appealing, and increasingly modern strip, especially for those who enjoy urban landscape design. I recently spent a couple of hours on SoCo shopping and exploring with my daughter, and photographing the gardens and murals that delighted us.

This shady strip near Perla’s is brightened by yellow-flowering giant ligularia, aka leopard plant, its round, glossy leaves adding reflected light. Surprisingly, ‘Green Goblet’ agave and palms coexist happily, despite their liking for drier soil. Seeing how well leopard plant does in winter and even in a deer-ridden neighborhood like mine has convinced me to add it to my own shady garden next spring.

Abandoned scooters are increasingly frequent, if unwelcome, additions to Austin’s urban landscaping.

Moving on…

Ah, beautiful, trendy Hotel San Jose, godmother of the past two decades of revival of South Congress Avenue. This is the entry courtyard.

It’s worth a wider shot as well. We popped into the lobby to check out the gift shop offerings…

…and took a peek at the open-to-the-public bar patio, quiet on this early Tuesday afternoon.

Around a small swimming pool, stripe-cushioned, board-formed concrete benches and white butterfly chairs are backed by a horizontal slat fence and feathery bamboo screen. Orange tiles outline the blue water of the pool.

This is dreamy: board-formed concrete and wood-slat bench, French-blue-striped cushions, and orange and watery-blue pillows. A rusty steel planter wedged between concrete walls contains a curly-stemmed planting of candelilla (Euphorbia antisyphilitica), aka slipper plant, which is also on my wish list for spring since I’ve learned that it is hardy to 10F. It requires very little water, so excellent drainage and a light hand with irrigation is a must.

Along the street outside the hotel, a narrow strip is cheery with annual pansies, trimmed-back Mexican feathergrass, and…is that toothy-leaved dandelion??

A slightly wider strip is planted more daringly with agave and spineless prickly pear.

Pruned up like a small tree, this prickly pear shows off elongated, horizontally held pads. Anyone know who’s doing the maintenance on this landscaping? It’s very nicely done.

Another dreamy glimpse of a courtyard at Hotel San Jose. I didn’t enter this fig ivy-cloaked gate and steel arbor but just admired the view from the sidewalk: sand- and rose-colored bricks, a semicircle step of cut limestone, decomposed-granite path, and private spaces enclosed with cedar slat fencing. A leaning-Tower-of-Pisa potted succulent draws the eye just inside the gate.

A wider view

Peering through a slatted fence, I glimpsed this serene, green space available to hotel guests. A faux-bois table with curved benches anchors a circular brick patio. A wooden picnic table beckons farther along the path. Low boxwood hedges define intimate entry gardens to the rooms.

Heading south from Hotel San Jose, we stopped to admire the rustic Oak Garden music venue at Guero’s, still decorated for the holidays with oversized red and green Christmas lights.

The most perfect succulent planter ever greeted us in front of one of the stores along South Congress. A UFO saucer ship of a concrete planter holds an alien crested succulent — take me to your leader — in hues of lilac, powder blue, and sea green. Pristine pea gravel mulches the pot and the surrounding planter bed. Shazam!

Walking north on the other side of the street, we admired the covered entrance at South Congress Hotel. Rebar trellising makes an airy screen for vines while offering a glimpse of a steel-mesh-enclosed staircase and courtyard garden.

Along the street, diagonal slabs of concrete visually widen a skinny planting bed, where white-trunked Texas persimmons stand out against a terracotta-colored breeze block wall. Tufts of Mexican feathergrass make a tawny groundcover.

A wider view. Christine Ten Eyck, my first Garden Spark speaker of 2019, designed the landscaping at South Congress Hotel using plants native to Texas.

Ducking into a courtyard garden we found a slab-style fountain and umbrella-shaded seating.

A possumhaw holly shows off red berries for passing mockingbirds and cedar waxwings, paired with palmetto and bigfoot water clover. These are all Texas natives that appreciate extra moisture and would work for a rain garden.

We passed a vertical wall planting of purple heart, silver ponyfoot, and other trailing plants. It’s a little the worse for winter wear but no doubt perks up in spring.

The new Kendra Scott flagship store drew us inside and then outside to admire the landscaping. Steel planters for ligularia, agave, purple heart, and feathergrass surround a pillow-benched front porch.

Those ligularia are going to get big.

The side-yard planting continues with interesting concrete circles and planters studded with ‘Green Goblet’ agave, backed by a mural of gems and an upbeat message.

Anything is possible in ATX – ATX being an abbreviation for Austin, Texas, of course.

The circle patios look like small stages. I wonder if they’re for access for selfie shots in front of the mural.

At a pretty side entrance a valet was stationed outside, valet parking being a perk of the new store. There’s also a bakery, and the jewelry store is now selling home goods too.

The porch view from indoors

A few doors down, the TOMS store also has a patio to enjoy, this one decorated with colorful Adirondacks and a mural expressing the store’s mission of giving.

A more playful message appears in this Willie for President mural. WWWD?

I love this tongue-in-cheek mural of grackles — Austin’s ubiquitous birds of much screeching and pooping on cars — wearing luche libre masks like Mexican wrestlers wear, painted on an electrical box. Hilarious! The artist is Christy Stallop.

Masked birds appear on all sides of the metal box, adding cheeky side-eye to the street.

As the iconic (and dare I say phallic?) sign at Austin Motel reminds us, Let Love In.

There are so many reasons to enjoy South Congress, including this graffiti mural on the side of Jo’s Coffee, probably the most photographed spot in Austin. i love you so much. Kind of says it all, Austin.

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