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Garden Bits / Main Page / Garden Index

Garden Overview

by Valerie (June 4, 2003)
1. front plantings 1. front plantings 2. sidewalk border 2. sidewalk border 3. west side garden 4. east side garden 5. front island garden 6. fern garden 7. garage side garden 8. vine garden 9. wildflower garden 10. cactus bed 11. back corner garden 12. pond garden 13. oak garden big pond compost bins and garden front lawn area west lawn area front lawn area front shaded lawn area back lawn area layout of our yard and gardens The plan at left is the way our yard looks as of this writing. It covers about 1/3 of an acre, with a slight downhill grade from the northwest corner to the southeast. We have lived here for 17 years and created the gardens and plantings gradually. The sizes of the gardens actually haven't changed a whole lot recently because my husband prefers to have lawn mowing as one of his routine exercises, so we can have no more net loss of grass in favor of garden area. We are certainly not planning on eliminating any of the gardens we worked so hard to create, so the overall layout of our yard will probably not change substantially any time soon. However, the biological community is constantly changing within the established framework.

In general, our yard has heavy clay soil and lots of barely subterranean rocks. When digging a hole for a plant, it is almost inevitable that a rock or two must be removed. Many of the borders around our gardens contain rocks dug up within the beds. The size of some of the boulders we have excavated makes them suitable as garden seats and we've sometimes adjusted the boundaries of gardens to accomodate an immovable stone. We are gradually improving the soil by adding compost from our bins to the gardens and by mulching leaves and grass in the lawn.

The descriptions of the various areas can be accessed by clicking on the various places on the map itself or by reading straight down the page and using the numbers and descriptions to relate the text to the map. There is also an accompanying photo gallery.

1. (front plantings) The front of our yard has the highest elevation and is also the sunniest area. When we first moved in, nothing would grow here and there were scorpions living under a couple of rocks. After a short time, a couple of weeds and Johnson grass started to grow, but we wanted a nicer facade to our house. The temperature in this section, between the road, driveway and sidewalk, can soar during the summer so plants need to be very drought and heat tolerant. This is xeriscaping at its most fundamental. We created several small rings of rocks and planted yuccas, spineless prickly pear cactus, and Texas silverleaf shrubs. We optimistically added some grass between these but it barely survives.

Over the years, cedar elm trees have sprouted in much of the area due to a mature tree a couple yards over which produces large quantities of fertile seeds. Allowing some of these seedlings to grow has resulted in the trees that now occupy the rock rings along with the desert plants. One tree happens to be a pecan, probably planted by squirrels, and it is also doing well but, like the elms, is growing very slowly. In spite of the small trees, this area still remains dry and sun-drenched.

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2. (sidewalk borders) The area right along the other side of concrete sidewalk is not much better in terms of heat and drought. Its slight advantage is that the pavement is only on one side and that I tend to water it a little. This garden area is delineated from the lawn by natural rocks partly buried to create the border.

On each side of the driveway is a larger section, triangular in form. These are xeriscape gardens containing a variety of cactuses and succulents. There is a retama tree in the center of each triangle. After a few years, the success of our plantings was evident as the agaves, sedum, and cactus overgrew the edges of the garden and the drive. The only plants that remained a reasonable size were a pair of Texas silverleaf shrubs planted at each corner where the drive meets the sidewalk and rigorously pruned at least twice a year. The retama trees have such fine foliage that they cast only a minimum of shade so the desert area continues to remain just that. These triangular gardens are also invaded by elm tree saplings, ironweed, and several other wildflowers. Being dry, they are favorite haunts of anoles, geckos, and many types of insects.

The remainder of the border along the sidewalk is dominated by a long row of dwarf Chinese holly. I had chosen these plants because of their small size, hardiness, bargain price, and their beautiful red berries. After about a decade, the plants have never produced more than a couple berries, although many of them had berries when I bought them. I suspect they are all female. Aside from that small disappointment, the plants have done admirably and now form an 18 inch high irregular hedge of bright green glossy leaves. They used to get sunburned in the hottest parts of the summer, but as they got older this stopped happening. Within the border of these narrow edge gardens, there is a bit of space for other plants. Several trees have gained a foothold and there are also both purple and yellow lantana that flower periodically during the summer. Other plants that have survived in this area are flame acanthus, sedum, and various annual wildflowers.

