Creature Comforts

An Austin garden nurtures wildlife, both great and small.

By Linda Lehmusvirta

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Argentine saguaro cacti (Trichocereus terscheckii) emerge from a berm at the back of the property. Their shape directs attention from foreground plants deeper into the garden.Along the way, she met Nordstrom and enlisted her design expertise. They focused on the front yard, where pecan trees dictated plants for dappled light. Nordstrom rendered a garden that exchanged one-dimensional turfgrass for multiple levels of understory trees and shrubs, perennials, clumping grasses, sedges, and groundcovers.

Bellomy’s plantings, which include succulents, reward her with visual and wildlife vitality, even in winter and blazing-hot August. Although she includes some nonnatives, all provide either shelter or food with pollen, fruits, berries, and seeds. Many leaves are also larval hosts for butterflies and moths. Not at all a “zero-scape,” a derogatory term for low-water design, it’s just the opposite: a vibrant sight for sore eyes when record-breaking drought turned neighbors’ lawns into dust.

In the back yard, pounded by brutal sun until its young trees mature, Bellomy massed flowering and fruiting plants that can take the rays. Never static, its nutritional color palette evolves with the seasons to feed resident and migratory creatures. 

She punctuated trailing and shrubby plants with clumping grasses Lindheimer muhly (Muhlenbergia lindheimeri) and deer muhly (M. rigens). Their narrow blades dance in a breeze. In fall and winter they stand out, with seedheads that shimmer in sun’s backlight.

Plains Coreopsis.They’re hard at work underground, too. “They send down very deep roots that help to catch rainfall, keeping it from running off the land into the street,” says Bellomy. “They also provide much more support for life underground than shallow-rooted lawn grasses.” Her dense clay definitely needed help after previous owners’ kids and dogs had pummeled it. She improved drainage and increased microbial life by aerating the soil’s compacted pores with compost and decomposed granite.

To also assist drainage, dramatize the flat grade, and improve the garden’s visibility from the house, Nordstrom suggested a berm. Bellomy created one with road base (a sand and stone mixture) and compost, then Nordstrom selected the plantings and other visual accents. “The grasses would not be happy over the long term at ground level,” she notes. 

While Bellomy tackled each area, she threaded paths around the beds. They proved to be too narrow when her tiny plants grew up. To prevent them from being stepped on, Yardworks designer Scott Thurmon came to the rescue. He widened the routes and added a bisecting trail with Oklahoma flagstone and crushed granite. “I suggested it was also a chance to make the garden more accessible to visitors and provide a more interactive experience with the plants and wildlife,” he says.

Thurmon punched up the topography with more berms. He nestled in boulders to offset plant textures and give lizards a spot to sunbathe. Large columnar cacti (Trichocereus terscheckii) direct attention past the foreground view and deeper into the garden’s layers. 

Bellomy added playful accents: vivid metal animal sculptures that remind her of Panama. “It’s fun for kids. The plants are about their height, so it looks like a jungle to them when they’re going through. We play a game, ‘How many of these animals can you find?’ They’re not just sitting out there in the open, because most animals wouldn’t be,” she says.

 
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