Anne Bellomy’s Austin, Texas, garden isn’t just a two-hit wonder, spring and fall. Since digging up her lawn to create a wildlife habitat featuring drought-tolerant plants that provide interest in every season, she’s turned a lifeless yard into a lively garden. By day, birds chatter, anoles silently skitter, and butterflies suck up nectar. At night, moths hover over moonlit flowers. “Every time I walk in the garden, I find surprises. I think that’s what I enjoy the most. The garden and the creatures are not the same from day to day,” Bellomy says.
It isn’t a whopping spread. No, it’s a typical early-1950s quarter-acre lot in a cozy neighborhood. When she bought her house in 2003, the front yard mimicked the rest of the block. Pecan trees framed curb-to-foundation St. Augustine grass and a few window-hugging shrubs. “It didn’t look bad. It was boring,” she says. Wildlife consisted of “a lot of mosquitoes,” she remembers.
Overall, it lacked the energy that excited her growing up in Panama, where her dad met her Panamanian mother when on location with the Panama Canal Company. “The country’s very vibrant and alive; the houses are brightly colored. There was a lot of nature, jungle actually, which attracted and supported a lot of wildlife. As a result, I like bright colors and I like life,” she says.
Unlike rainy Central America, Austin cycles through devastating arid years, which means restrictions on outdoor irrigation. Water-guzzling plants don’t make the cut. Although she adopted the basic xeriscaping principle—choosing plants with low-water needs—Bellomy extended its focus. “Xeriscaping taught gardeners about gardening with limited water resources. But the concept didn’t go far enough. It was mainly to minimize the use of water and didn’t fully address creation of habitat,” she says.
And despite xeriscaping’s advice to consider wildlife when making plant choices, many gardeners scooped up plants simply for their xeric attributes. Some, like exotic nandina (Nandina domestica), wound up on invasive-plant lists. Native plant garden designer Cathy Nordstrom of Sans Souci Gardens notes, “There is a reason the founders of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center took the notion of gardening with an eye toward environmental responsibility to its next level.”
That means fostering wildlife with native plants, which resonated with Bellomy. She took classes at the Wildflower Center, as well as the Texas Master Naturalist and Austin Habitat Steward programs. “They taught me about interdependence and ecology: geology, weather, soil, birds, insects, plants, reptiles, mammals, archeology, and even anthropology. That gave me a holistic view,” she says.
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.
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.
There are plenty of real animals, too, since her stair-step design offers habitat from treetops down to rocks and even leaf mulch. “Animals inhabit different niches. If you want a balanced mix, then you have to provide a mix of niches,” Bellomy advises.
She caters to picky eaters who choose favorites from a seasonal menu. In spring, insects mob the fragrant flowers of understory trees Mexican plum (Prunus mexicana) and Mexican redbud (Cercis canadensis var. mexicana). In summer and fall, the plum’s fruits and redbud’s seeds fuel birds until winter berries ripen on possumhaw holly (Ilex decidua).
Absolute tidiness ends the food chain too early. After perennials serve a flowery first course to pollinators, Bellomy lets them go to seed. When Engelmann daisies (Engelmannia peristenia) flopped over a path, she realized that goldfinches were weighing them down. Caterpillars chomping passion vines signal that another brood of Gulf fritillary butterflies is on the way. “Gardening for wildlife means embracing a certain amount of messiness and change,” Bellomy says. “But it is delightful to view the lively changing landscape, and satisfying to undo some of the harm to habitat caused by urbanization.”
Insect pests no longer dominate. Austin entomologist Valerie Bugh applauds the balance in Bellomy’s garden. “When the plants are diverse and well-suited to the location, the faunal populations that result will be an interesting mix, with no particular type of animal overpopulating to the extent of ruining its food source,” she says.
Restoring lost generations of wildlife takes patience. It’s time well spent, because even a small urban habitat leaves a big legacy to the future’s children: liveliness and discovery in their own backyard jungles.
Photography by Kenny Braun