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3. (west side garden) Almost every book written about garden design discourages the creation of long, narrow gardens. Supposedly they are difficult to water because a sprinkler cannot be set out in the middle. When I put in this long border garden between our lawn and our neighbor's, I intended to have a manageable space that I could keep weeded and water easily with a hose. At about 3 feet wide, this garden has been very easy to maintain. The outer border consists of large, rectangular landscape rocks, sunk into the ground enough that they can be stepped on without being dislodged. The inner border is made of natural rocks and is more irregular. Before adding the rock border, we had actually planted some arbor vitae evergreens and some common small shrubs in a row. However, there was plenty of space to fill in once the garden bed was created.

This garden has the most variation of any single continuous area within our yard. The front section is dry, sunny, and can support only hardy native plants like flame acanthus, agarita and Engelmann daisy, although I managed to keep some jimsonweed thriving for several years. The middle part of this garden has a rather favorable combination of adequate sun and rather poor drainage so that things don't dry out too much. A couple of coral trees do very well here, along with goldenrod, primrose jasmine, and bearded iris. The back 20 feet or so has extremely poor drainage and gets very little sun.

From the dry and sunny front section to the back heavily shaded area, I have plenty of room to experiment with various plants. Besides the aforementioned shrubs, there are also numerous trees that have sprouted, including crape myrtle (from a neighbor's seeds), elms and oaks. We also planted a vitex tree, as well as all sorts of other native and exotic plants. The area under the vitex tree is about the only spot suitable for native annual wildflowers like bluebonnets. During the winter it gets plenty of sun so the seedlings get a nice start. By the time the vitex leafs out, the flowers are done for the season and are then overgrown by the perennials.

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4. (east side garden) On a map, the narrow east garden looks like a match for the one on the west side of our yard. It only matches in width and the stone borders. This part of our yard abuts the back of our neighbor's and so there is a wooden privacy fence along it. There is also a mature live oak tree that overhangs the fence and a large portion of our yard.

Only the very front corner of this garden gets much sun. Before the gardens were even created, one of the first things we planted along that fence was a half dozen roses we bought at Wal-Mart. Two of these plants are still alive, and one is thriving. The front corner has been a perfect place to grow goldenrod, sensitive brier, and drought resistant native plants. The middle area contains an eclectic mix from a seedling palm tree to natives like big red sage, an orchid tree and plateau goldeneye. The back section supports only very hardy plants such as velvetleaf, wax mallow, native shrubs and trees, and mondo grass. For some unknown reason, a passionflower vine has taken up residence in this garden, having escaped by underground runner from the vine garden in the back yard, at least 15 feet away.

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5. (front island garden) One of the last gardens to be created, this garden's form was dictated in part by some young trees and in part by the irregular shape of the yard. It used to be a rather sunny location, but the surrounding trees have grown to the point that it gets very little full sun except on late summer afternoons. The border of this garden is made from natural stone. Because of its large size, there are flat stepping stones scattered throughout to aid access to all areas.

The east tip of this garden has a woodland quality and plants like lyreleaf sage, columbines, and various other shade lovers do well. I even transplanted some vines that were growing in the lawn nearby and they didn't seem to mind the move at all. The middle "point" of the garden contains a stand of purple mist flower, while the western side has an overabundance of mountain mint. Other plants doing well in this garden include purple cone flower, rock rose, and fennel. As is the case with several of our gardens, this one tends to be practically covered with live oak leaves each spring and they must be picked out to avoid smothering the smallest plants. This area retains moisture a bit better than many places in our yard and so requires less frequent watering.

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6. (fern garden) Located on the north side of the house, this is our most shaded and poorly drained garden. The predominant plants are a pair of large boxwood shrubs left over from the original builder's landscaping, wood ferns, and English ivy. There is also a large Japanese aucuba (gold dust) plant that likes the location. Other plants are not particularly successful in this area and even liriope grows only feebly. The side of the house next to this garden is stone and geckos can often be found crawling around near the foundation. At night, they climb up the siding of the house to catch bugs by the front light.

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7. (garage side garden) Similar to the fern garden, this area does get a bit more sun, especially in the mornings during summer. There are three inappropriately large shrubs that were planted by the builder (a fourth froze out a couple of years after we moved in) and it is a constant battle to keep them pruned enough that we can use the sidewalk to our front door. The wood ferns and English ivy do well in this section but tend to need more watering. The ivy sometimes partially dies off during hot summers. We have a large potted asparagus fern that sits on a pedestal in this garden. It is quite an attraction for anoles, who tend to lay eggs in the pot.

