Typically flowers, pretty as they are, don’t get credit for changing a life. But Pam Penick says they changed hers. Fourteen years ago, her life took an unexpected turn at the Lady Bird Johnson (LBJ) Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas, and it hasn’t been the same since.
Pam had recently left an editing career to care for her first child, Aaron. It wasn’t long before she began toting him to the LBJ Center to look at wildflowers. “We fell in love with the rugged, western look of Austin,” she recalls. “It was a lot different than the Southeast.” Pam, a transplant from North Carolina, was soon bitten by the gardening bug. A few years later, she and her family— now with the addition of daughter Julia—moved to a house with a boring rectangle of grass in front. She knew what she had to do. Out came the St. Augustine lawn. In went a limestone path and dozens of native Texas trees, shrubs, and perennials, including autumn sage (Salvia greggii), rock rose (Pavonia lasiopetala), rock penstemon (Penstemon baccharifolius), Mexican plum (Prunus mexicana), and Texas mountain laurel (Sophora secundiflora). The entire yard was transformed into a billowing, blossoming cottage garden—a perfect marriage of English style and Wild West.
But Pam didn’t stop there. She earned a design certificate from the LBJ Center, and it wasn’t long before family and friends wanted her to design their yards, too. In 2006, she hung out her shingle as a garden designer and coach and also started a garden blog (www.penick.net/digging), which has since won several awards.
Being immersed in a new career hasn’t diminished Pam’s fervor for the simple act of gardening—in fact, that’s why she named her blog Digging. “You never want it to be finished,” she says of her garden. “I like tinkering with things. I like moving things around, trying to come up with good combinations.”
Friends and Neighbors
As good combinations go, it’s hard to beat the pads of spineless prickly pear nestled at the foot of tumbling pink roses (Rosa ‘Belinda’s Dream’) just behind Pam’s front-yard fence. Add a mound of silver ‘Powis Castle’ artemisia (Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’), and the dreamy tableau is complete.
Similar vignettes unfold around the yard—classic and surprising at the same time. Steely, gray-blue planks of whale’s tongue agave (Agave ovatifolia) rise like a small mountain behind a wispy screen of hot-pink rock penstemon. Spiky arms of softleaf yucca (Yucca recurvifolia) reach out to their neighbor, a vigorous clump of purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea).
Though Pam’s first attraction was to regional wildflowers, she gradually realized that some hybrids play nicely with the natives—as long as they’re carefully chosen. Now, she estimates, about half of her plants are natives. “Over time I started to add nonnatives that would do well: more Mediterranean and Australian plants, and roses,” she says. “I didn’t plant roses at first, but then I realized that old hardy roses would look fantastic with agave and prickly pear.”
The key was finding cultivated plants with the same heat and drought tolerance as wildflowers. It couldn’t be just any rose—it had to be a tough-as-nails rose. A plant like an azalea, for instance—which needs moisture, rich soil, and moderate temperatures—wouldn’t work. “When I moved to Austin, I planted my requisite trio of azaleas and watched them shrivel up and die,” Pam remembers.
At the same time that she was figuring out how to combine tough perennials with desert plants, wildflowers, and native trees, Pam was learning other tricks for gardening in the desert. Though few evergreens thrive there, she found that agaves and yuccas provided similar year-round structure. Thoughtfully directed water from a rain barrel helped a cedar elm (Ulmus crassifolia) sapling shoot up and provide shade for the back yard. When the birdbath water evaporated within minutes on dry days, Pam came up with a clever, practical solution: tumbled green glass in the birdbath to create the look of water in the west-facing front yard, plus a deeper stock tank in the shadier back yard with a rock shelf for thirsty birds.
The Measure of a Garden
After spending eight years on her garden, Pam and her family moved about five miles northwest to a hilly, rocky part of Austin. There the garden is shaded by live oaks and frequented by wildlife, which presents new challenges.
As for the first garden, however, Pam and her husband still own the house, and for a year after they moved—a year of serious drought—it got no attention. This spring, she went to check on it.
If Pam’s goal was to create a sustainable garden that was well suited to its climate and site, she got proof that she had succeeded. The garden handily survived a year without care. “Most of those plants have held up,” she says. “I was pleased to see that.”
She hopes that whoever buys the house next will value what she’s done, but also do their own digging and tinkering to create something new. And who knows— those wildflowers might change somebody else’s life, too.
Elizabeth Noll is managing editor of Gardening How-To.