Plants that shine in the winter garden…

After a few days and nights at 21 degrees, my Central Texas garden took a serious hit last month.  But, we were due.  Last year it didn’t freeze at all in my garden, so you can imagine how huge some of our perennials were by the end of 8 seasons of growth!

Our typical winter includes a few freezes, but the temperature dips to around freezing for a few hours and then climbs right back up during the day.  Not so this year.

I’m leaving the last of the fall leaves in the beds to help protect the plants and provide habitat for bees, so you are going to see the good, the bad and the very ugly.  It’s an all-exposed tour.  Viewer discretion is advised — you may need to avert your eyes in some parts!


While the ferns and the bletilla striata are dormant, he dry creek pathway is lined with hellebores, a few sedges, a few cephalotaxus prostrata.  Mostly out of view on the left are two leatherleaf mahonias.


The brilliant yellow berries on the mahonias add great color to the garden on gray winter days.


In drought years, the foliage of the hellebores disappears in the summer garden, and reappears in fall and through the spring.  I have a collection of different varieties.  Below is a winter photo of my favorite – ‘Phoebe,’ from several years ago when we had snow.


Isn’t that a gorgeous bloom?


Where the path diverges, a few more sedges and a standard Japanese aralia and a variegated Japanese aralia add a pop of green.  The squid agave in the Artemis statue head was unfazed by the cold.  Farther back, a small clump of cast iron plant draws the eye.


I’ve had this aralia for a long time.  It’s been through drought and covered in ice in bad winters, but nothing seems to slow it down.


This fall I planted another aralia variety – a variegated one.  I was a little concerned that it might be more tender than the other, but it has held up beautifully.


In the front bed, the one we jokingly call the hideous bed, natives and other well-adapted plants are hanging on.  Catmint, skullcap, Mexican feather grass, a whale’s tongue agave, salvias, Mexican sabal palms and a Spanish dagger yucca are all going strong.


Across the driveway, more xeric plants are showing off, like the Jerusalem sage, a Texas sotol, a sago palm,  and some salvia Greggii.


You’ll find Jerusalem sage in many parts of my garden.  It’s unusual color makes an intriguing contrast — and its fuzzy leaves make it completely deer-resistant.


Another variegated fatsia Japonica is keeping a squid agave and a mountain Laurel company.  Sadly, the dianella in the background looks like it’s toast.  I’m hopping it was established enough to come back from the roots quickly, once spring arrives.


A bright edge yucca, several more hellebores and a few almost hidden heucherellas are peaking out of the carpet of leaves.


Bright edge definitely earns its name!


I added a few new compact shrubs to the front beds last year.  These ‘Flirt’ nandinas make a beautiful middle-layer, evergreen addition and their added burgundy tips coordinate well with the larger loropetalum.


One of my favorite plants for winter/spring interest is Japanese quince.  It’s sculptural and almost-bare branches are sporting a flush of gorgeous, salmony-pink blooms.


The butterflies are so thankful that at least something is blooming out there!


And no matter what the plants are doing in the garden, we can always count on at least a few cardinals on our many feeders in the wooded area.

While these aren’t the prettiest pictures of my garden, they allow me to see the true bones of the landscape, and evaluate the beds to determine what projects I’ll want to undertake in the spring.

Plant This: Esperanza is a garden showstopper


In spite of our schizophrenic weather extremes, many native and adapted plants perform beautifully in Central Texas gardens. One of my favorite showstoppers is Esperanza, Spanish for ‘hope,’ also known as yellow bells. It comes back reliably year after year — a dramatic garden showstopper that doesn’t mind the abuse our gardens suffer with periodic drought, heat and floods.

Native to Mexico, the tropics and West Texas, the variety Tecoma stans ‘Gold Star‘ thrives in our 100+ degrees and produces masses of large 2 – 3 inch blooms that look like yellow bells. This medium-sized shrub is xeric, low maintenance, and relatively pest free. This is the variety you see most around Central Texas.