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8. (vine garden) Our back yard is completely enclosed by privacy fencing and so it is easy to divide our lot into the two separate realms. After putting in the last section of fencing between the front and back yards, that blank wall of some 40 feet was just like a blank slate waiting for an artist. Instead we put metal mesh fencing on it and created a 1-foot deep garden to accommodate vines. The border for this garden is landscape timbers, which are gradually rotting away as carpenter ants and termites take their toll. When first created, the area got a lot of sun because there were no large trees in that area of our yard. Now there are a lot. Some of the vines have solved the shade problem by growing up into the overhanging live oak branches. The major plants in this garden are perennial morning glories, trumpet vine, climbing roses, scarlet clematis, honeysuckle, and passionflowers. There are other smaller vines as well, and I frequently experiment with new plants and seeds. There are even a couple of miniature rose bushes that were planted with the mistaken notion that they might be climbers. They aren't. However, they are so small that they fit in the garden with no problem.

During the summer, the entire fence is covered by a thick blanket composed of various vines all fighting for their place in the little bit of sun that filters through. During the winter, many of the vines die back to the ground, which gives me time to clean off the fencing before the next growing season.

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9. (wildflower garden) This is one of our oldest gardens and its evolution has been very interesting. Larry created it by putting a natural rock border around a dry, sunny area of our yard in which nothing much would grow. The intention was to make a wildflower meadow similar to the vacant lots that still surrounded our property. For the first couple years, it did look beautiful in the spring, with plenty of flowers (especially coreopsis and primrose) and weeds. Then it would die back and just look weedy the rest of the year.

Over the years, we removed unwanted plants and a few of the rocks from just below the surface, added trees, put in a bird bath and a water dish, and divided the garden into two parts. The far east side became a desert plant area and contains two large sotol plants, yuccas, lechuguillas, cactus and a species of giant aloe. The large area of this garden became a catchall for bargain plants from nurseries, seeds of all types, and transplanted natives.

Currently, this garden resembles a small forest, with an ornamental pear tree, three large junipers, a tall palmetto, oaks, and elms. There are still shrubs and wildflowers, but the ones that required full sun have died out, so the mix has changed dramatically. The "dry, sunny" side is no longer sunny but the yuccas and aloes thrive anyway.

Besides some stepping stones, the garden is also littered with numerous decorative rocks from various sources. This garden is currently undergoing a renovation to improve the soil by adding mulch and to clear out a thick layer of fallen leaves.

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10. (cactus bed) Our only raised bed garden, this plot is 4' x 12' and is about 18 inches high. It was originally created as a vegetable garden for Larry, but a termite infestation on that side of the house necessitated some intensive chemical use, after which we decided it would be best to grow non-edible plants. There are metal fence posts pounded into the soil on all four corners so that a tarp can be stretched over the entire garden during freezes, therefore protecting the tender cactus and succulents. The soil in this garden is some of the best in our whole yard because it was filled with a mixture of compost, topsoil and sand bought from a local garden store.

The garden now accommodates over 100 species of cactus and succulents, including small aloes, haworthias, agaves, yuccas, sedums, kalanchoes and euphorbias, as well as seasonally hosting various tiny annual flowers. These are arranged around a number of oddly shaped rocks we found in the area as well as some pretty mineral specimens found in other places. For its size, this garden gets a inordinate amount of attention.

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11. (back corner garden) The name might not be very original, but the acute angle of that corner is a defining feature of this garden. This area is another that has undergone extensive remodelling over the years. It started as a very sunny vegetable garden, but frequently turned into a mud wallow during wet weather as it is the lowest point in our yard. Once trees started to grow (some with a bit of help from us), it was no longer sunny enough for vegetables and we had long since lost interest in growing edible plants due to the constraints of climate and poor soil.

For a brief time, the area became a compost pile or place to dump leaves and other plant debris. By the time I decided to create a more formal garden, the soil was better than in other places within our yard.

After creating a mental plan, I purchased several carloads of the lowest priced paving bricks I could find at Acme Brick and put brick borders around all the beds in the garden as well as creating brick walkways. Although that corner of the yard can become a lake during flash floods, the borders hold the soil in place very well while the paths channel water as if in canals.

The main shade tree in this garden is a mimosa, which doesn't leaf out until late in the spring so the area gets a fair amount of sun during the cooler months. In early spring there are more flowers here than anywhere else in the yard, including baby blue-eyes, columbine, and a small pyracantha. Even in summer, the shade is light and many plants thrive, such as pipevine, ruellia, justicia, and cycads. However, good drainage means that the garden must be watered regularly during droughts.

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12. (pond garden) Our first pond was created about 10 years ago, with the surrounding garden added to complement it. The strange shape of that particular garden came about due to some very large rocks which were unearthed nearby. We also kept the width of the lawn mower in mind when deciding how far a garden should extend.

Paths through this garden are made of flagstone and other flat rocks. The borders of the garden are also natural rock.

