The following is a reproduction of the article which appeared in
the Dallas Morning News, October 23, 1992, about Weston Gardens.
Plants with a past
Easy-care options for today's landscapes
In wintertime, alongside my grandmother’s house in Houston, poinsettias arched over my head.
In summer, a single cluster of lantana blooms from Grandmother’s front yard made a perfect bouquet on my doll house’s supper table.
Sometimes, just the sight of a nearly forgotten plant takes us back many seasons. But have you ever wondered why your grandparents chose the plants they did?
The answer usually is: for their beauty first, and their endurance second.
This becomes clear when you pass an abandoned house and spot a 40-year-old clump of colorful irises thriving in the spring – with no help from anyone. No chemicals. No watering. No nothing.
Typically, the plants our grandparents grew were the most hardy, easy-care and beautiful ones available.
With that in mind, we can look to the past for tried-and-true plants to use in our own North Central Texas gardens.
Randy and Sue Weston are surrounded by plants of the past – and they have learned from them.
Several years ago, the former Dallas accountants purchased a historic home on 10 acres across the road from Weston Gardens in Bloom, the southeast Fort Worth nursery they own.
People are starting to figure out that maybe some of the older things that our grandparents did were probably better in the long run for our lifestyle because we don’t have the time today to take care of all those (newer) things,” Mr. Weston says.
Our grandparents didn’t have time for lots of intervention, says Mr. Weston. “They had to plant things that took care of themselves.” Native and adapted plants fill the bill – at least better than many other plants imported from other parts of the world. The natives resist diseases better and require less water, he says.
The Westons’ house once was the home of Leon and Peggy Bandy. He was a prominent Fort Worth architect. She was a dedicated gardener. The house and its surrounding gardens were regarded as something of a showplace. It didn’t hurt that the Bandys built many walkways and retaining walls of stone, extended a swinging bridge over the creek and erected a “ship” made of stone.
About 20 years ago, the Bandys sold the property to another couple, who worked to restore the house. The grounds got away from those former owners, the Westons say, noting that they keep up with the yard work with the help of maintenance crews.
Even before a Bandy niece appeared with photos of the grounds as they appeared in the ‘30s, the Westons intended to restore the gardens. They say they were intrigued and educated by what survived the period of minimal maintenance.
Not all are native plants, but the survivors obviously handled drought and heavy rain, sweltering summers and sudden northers. We know they probably did it without added water, because the sprinkler system broke.
Some of the less-adapted plants didn’t make it. An entire rose garden that featured hybrid teas was wiped out.
Mostly the survivors are natives, volunteers and plants chosen during the years the garden was planned and actively tended, the 1930s to '50s. The selections probably mirrored smaller Texas yards and gardens of their day.
Today, however, yards are likely to be large expanses of lawn with a few shrubs along the home’s foundation and – if former property owners were wise – a few trees.
As a society, “we cast off a lot of these old things because the marketers did a good job of selling us that they’d come up with the perfect solution,” says Mr. Weston. “They went out of style.”
Why? People follow trends in plants as well as clothing, Mr. Weston says. And like clothes, sometimes the old favorites can come back into vogue.
Of course, some plants that filled a need for our grandparents, like mulberry and chinaberry trees, aren’t the best choices available today.
“They had the chicken yards, so they planted the mulberry to shade and provide the fruit for the chickens,” says Mr. Weston, adding that the chicken house on the property has a fruiting mulberry at the back.
“They planted the chinaberry for fast growth and fast shade,” says Mr. Weston. With a whole prairie to populate, tree selection wasn’t as crucial. Today, many criticize both the mulberry and chinaberry for several characteristics: they are fast-growing but relatively short-lived, their roots are invasive and their wood is weak. Both are messy, depositing debris and berries under their limbs.
Many of the other plants that shaded and decorated our grandparents’ yards are great options today, however. (see “Plants with a History of Success”) Even though these tough, adapted plants can survive with minimal care once they are established, many of them are hard to find. It takes extra effort for a nursery to carry some of these selections, Mr. Weston observes.
For one thing, each plant’s preferences in the market area must be researched. Just because a plant is native to Texas doesn’t mean it’s easy to grow in North Central Texas, he says. Just because plants of your childhood thrived in Houston or some other place doesn’t mean they will work here.
“You have to really home in on what our soils are and what our climate variations are,” he says. These differ significantly even across Texas for example, while the mountain laurel makes a fine tree for the Hill Country, North Central Texas winters tend to be too harsh for it.
“You have to determine the natives or acclimated plants that work for us,” says Mr. Weston. “You don’t get it off the shelf and sell it and it works for everybody.”
Although natives have developed a following during the past few years, only a few North Texas area nurseries currently carry a full line of them, says Mr. Weston. More natives probably are sold in the Austin area than anyplace else in Texas, he says. Other area nurseries that stock natives include Kings Creek Gardens, Texas Blooms, Mother Nature Garden Center and North Haven Gardens.
These hardy plants don’t tend to look as pretty in the pot as some traditional nursery mainstays might, the Westons say. Weston Gardens includes demonstration gardens so people can see what the plants look like in the ground.
Kings Creek and North Haven also feature demonstration plots. The Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden showcases some of these plants in a section called Mimi’s Garden, Mr. Weston says.
In pots, the native and acclimated plants are trying to survive, “reacting like they would in nature” to stressful conditions, says Mr. Weston. “A lot of what you see in that pot is not what you’re going to get when they’re planted.”
“Somebody’ll come in and they’ll say, ‘That doesn’t have many leaves on it and it's kind of yellow-looking,’” says Mr. Weston. “Well, it’ll green up when it gets into the ground and get real thick, but if they can’t see it planted, they cannot envision it.”
And it is difficult to imagine at first. But memories of summer nights with cicada serenades and lightening bugs, of homemade ice cream and the perfume of a bloom in grandmother’s flower bed certainly help.
Betsy Simnacher is a Dallas-area free-lance writer.
By Betsy Simnacher
The Dallas Morning News
Friday, October 23, 1992
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