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The following is a reproduction of the article which appeared in
the The American Gardener magazine, May/June, 1999, about
Weston Gardens.

 

English Borders,
Texas Style

Native and adapted exotic plants

form colorful mixed borders at

a Texas nursery.

 

 

This sunny border at the Westons' home features Russian sage,

purple coneflower, and Drummond's sundrops.

 

by Lana Robinson

 

THE AMERICAN GARDENER - May/June 1999

Doing what comes naturally seems to be, well, natural for Randy and Sue Weston.  This philosophy governs both their gardening preferences and the lifestyle they have chosen for themselves and their seven-year-old son, Jackson.  Fifteen years ago the Westons pulled the plug on fast-paced corporate careers – he as a manager of a major accounting firm and she as a successful certified public accountant – to found Weston Gardens in Bloom, Inc., a retail nursery in Fort Worth, Texas.  There they have found fulfillment showing north central Texas gardeners how to make successful gardens using an eclectic blend of plants native to the South and non-natives adapted to the region’s hard-baked clay soils and drastic fluctuations in temperature and rainfall.

            At their home, directly across from their 10-acre nursery, the Westons have created a series of demonstration gardens, including several English-style mixed perennial borders for sun and shade, water features, and collections of antique roses.  Vestiges of the formal grounds created by the former owners of the 1930s-era estate remain, but naturalistic areas resplendent with native Texas plants and highly acclimated non-natives are now its hallmark.  A stroll through the extensive demonstration gardens, traversed by a small creek and graced by shallow pools, peaceful grottos, and serpentine paths, is a scintillating walk on the wild side.

          It wasn’t always this idyllic, though.  Randy and Sue admit that both they and their plant business struggled until they struck upon their native and adapted plant niche.  “We started in 1984, when the economy was totally in the dumpster,” Randy, now in his mid-forties, recalls.  “We really had to stretch to keep things going.”  Sue says she and Randy were often sorely tempted to return to the “real” jobs.  “Finally we had to say, ‘Forget the education, forget it all’.  We were able to shut that door and make a commitment to make things work here,” she says.  “We changed our game plan: We knew we couldn’t compete with the chains, so we decided to offer something totally different.  And that’s how we got started with perennials and our ‘Texas-Tough’ natives.”  And, she might add, that was the beginning of Weston Gardens’ success.

 

            For the Westons, mixed borders, which incorporate annuals, perennials, shrubs, and ground covers, are the essence of the English-style-meets-Texas-climate look they are trying to show their customers.  Coming up with the right combinations of plants to achieve that goal has presented both challenges and rewards.  “Clumpy, clay soil is pretty much a given in this area.  We choose plants that will cope with the extremes of our weather – from drought to deluge,” says Randy, noting that his gardens endured 100 consecutive days without rain from July through early October in 1997.  “There is no normal weather here,” Randy points out.  “You can depend on only one thing: in Texas it’s going to be hot.”

 

 

Sue and Randy Weston stroll among ornamental grasses planted in one of the demonstration gardens they have created at their home.

 

Westons' Top Picks for "Texas-Tough" Plants

 

SUN

SHADE

 

NATIVES

Autumn Sage (Salvia greggii)

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia spp.)

Calylophus (Calylophus drummondianus, C. hartwegii)

Coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea, E. pallida)

Coreopsis (Coreopsis verticillata ‘Moonbeam’)

Flame anisacanthus (Anisacanthus quadrifidus var. wrightii)

Gaura (Gaura lindheimeri and cultivars)

Rock rose (Pavonia lasiopetala)

Texas aster (Aster oblongifolius)

Wild petunia (Ruellia spp.)

Winecups (Callirhoe involucrata)

 

NON-NATIVES

Butterfly bush (Buddleia spp.)

Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia)

Sedums (Hylotelephium and Sedum spp.)

Veronica (Veronica spp.)

Wall germander (Teucrium chamaedrys)

Wormwood (Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’)

Yarrow (Achillea spp.)

 

NATIVES

Columbines (Aquilegia canadensis, A. longissima)

Coral bells (Heuchera spp.)

Irises (Louisiana and bearded)

Lyre-leaf sage (Salvia lyrata)

Pigeonberry (Rivina humilis)

Southern wood fern (Dryopteris ludoviciana)

Turk’s-cap (Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii)

Violets (Viola ‘White Czar’)

Wild oats (Chasmanthium latifolium)

Wild petunia (Ruellia spp.)

Woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata, P. ‘Chattahoochee’, P. pilosa)

 

NON-NATIVES

Cast-iron plant (Aspidistra elatior)

Hosta (Hosta spp.)

Japanese holly fern (Cyrtomium falcatum)

Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’)

Rain lilies (Zephyranthes spp.)

