The following is a reproduction of the article which appeared in
the Texas Gardener magazine, May/June, 1991, about Weston Gardens.
Centuries separate Sue and Randy Westons property in southeast Fort Worth from the ancient castle ruins in Scotland that I happily explored a few years ago. Yet, as I strolled through the Weston’s 10-acre tract, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities.
In both places, sections of old walls, now overgrown with wild vegetation, and reduced to little more than rubble, teased me with brief glimpses of a lifestyle long past. I found myself imagining what it must have been like back when the original residents walked where I now walked.
The major differences between the Weston property and that castle in Scotland is that I know a few things about the people who lived at the Weston place, so the images I conjure up are more vivid.
Back in the early 1930s, the property was owned by Leon and Peggy Bandy. He was a prominent Fort Worth architect, and is remembered as something of a promoter and shrewd, hard-driving businessman who made sure he always got the best of a deal. He is said to have owned the Flatiron Building, and have been instrumental in building the facilities for General Dynamics. There are also rumors of inherited money.
Leon is remembered by one neighbor as a “prince of a man – charming, flamboyant but humble,” and very proud of his gardens and his wife Peggy, described as being the “consummate gardener.” She was very quiet, and her face was so wrinkled from working outdoors in the Texas sun that one man recalls her as “prune like.”
The Bandy estate was known then as “Dripping Springs,” because of the numerous springs that feed Chambers Creek, which winds lazily across the rear of the property.
To the Bandys, the property must have seemed light-years away from the city, and became their peaceful retreat from the business world. But the Bandys were not content to sit and rusticate in the country; they set about to make “a few improvements.” Over the next decade, their country home took on a new and exciting character, until it would one day rate a feature in Architectural Digest, where it was described as “a 20th century New England farm house.” Many people called it “the showplace of Tarrant County.”
The property boasted extravagant landscapes, whimsical structures – and gala parties; four of the acres were devoted to entertaining, and cars were often parked down the road for miles! Lynda Field, a neighbor, remembers renting the estate for her wedding in July 1955. “We got a good deal, only $500, because we lived down the road.” They paid for use of the grounds and part of the house for changing, for two nights: Friday for the rehearsal and Saturday for the wedding. The ceremony took place under the arbor. Kenneth Copeland, now a well-known TV preacher and then Lynda’s school mate, sang both at the wedding and the reception. The roses, hybrid teas, were all in bloom and, she recalls, the air “smelled divine.”
The reception was held on the deck of the ship. That’s right, a ship! Well, actually, a 75-foot-long replica of a galleon built from stone and concrete, with a 50-foot mast, steel rigging and forecastle, bandstand, lounge, and (the Prohibition era was ending) a bar.
The ship is situated on the far bank of Chambers Creek, on a little peninsula formed by the curving creek, and is reached by walking (carefully) across a narrow, slatted, swinging bridge.
Next to the ship, still on the peninsula, was a picnic area with a stage (this is where the cake, punch, and champagne were set out for Lynda Field’s wedding), a barbeque pit, and a real working wishing well. The lawns were appointed with large, old-fashioned outdoor sofas on wheels. For catering, there was a steep, curving concrete drive that went from the barn to the picnic area across a low-water crossing.
In the mid-fifties, the estate was incorporated into Fort Worth proper. That meant higher taxes, which Leon Bandy refused to pay. He and his wife abandoned the property and moved further into the country.
A retired military officer and his wife bought the estate, but were more interested in their eight kids and in remodeling the house than they were in the gardens. For the plants, two decades of neglect and decline had begun; only the fittest would survive.
In 1988, when Sue and Randy Weston purchased the estate (located across Anglin Road from their nursery, Weston Gardens in Bloom), it looked like a desolate abandoned farm. Some repairs and add-ons had been attempted over the years, but mostly things had deteriorated sadly.
Still, to the Westons’ trained horticultural eyes, it was evident that an unusual garden had once existed here. They saw a retama, or Jerusalem Thorn (Parkinsonia aculeata) blooming by the barn entrance – an unusual sight in Fort Worth, especially since the freeze of 1984. And at the main gate, two square pillars built of native ironstone, they spotted hummingbirds darting about the orange tubular flowers of a shrub rarely seen in the area – anisacanthus wrightii.
When they purchased the house, the Westons received a blueprint of the original landscape plan, dated March 21, 1933. It had been drawn up in exquisite detail by Mrs. C.D. Whitehead, a registered landscape architect. Unfortunately, the planting list has been lost, so except for a scribble in pencil that tells us that a “Stricter juniper” cost $1.65 and “low dense privet” cost 75 cents, no record exists of the plantings that were planned. A direction for “tree screen” between the garden and the road was evidently planted with five Shumard red oaks, as they are the only old ones on the property, and all the younger ones seem to be seedlings that sprouted in the untended years.
The design is formal; the left side a mirror of the right. And so it remains to this day, although the rose beds long ago disappeared and one of the stone walks is completely covered by lawn.
The Westons talked to neighbors and searched old newspaper and magazine files to find out more about the Bandys and what those avid gardeners had done here. They learned that although Leon Bandy was an architect, all the drawings for the arbors, the lighthouse (which was never built) and the other structures were drawn by others.
Leon, they discovered, kept pheasants and quail. He made wind chimes and birdhouses, which he hung from all the trees. The estate had cows, horses for riding, chickens, and pigs.
The formal rose garden was in front. The arbor, covered with Chinese wisteria, forms the top of a ‘T’ for which a long narrow lily pond forms the stem. The pond is three feet deep, the bottom covered with nearly two feet of mud. The original water lilies, a deep, luscious cerise in color, survived the 19 years of neglect.
The Westons have debated about whether or not the pond is spring fed, as they had to add only a couple of inches of water all summer. There is no recirculating pump, but there are outlet drains to keep the pond from overflowing after a heavy rain.