They are generally cold hardy to zone 8b or 9; for most of Central Texas, they are perennial and reliably return from the roots. They thrive in hot sun and can tolerate a variety of soils, particularly our alkaline limestone. They typically begin blooming in the spring and bloom non-stop until late fall. Depending on how much sun they get, here they can grow as high as 6-8 feet tall and 4 feet wide. Although they go dormant in the winter, they shoot up quickly when the weather warms and consistently reach that height for me, in spite of being cut back completely at winter’s end. And, they are of no interest to the deer that like to browse my landscape beds.

Very popular with pollinators, bees and hummingbird are drawn to their nectar. I love watching them disappear into the deep throats of the bright yellow blooms to get a drink.

In the last few years, growers have developed a number of new Tecoma hybrids that give gardeners more choices in color and growth habit.


Last year, I tried one of the newer varieties of Esperanza, ‘Bells of Fire.’ With high expectations, I found the perfect spot for this reddish-orange blooming sun lover. Like its yellow cousin, the new ‘Bells of Fire’ didn’t let me down. It didn’t bloom as early in the year as the yellow bells, but came into its own in early summer. Unlike ‘Gold Star,’ its blooms are slightly smaller; it is shorter, and more compact, reaching only 3-5 feet tall and wide so it can serve a different role in the landscape.

Also available at nurseries around Austin is the variety, ‘Orange Jubilee’ which is a lighter shade of orange, more like a creamcicle.

According to Michael Cain, owner of Vivero Growers Nursery, this orange variety is more like the ‘Gold Star’ in its growth habit.

“‘Orange Jubilee’ is more upright and sends up shoots up to 7 feet tall, “ said Cain. “It blooms a little later than the ‘Gold Star’ and does very well here – it’s really tough.”

Another variety new to the market is ‘Lydia,’ which has a more compact form and brighter yellow flowers. It grows to 5-6 feet tall and wide and blooms from early spring through fall. It’s a sterile variety, so it has fewer seedpods than the ‘New Gold.’

If you were thinking of including more heat and drought-tolerant plants to your garden this fall, any one of these Tecoma bells would be a great addition.

Local Landscape Designer and Garden Coach, Diana Kirby, provides landscaping tips on Facebook at Diana’s Designs, at and writes a garden blog at

By | 2017-11-29T23:27:00+00:00 September 16th, 2015|Articles|Comments Off on Plant This: Esperanza is a garden showstopper

May Tip: Add Color with Contrasting Foliage


Foliage – with its myriad contributions that enhance, brighten, and add movement and structure to the landscape – should play a starring role in designing a garden. It is the fundamental element that brings the design together. The contrast of foliage in the garden adds interest and sophistication to the landscape. In shady beds, light colors and variegated foliage brighten dark areas with a pop of light. Foliage with different or unusual textures also provides dimension to the garden. Pairing a broad range of plant textures creates contrast. Coarse textures with large irregular leaves, thick veins, rough bark, medium textures with mid-size leaves, smoother shape and simple lines, and fine textures with small or thin, strappy leaves like grasses, wispy and lacy foliage can all make striking combinations.

By | 2017-11-29T23:27:14+00:00 May 25th, 2013|Tips|0 Comments

Add color via contrasting foliage


Contrasting Foliage

What do I see as I drive around town these days? Green. Not green-with-envy-green, but rather the everyone’s-garden-is-green, too, green. It’s a beautiful sight.

Recent rains have enriched our gardens and encouraged plants to bloom and to leaf out, drawing my eye to all the contrasting new foliage making a statement in the garden.

Most gardeners are drawn to blooms when planning their landscapes – bright, tubular blooms that attract hummingbirds, butterflies and bees, the proper formality of traditional roses, or the wispy ephemeral blooms of plants like Mexican bird of paradise or desert willow.

Neglected and left sitting on the sidelines, foliage is too often an afterthought in gardening, pushed aside by the drive for endless flowers.

But foliage – with its myriad contributions that enhance, brighten, and add movement and structure to the landscape – should play a starring role in designing a garden. It is the fundamental element that brings the design together.

When blooms fade in winter or in the death throes of a scorching summer, foliage maintains the unity in the garden – creating harmony in the landscape. And seasonal foliage color can transform a fall and winter garden when traditionally green leaves turn brilliant hues of gold and red.