The pond is preformed heavy plastic, with a pile of rocks on one side that form a waterfall. A submerged pump circulates the water and an extension cord runs from the house underground to the pump. The details about the pond and its history could take up a whole additional page so only a cursory introduction is given here. One interesting aspect of the pond is that the roots of the surrounding trees have grown into it by slipping under the waterfall and over the lip of the main basin. These draw water out at an amazing rate during hot weather and the pond needs to be added to almost every other day.

There is another water source in the pond garden, consisting of a 2½ inch deep 16 inch plastic dish. This has been secured with rocks and has been kept filled with water for many years, even though it needs refilling frequently during hot weather. Several water-loving plants, like horsetail, arrowroot, and pennywort, grow in both the pond and the dish. The very tip of the garden next to the dish contains numerous wild onion bulbs.

The garden around the pond is very shady and overcrowded with trees, almost all of which were collected as tiny saplings or planted as seeds. These include 3 bald cypress, a chinaberry, an elm, a pecan, and some oaks. The dominant plants in this garden are an imported aggressive pavonia called swamp mallow and a very invasive kind of buddleia. There are numerous other plants as well, with those that live near the back privacy fence receiving almost no sun.

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13. (oak garden) This large garden is located under the two big live oak trees that helped convince us to buy the house. Although there were only a total of 3 trees in the entire yard, the sight of those big oaks was far more inviting than any other place we had seen. The area between the oaks and our property line has always been shady, partly due to a third large oak in our neighbor's yard which blocks the sun in the evening. As it turned out, it was difficult to find things to grow under those trees and the first manifestation of this garden was simply a planting of liriope and vinca, which not only grew, but thrived. We tried grass in the area also, but it didn't do well. We also tried having cable television, but the cable was laid just barely under the soil in this area, stretching from the back corner of our lot to the corner of the house, and my husband managed to cut through it twice in one day while working in the garden. After that, we gave up on the cable.

Since then, I added a border made from short lengths of fence boards tied together with cord and imbedded into the soil between the garden and lawn. I also bought some inexpensive concrete paving stone that resembles brick and created the walkways through the middle.

The liriope continued to spread and eventually created an almost impenetrable mat over the soil, choking out other plants I tried to add. Next to the fence, there were various shrubs and trees making a start, but at least half the garden was unusable. Starting a couple years ago, I began to eliminate the liriope. It took many months of careful pulling and digging to salvage a few existing shrubs and flowers, but the liriope is now transplanted into the lawn next to the back fence, where grass does poorly. I did leave a border of liriope along the lawn area, but used some flexible black plastic divider to keep its invasive rhisomes out of the rest of the garden. We don't mind the liriope escaping into the lawn because it does well there and functions the same as grass.

After removing several large rocks and adding compost to the soil, that garden now has much more variety, including a large beautyberry bush, many native plants and various exotic shade-loving plants. This garden also contains a number of purple plants, one of my few attempts at color coordination. The number of native vines that are now emerging is rather impressive.

There is a water source in this garden, which is a large plastic pot that holds between 5 and 10 gallons. It has a population of snails, microbes, and predatory insect larvae that live in the thick water weeds growing under the water's surface.

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Big Pond   Our latest addition to the water supplies scattered throughout the yard is a 6' x 8' foot pond with a landscape log rim around it. This pond was created several years ago when we made one last attempt at a vegetable garden. While digging out the rocks, we hit bedrock at less than two feet down and decided that the drainage would be quite poor, so we made a pond instead. Unlike our older pond, this one is made using flexible heavy pond liner. To keep flood waters out of the pond and give it more depth, the landscape timbers raise the edge up about 8 inches. For appearance, the timbers and edge of the pond liner are covered with a shell of cedar fence boards.

The water in the pond is about 2 feet deep and there is no circulating pump or filter. Past experience has proven that ponds don't necessarily need these if they are kept in proper balance and we intended to have a full complement of plants.

Besides several species of submerged plants, we have quite a number of floating ones as well. The pond is also stocked with gambusia, or mosquito fish, caught in a local lake. These resemble guppies but survive our winter temperatures. They also keep the water free of mosquitoes. Ever since we installed the big pond, the local toad population has abandoned the smaller one, which they used to use every year for laying eggs. Besides the fish, tadpoles, snails, numerous aquatic insects, and various smaller fauna, there are also scud living in this pond.

All our water supplies in the yard need to have fallen leaves and other tree debris removed regularly, as well as having water added during much of the year. However, the entertainment of watching the attracted wildlife more than makes up for the maintenance.