Strawberry begonia (Saxifraga stolonifera)

Tassel fern (Polystichum polyblepharum)

 

 

Informality Rules

The fact that English-style borders are often informal and spontaneous in appearance makes them particularly well suited to laid-back Lone Star gardeners, and the Westons’ personal philosophy is that gardening should be a leisure activity, not hard work.  Sue suggests that a garden should be a stress-free environment for all who enter, especially for those who tend it.  “We always promote the outdoor experience of gardening,” says Sue.  “People should be able to listen to the birds, see the butterflies, and enjoy their surroundings.  That’s was it’s all about.”

            Although it sounds strange coming from a Texas nurseryman, Randy is a proponent of English garden designer Gertrude Jekyll, who pioneered the idea of blending annuals, perennials, and shrubs in a mixed border to create a seamless array of textures and colors throughout the growing season.  “I’m more of a naturalist,” says Randy.  “I like drifts of plants instead of clipped, formal gardens.”

            The Westons also feel strongly that putting together a garden is a way for people to find a creative outlet for artistic talents that are often suppressed by the demands of modern life.  “Beyond the pure enjoyment involved, gardening appeals to our artistic side – all of our senses become involved,” says Randy.  “Many people are not attuned to that until they’re shown some of these things.”

            Randy’s own awakening to the wonders of nature occurred in childhood growing up on the Texas plains.  “My maternal grandmother was an avid flower gardener.  As a small boy, I would help her garden, and that is my link.  Once you introduce children at an early age to the outdoors and nature, it never leaves the senses.  Sue and I both grew up on farms, and it’s something that has stuck with us.”

Adapting the English Style

Randy favors the look of random plantings in a garden design, but his methods for establishing a romantic, English-style border are quite deliberate.  In seminars held at Weston Gardens, he advises gardeners to take at least a year before planting to pinpoint areas of sunlight and shade within the space to be used and to mull over the fate of existing elements.

            “A mixed border offers diversity with different layers, textures, and sizes of plants,” says Randy.  “It’s important to research the water requirements of plants and to identify your competing species.  Find out which is your aggressive grower.  You start with the right plants, look at factors such as sun, shade, root competition, and cultural requirements, and then group them accordingly.  It’s more of a challenge than arranging them in neat little rows, but part of the fun is finding combinations that work together.”  Other important considerations, obviously, are flower colors and bloom times.  “If you plan those right, there’s something that looks good all year long.”

 

 

Above left: Calylophus hartwegii, a member of the evening primrose family, is native to the Southwest and western Texas. This spreading perennial flowers from spring to fall. Above right: A planting of Callirhoe involucrata - appropriately known as winecups - lends brilliant color to a sun-drenched patio in the demonstration gardens.

 

Creating Structure

In Randy’s view, creating a sense of enclosure – be it masonry walls, lines of shrubs, or vine-covered fences – is an important element of the design.  Partitions of old brick or stone, such as the 1930s-era iron-stone retaining walls at Weston Gardens, are worth consideration.  Boxwoods and other classic English hedging plants are not suitable in Texas, but Weston recommends evergreens such as junipers, arborvitae, Chinese photinia (Photinia serratifolia) or holly.  Even a full-canopied tree with sheltering branches, such as a mature cedar or elm, can produce the desired effect.

            “Trees are the most important elements of any garden,” Randy emphasizes.  “If you don’t have trees, you don’t have structure.”  Trees also are one of the few plants that offer interest in winter, which is why Randy says he chooses his trees in the winter months to better see how they will look.  In a shade garden, he recommends adding understory trees to create vertical interest.  Ornamentals such as the fragrant Mexican plum (Prunus mexicana), possumhaw holly (Ilex decidua), Texas kidneywood (Eysenhardtia texana), and smoke tree (Cotinus obovatus) are handsome, hardy Texas natives.

            Highly acclimated non-natives such as chaste tree (Vitex  agnus-castus), with its aromatic foliage and azure flowers, and the ever-popular heat-tolerant crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia spp.) do well in Texas, also.

Sunny Borders

In the Fort Worth area, April through May is the peak time for gardens.  Most annual and perennial plantings tend to struggle during the heat of July and August and rebound in the cooler fall.  Gardeners striving to mimic the English look can choose from a lively array of perennials the Westons have found will do best in their climate.  Among the plants that Randy recommends for sunny borders is flame anisacanthus (Anisacanthus quadrifidus var. wrightii), an irregularly branched shrub that grows two to four feet tallNative to Texas and Mexico, it bears spikes of red to orange tubular flowers in midsummer.

     Calylophus (Calylophus drummondianus), also known as Drummond’s sundrops, is a spreading ground cover native to Texas and New Mexico.  Closely related to evening primrose, this drought-tolerant perennial is ideal for rock gardens and along walls, where its cheery yellow flowers bloom in clusters.  C. hartwegii also has yellow flowers but is a shorter species.

            Another adaptable ground cover favored by the Westons is winecups, or purple poppy mallow (Callirhoe involucrata).  Native to Texas, New Mexico, and much of the central United States, this fast-spreading perennial has rich purple, cup-shaped flowers that bloom from June until frost.  See the box above for other plants the Westons recommend for sunny borders.