Foliage adds its own color year-round as well. Endless hues of green – forest green, grass green, blue green, gray green, lime green, partner with black, purple and silvery leaves to make vibrant pallets.

Variegated and color-splattered leaves like Aztec grass, coleus and caladiums put on their own show.

From the brilliant burgundy of loropetalum or purple heart to golden Japanese maples to the delicate lime green of many ferns – the contrast of foliage in the garden adds interest and sophistication to the landscape. In shady beds, light colors and variegated foliage brighten dark areas with a pop of light.

Foliage with different or unusual textures also provides dimension to the garden. Beds with rows of shrubs with roughly the same leaf color, size and texture is one-dimensional and uninteresting. It all looks the same. Imagine such an area with contrasting foliage, some with glossy green leaves, some with fuzzy, sage-colored leaves and some variegated grasses. Each element allows the other to shine through and stand out. Add a special plant with very structural foliage and you now have a focal point.

The smooth, structural simplicity of a franzosini agaves provides a contrasting backdrop that enhances the display of the plant in front of it.

The shapes and textures of plant foliage also provide the blueprint for crafting a variety of garden styles.

Pairing a broad range of plant textures creates contrast. Coarse textures with large irregular leaves, thick veins, rough bark, medium textures with mid-size leaves, smoother shape and simple lines, and fine textures with small or thin, strappy leaves like grasses, wispy and lacy foliage can all make striking combinations.

To emulate a tropical garden style, for example, choose foliage with large, glossy leaves, contrasting lime, yellow and burgundy colors and very course, textured plants. Examples would include palms, gingers, cannas, sagos, esperanzas, and potato vine — plants we can grow here in Central Texas.

Conversely, a cottage garden typically includes smaller, more delicate leaves and wispy forms of foliage like lacy lavender, flowing Artemesia, delicate columbine and the fine tufts of dianthus.

Foliage also adds rhythm to the garden. Soft grasses and billowing foliage create the illusion of movement. They draw the eye into the landscape to see what lies beyond their beckoning leaves.

Plants with strong structural foliage beg to be focal points in the garden – providing interest, a place for the eye to rest, and definition in landscape. Agaves, acanthus and aralia all bring dynamic form to design.

I’m as fond of blooms as any gardener, but the next time you head to your local independent nursery, take stock of your shrubs, foundation plants and flowers and go find yourself some fabulous foliage to bring new life to your garden.

A Landscape Designer and Garden Coach, Diana Kirby provides landscaping tips at http:/ and writes a garden blog at



By | 2017-11-29T23:27:14+00:00 May 25th, 2013|Articles|0 Comments

Plan to start projects now for a well-balanced spring garden

Now that we’ve had a brief hint of cooler weather, it’s time to think about fall and how we can use this time in the garden to prepare for spring.  Once the temperatures drop and we get some rain, it will be the perfect time to start planning a new landscape project.

Preparing and creating new flower beds now can actually save you money.   You can buy and put in smaller, less expensive plants this fall, letting them overwinter and get well established before spring.  This enables them to develop strong root systems so you can enjoy bigger, hardier plants when they begin to grow in the spring.

So where do you start?

Do you have a sore spot — some section of your garden that needs a little pick-me-up?  Or do you have a bed with thirsty plants that didn’t make it through the summer that you want to transform into a xeric bed?  Or are you ready for a little hardscape – an extended patio, a shed or a little garden room?

Once you determine what improvements you want to make, it’s time to start planning.

The first question to ask yourself is:  What’s my style?  Is it English cottage garden, native Southwestern, Asian contemporary, xeric, formal or informal?  What are your favorite colors?  Do you like a muted peaceful pastel garden or are hot, tropical colors your preference?  What is the architectural style of your house and my existing garden?  Do you want to do something new to complement it or do you want some contrast?

If you’re working on a garden room or new hardscape – ask yourself how you want to use the space and what you will need to make it functional and attractive.  How will it fit into the existing landscape and be a natural extension?