The springs are located directly in front of the picnic area. Here the water is deep and cold, making an ideal swimming hole. Brick paver steps lead down into the water and up on the house side of the creek, where there is a terrace and bath house. There were extensive ironstone retaining walls lining the creek and bordering the drive. Now the drive is half covered by accumulations of leaf mold and saplings. The bath house started to leak a long time ago. The once-sturdy stone walls along the creek have sagged and buckled, and some sections have fallen in and washed downstream.
And time has not been kind to the noble galleon; a few years ago, cracks appeared in the ship’s dance floor, and mimosas sprouted, further damaging the floor. Earlier, a fire destroyed the ship’s bandstand and bar.
What is most noteworthy to the gardener, especially one interested in xeriscape plants and natural landscaping, is which of the original plant materials survived 19 years of neglect. It seems certain that the intervening owners never watered. In fact, from the largest trees that were obviously bird-planted, it appears that once-a-year moving must have been the norm. Obviously, whatever survived under those conditions was either native or as good as native in terms of adaptability.
The site of the gardens was a naturally lovely piece of property to begin with. Down by the creek the dominant canopy trees are cedar elm, pecan, white ash, one bur oak, and willows down by the water. Understory trees present now, and undoubtedly there originally, are redbud, Mexican plum, soapberry, wooly-bucket bumelia, American persimmon, possumhaw, and wafer ash (Ptelia trifoliata), with gigantic button bushes along the banks.
From old photographs of the property, it looks as though the Bandys made the same mistake so many gardeners make today; they cleared out the blooming understory trees, except for an occasional redbud, and left only the biggest canopy trees.
Then they planted lawns and Vinca major as groundcovers to create a park-like effect. The lawns are long gone, as they were probably non-drought-resistant St. Augustine. But the vinca remains and has spread from its original location. Many people think vinca is not very drought-resistant, because it can look so awful in August, but I often find it in shady locations where I know it has not received any water in years.
Though native shade trees were retained down by the creek, and the post oaks and one cedar elm were kept up around the house, native shrubs and flowers were fairly rare in the formal landscapes about the house. Given the scarcity of other plant materials available to buy in those days, this seems odd.
Any kind of landscaping was difficult to do in the 30s. To have the dedication, perseverance, money, and interest in plants necessary to develop a garden of the quality of Dripping Springs was rare. Not only was The Depression in full swing, but nurseries as we know them didn’t exist. Some plants were sold door to door by itinerant salesmen. Container-grown plants and the variety of flowering plant material we take for granted today were totally unknown.
As a result, the Bandys grew much of their own plant material. They had a green house and about 50 yards of cold frames built of the native stone. The retama, anisacanthus, and turk’s cap, all south Texas natives, must have been propagated from seeds gathered on trips around the state.
The formal landscape was largely evergreen. Conifers were widely used. Italian cypress must have been a favorite with the Bandys. Its tall, skinny silhouette dominated the skyline around the wedding altar. None has survived. There were plenty of other conifers also – Hollywood junipers (all gone), and native eastern red cedars, Arizona cypress, and arborvitae, still seen in abundance on the property.
Another evergreen used is yaupon holly, native to east Texas. One indigenous plant used is coralberry, a shrubby groundcover. It is found in an obviously deliberate arc against a stone walk on the terrace above the informal pond which contains white waterlilies and pickerelweed. The coralberry was probably one of the few plants transplanted from elsewhere on the property.
Evergreen, or almost evergreen shrubs typical of the era – privet, pomegranate, winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima), Chinese photinia (Photinia serrulata), vitex, and Nandina domestica – are all imports, but are well adapted and still present. These shrubs were popular because they were easy to propagate and could survive unwatered yards of the time.
The most popular tree with the Bandys was the crape myrtle. Every part of the yard and many fence rows were planted with the red crape myrtle. Only one is another color – a white. On one fence row, crape myrtles were alternated with native redbuds.
In the orchard, one row of three jujubes (joo-joobs) was planted along with a row of peaches and a row of plums. The peaches and plums are gone, but the row of jujubes is not only still healthy, but jujube is coming up everywhere. Highly popular as an orchard tree 50 years ago, the fruit fell from favor, and would have passed from our landscapes, except that it is so drought-resistant, well-adapted, and attractive to wildlife. It is a small tree, usually under 20 feet tall, with very shiny dark green leaves and dark rough bark.
In the sunny field containing the jujubes and bordered by the pasture, thick with Mexican hat in the summer but boasting other displays of wildflowers at various seasons, are a cluster of the winter-hardy bird of paradise Caesalpinia gillesii. This long-blooming shrub is finally becoming available again. The flowers are large and showy, yellow with red stamens – wonderful all summer. Though native to the tropics, this shrub proved root hardy even in the freeze of 1983.
Flowers that survived and are still thriving are Lantana camara, cannas, bearded iris in a rainbow of colors, and Sedum spectabile. The sedum is especially amazing, because it is in four large urns set on the stone-and-brick walks bordering the formal pool.
The Westons dream of someday restoring the property to its former glory. But they are realistic about the time and money required for this task; both are in short supply. For now they are planning to clear out the hackberries, restore the stone work where affordable, and then extend the plant palette. Rusty blackhaw viburnums, lacebark elm, wax myrtle, chinquapin oak, and Chinese pistache are just some of the plants they plan to experiment with next.
Still, Sue and Randy are determined that one day this land will again be “the showplace of Tarrant County.”
By: Sally Wasowski with Andy Wasowski. Sally is a Dallas-based landscape designer/consultant. Andy is a freelance writer. They are the authors of “Native Texas Plants: Landscaping Region by Region.”
Glimpses from the Past
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