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compost bins   Built about 10 years ago, the compost bins have been extraordinarily useful for our yard maintenance. Not only do we have a place to put all the weeds, trimmings, and fallen leaves, but the end result is free mulch to add to the gardens. The two bins are made of fence boards and treated lumber. They are each 4' x 4' x 4', with each front being closed off by a pair of slide-in doors that rest one on top of the other. Each door is 1½ feet high. In spite of the handles on the doors gradually breaking off, the ravages of wood-eating insects and rot, and occasional boards coming loose, the bins are holding up very well.

There is a narrow garden surrounding two sides of the bins with a landscape log border. This 1 foot wide space allows for vines that then grow up over the outer side of the bins, assisted by strings nailed onto the boards. While there is one miniature rose bush in the corner, all the other plants in this area are climbers. Japanese honeysuckle dominates, but sometimes the passionflower vines emerge in the area and I frequently plant annuals such as cypress vine and hyacinth bean.

To prepare the compost for use in the garden, I made a sieve out of ½ inch wire fastened onto a wood frame, which fits over our wheelbarrow. It can be used by one or two people.

Many animals seem to like the bin area and we have found all manner of insects and their larvae, anoles, geckos, toads, and even a garter snake. The most difficult part about producing mulch is keeping the material in the bins wet enough. When we have torrential rains, the water sometimes seeps through and runs out the bottom like warm tea. Through hot, dry summers, though, the bins tend to dry out and decomposition all but ceases.

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front lawn area   While our lawn consists mostly of grass, there are also quite a few other plants mixed in. These diverse species help assure that we always have some sort of ground cover over the soil. The front part of the lawn tends to dry out quickly and gets the most sun, although this is changing as the trees grow. Some trees have rings of rocks around their bases and mulch or other plants growing within. In the outer corners of our yard are two silver maple trees. The one on the west side is much older and so I gave the younger tree a boost by creating a mulch ring around its base. Some day it may actually catch up to the other's size. Only a few scattered trees are able to grow in this section of the yard, due to very poor soil, dry conditions, and large rocks, and about half of the seedlings that we or the squirrels planted have died.

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west lawn area   This part of our yard is one of the most troublesome. There is a low area that runs parallel to the house and during any heavy rain it floods. If we have continued wet weather, it forms a small pond that may take several days to dry out. Another problem was that the house used to receive intense sun during the latter part of the afternoon and evening during the summer. Our air conditioner is located on this side and it didn't help our utility bills.

Soon after we moved here, we obtained three seedling Chinese parasol trees from a relative whose tree produced an ample supply every year. Each one was given a mulched area surrounded by rocks. The trees grew quickly and now that area is heavily shaded and our air conditioner is never exposed to the full sun. The small garden areas surrounding the three trees hold bearded irises. Seeds have sprouted as well and one of the rings contains a beautyberry shrub, dwarf crape myrtle, and young vitex tree. I also add annual flower seeds some years.

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front shaded lawn area   The central focus of this area of our yard is a live oak tree. When we moved in, it was one of 3 trees on our property and was still quite small. Over the years it has grown substantially and now shades the entire area right up to the house. This tree is a female and produces acorns each year, while the two large oaks we have in the back yard are male. They produce flowers in the spring that then rain down into the yard as 2-inch long brown fuzzy "worms" which create a mess when tracked into the house for several weeks.

The grass does not grow very well below the oak tree, but the area is not terribly large so it is of little concern. We keep a small ceramic dog dish filled with water at the base of the tree. This provides refreshment for birds and squirrels, attracting animals that our dog can then watch from a front window in the house.

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back lawn area   Our lawn is mostly St. Augustine grass, which does best with a medium amount of sun and water. This happy combination only occurs in a few small spots of our yard, where the mix of shade, sun, and drainage is just right. Several areas in the back meet the necessary criteria. However, the back yard contains many young trees which are still growing rapidly (for trees) and so things remain in a state of flux.

During the winter, the back yard gets plenty of light because of the angle of the sun and the deciduous trees. The leaves create plenty of shade in the summer, when it is most needed. Our earliest trees were fast growing "temporary" species like sumacs. These provided small amounts of shade at the beginning but their lifespans are short and by now the oldest ones have died. It has made little difference, though, because the slower, longer-lived trees have taken over. Species in the back yard include oaks, loquat, fruitless mulberry, mimosa, chinaberry, and Chinese tallow.

Since the back yard is completely enclosed by privacy fencing, our dog has run of the entire area. She patrols the outer perimeter of both the yard and the gardens, and frequently makes use of the walkways and paths. She also uses all water sources that are within her reach for drinking. The squirrels and other wildlife provide entertainment.

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