Next, do a little homework.  Watch the sun rise and set over your yard.  How many hours of sun does your project area get?  Knowing when and where you have sun and shade will determine what kind of plants you can use or where you might want to put a new seating area.  You’ll want to group like plants based on their water needs – if you want to create a drought-tolerant new bed, make sure all of the plants you put in it have the same water needs.

Follow a few basic rules, add a little inspiration and you can transform your yard into a fresh and inviting landscape.

Tips to designing a beautiful garden:

There are a lot of design elements to consider when creating a landscape bed.

First, think focal.  The first step is to stand back and look at the space.  Close your eyes and picture what you’d like it to be. What is your vision?  Then think about what would make a great focal point in that space. A focal point attracts the eye and creates interest. It focuses the attention of the person passing by or looking at your garden.   A focal point can be a beautiful tree, a statue, a birdbath, a bench – anything different that adds interest to your landscape.

As you begin to think of plants, harmony is your goal.  You want the plant colors in your bed to complement or contrast each other.  Colors either next to each other or across from each other on the color wheel make great combinations.

Complementary: Colors directly across from each other on the color wheel, like red and green, yellow and violet, and blue and orange. These are dramatic colors that create a bold landscape..

Adjacent: This refers to the two or three colors next to each other, such as red, red-orange and orange. Or yellow-green, green and blue-green. These are harmonious colors.

Monochromatic: This refers to a single color family with various hues or intensities. This creates combinations of subtle differences.

Primary: Red, yellow and blue. All other colors are made of these.

Secondary: Orange, green and violet

Tertiary: These are blends of primary and secondary colors; for example, yellow-orange or blue-violet. They help make the transition from primary to secondary colors.

Polychromatic: A bold mix of colors used together in a confetti fashion.

Neutral: White, gray, silver

In addition to color, texture and variegation are also important.  So that your leaves aren’t all the same green, consider combining silvery-leaved plants with lime greens to help them each stand out in their own right.  Variegated plants add interest and help brighten up shady areas.  The texture of our native agaves, yuccas and cacti work wonderfully with soft shapes and delicate blooms or fuzzy leaves.

Height and shape are also key.  A desirable combination in a bed might include some height to anchor the ends of a bed, some larger foundation plants like evergreen shrubs and then layers of slightly smaller perennials annuals or ground cover for the front of the bed.  Do your homework when planting – consider how large the plants will be at full size, not the size they are when you bring them home.  This will ensure that plants in front of a border don’t tower over the plants behind them.  If the nursery tag on the plant doesn’t have this information, you can research the plant name online and get all the data you need to know.  Most local nurseries are diligent about including all the necessary growing information.  Big box stores sometimes get unlabeled plants from far away that aren’t appropriate for our growing conditions. I shop almost exclusively at our wonderful local nurseries because my pet peeve is finding big box garden center plants labeled simply – “Perennial.”

It’s also important to consider the size and style of your yard and home so your new project matches in scope and scale.

Add movement or fragrance to the garden. We are fortunate to have a large number of pretty, xeric grasses native to Central Texas.  You can also include fragrant plants, or night blooming plants to enjoy alongside a patio space or seating area.

Now that you’ve thought about your vision for the project, start defining the space.  Sketch it out to scale on paper and include existing structures or elements like large trees.  Then “draw” the boundaries of what you want to create on the ground, using a garden hose or spray paint to outline the bed or patio and ponder it for a while.  Do you like the shape?  Is it in the right place?  Is it big enough? Too big?

Consider the other elements you might want or need to include, like irrigation, lighting, a water feature, and work inclusion of those elements into your timeline.  Sprinklers need to go in when beds are laid out but not planted to avoid having to tear out plants for sprinkler heads or lighting wires.

Creating a new garden space can freshen up your landscape and increase your curb appeal and your home’s value.  New beds and new plants can bring peace and serenity to your garden or they can brighten and liven up your entertaining areas.

As you consider new projects for the fall, remember to think xeric and look for native or drought tolerant plants that can survive our brutal summers.  Think about landscape designs that use less lawn and more hardy plants.  Using quality soils and environmentally friendly products and materials will also reward you with healthy, thriving plants once your project is complete.

By | 2017-11-29T23:27:20+00:00 September 24th, 2011|Articles|0 Comments