 

 

In the nursery's shade garden, a hand-hewn bench provides a vantage point for viewing assorted grasses, lyre-leaf sage, wormwood, and other plants.

 

Plants for Shade

For the shady border, the Westons have put together a list of heat-tolerant native and non-native perennials (see box above).  Natives include lyre-leaf sage (Salvia lyrata), which offers spikes of pale blue to violet blossoms in midsummer; Turk’s-cap (Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii) – a super hummingbird attractor, and wild oats (Chasmanthium latifolium).  Native ferns the Westons have found adapted to the Texas heat include Southern wood fern (Dryopteris ludoviciana), and holly fern (Cyrtomium falcatum).  The non-native Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’) and tassel fern (Polystichum polyblepharum) also work well in Texas.

 Adding Color and Texture

In the sunny border, annuals that work well to provide a smattering of additional color to an English-style border include gomphrena (Gomphrena globosa and cultivars), cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus), and Texas bluebells (Lupinus texensis).

            Randy also packs his borders with leafy, textured plants to provide contrast to the brightly colored flowers and to offer interest when the flowering plants are out of bloom.  Although its foliage is somewhat unruly, oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) offers appeal through at least three seasons with its cinnamon-colored bark in winter, showy white spring flowers, and burgundy to purple fall color.  The non-native heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica) provides a striking vertical effect through its straight stems.  Heavenly bamboo also brings fall and winter interest with its attractive red berries and fall color.  To bridge the gap between late winter and spring, Weston also used adapted non-natives that bloom in early spring, such as forsythia (Forsythia spp.), flowering quince (Chaenomeles japonica), and spirea (Spiraea spp.) in his plant collages.

            For gardeners seeking low maintenance, texture, and virtually nonstop blooms, Sue recommends antique bush roses.  Cultivars such as ‘Petite Pink Scotch’, ‘Duchesse de Brabant’, ‘Fairy’, and ‘Mutabilis’ top her list because of their

durability and heat tolerance.  She also steers customers toward climbing varieties such as ‘Old Blush’, ‘Cecile Brunner’, ‘Lady Banks’, ‘Seven Sisters’, and ‘Mermaid’, which can beautify even the plainest of fences.

           In addition to wild oats, a number of other ornamental grasses are used to add texture to the Westons’ English-style borders, as well as provide winter interest.  Randy sells 55 different selections at the nursery, most grown on site.  Among these are tall and elegant Lindheimer’s muhly grass (Muhlenbergia lindheimeri), characterized by blue foliage and silvery flower spikes that bloom from September through December.  This grass is both a texturizer and an outstanding specimen plant.  Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is not as big but is, nonetheless, beautiful – with teal-blue blades that turn bronze in the fall.  Weston says shorter grasses, such as purple muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris), black fountain grass (Pennisetum alpecuriodes ‘Moudry’), and wild oats make nice plumes among his flowering plants.

            Though many gardeners rely on rather bland ground covers such as ivy, pachysandra, and vinca, the Westons recommend trying such colorful flowering selections as germander (Teucrium chamaedrys), creeping thymes (Thymus spp.), strawberry begonia (Saxifraga stolonifera), calylophus, and ‘Moonbeam’ coreopsis to their customers.  “Remember, it’s the overall look that counts, so be creative,” says Randy.

            The Westons’ gardening philosophy has been successful both for their business and their customers.  Visitors flock to the nursery throughout the growing season to view the display gardens and take ideas – and often plants from the nursery – home with them.  Using the Westons’ “Texas-Tough” natives as a starting point, many central Texas gardeners are putting together mixed borders of which even Gertrude Jekyll would be proud.

Lana Robinson is a free-lance writer who gardens in Waco, Texas.

 

Sources

ANTIQUE ROSE EMPORIUM, 9300 Lueckemeyer Road, Brenham, TX 77833. (409) 836-9051. Catalog $5.

FORESTFARM, 990 Tetherow Road, Williams, OR 97544-9599. (541) 846-7269. Catalog $4.

PLANT DELIGHTS NURSERY, 9241 Sauls Road, Raleigh, NC 27603. (919) 772-4794. Catalog: Send 10 stamps or a box of chocolates.

WOODLANDERS, INC., 1128 Colleton Avenue, Aiken, SC 29801.  Phone and fax: (803) 648-7522. Catalog $2.

YUCCA DO NURSERY, Route 3, Box 104, Hempstead, TX 77445. (409) 826-4580. Catalog $4.

 

Getting There

Weston Gardens in Bloom, Inc. is at 8101 Anglin Drive in Fort Worth, Texas 76140.  The nursery’s four acres of demonstration gardens include lily ponds, antique roses, and mixed perennial borders.  In addition to offering plants for sale, the nursery provides landscape planning services and often hosts lectures and workshops by prominent regional gardeners and horticulturists.  Scheduled for July 10 and 11 are workshops on “Best Plants for Summer” and “Ornamental Grasses.”  Nursery hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday in summer.  For more information about the nursery or workshops, call (817) 572-0549 or visit the nursery’s Web site at www.westongardens.com.

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