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Nature & Outdoors

Beyond Beauty: Great Texas Public Gardens

Explore four unique places: Fort Worth’s Japanese Garden, Austin’s Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Tyler Municipal Rose Garden and Houston’s Bayou Bend Gardens

Each of the gardens has set a unique course. Climatic considerations are key to all, but so is vision. Looking beyond beauty, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin and the Tyler Municipal Rose Garden are heavy hitters when it comes to research.

Bayou Bend Gardens in Houston exudes a sense of the prosperous Old South, while the Fort Worth Japanese Garden introduces visitors to the ultimate sophisticated sensibility where water, rocks, trees, structures and bridges are revealed in a series of stunning landscape perspectives.

None of our stories lays out a road map for achieving a specialized garden. But even the backyard enthusiast can take away some basic options and approaches for a modest garden.

Fort Worth Japanese Garden

Lose yourself in serene simplicity at this 7-acre sanctuary.

By Thomas Korosec
In Japan, gardens are an outgrowth of the idea that the good life is lived within the beauty of nature. Scott Brooks, senior gardener at the Fort Worth Japanese Garden, is not sure that included the great blue heron that has taken to hunting the shiny orange and white koi in his garden’s terraced ponds. “He’s a paradox for us,” Brooks says of the wily bird, which waits for visitors to toss fish food then spears its lunch from the thrashing school. “He’s a showstopper, but he’s eating a lot of our fish.”

Built in the early 1970s in a valley that was once a quarry and later a hobo camp, the 7-acre public garden is modeled after stroll gardens built in the Japanese hillsides by samurai lords. Fort Worth’s display comprises several Japanese garden styles, all enclosed by well-defined cedar walls and a castle-like entry gate. The so-called “hill and pond” style, which fills most of the valley, features an intricate network of paths, decks, verandas and viewpoints set among a series of serene ponds and waterfalls.

Plants in the garden are deliberately understated. “We don’t use a lot of flower color. You have mostly foliage color, a variety of textures, greens and grays,” Brooks says. The aesthetic sense flows from the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, a sort of rustic simplicity.

Much of the Japanese garden involves the subtle mixing of conifers such as Austrian pine with broadleaf trees and shrubs and fine ground covers such as mondo grass. The cedar structures—bridges, teahouses and so forth—are left to weather to gray to emphasize the ideal of beauty in rustic simplicity or poverty. Here and there, the look is broken by a few well-placed Japanese maples, which blaze yellow and red in the fall. Cherry blossoms do similar work in the spring.

Even more spare is the dry landscape style, usually referred to in the United States as a Zen garden, or meditation garden. Of the four dry gardens in Fort Worth, the best known is patterned after one in the abbot’s quarters of the Ryoanji temple in historic Kyoto. Fifteen boulders are arrayed in a flat bed of fine gravel, which has been raked into furrows. “The rocks may be islands, and raked gravel suggests waves in the open ocean,” Brooks says. “The concentric circles around the rocks raked in the gravel suggest surf breaking on the rocky shore of these bare islands.”

In Kyoto, doors leading to the dry garden open wide, integrating the inside of the abbot’s rooms with the meditative outside space. “To the Japanese, there is this blending,” Brooks explains. “The interior space is so integrated with the garden they are one in the same.”

• Although the untrained gardener might not be able to create a true Japanese retreat, small elements from the Japanese sensibility can be adapted anywhere. Consider a dry rock garden with ornamental gravel and stones representing a river. Or use an element with running water. Embrace simplicity and subtle colors.

Fort Worth Japanese Garden
Where: 3220 Botanic Garden Blvd., Fort Worth
Contact: (817) 871-7686,

Thomas Korosec lives in Dallas.

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Austin

Sow your wild oats with Central Texas native plants.

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers
Forget lush carpet grass, stately rose bushes and neatly trimmed pittosporums. Only Texas native plants and wildflowers inhabit the 279-acre Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, located southwest of downtown Austin. From formal designs to prickly cacti beds, 16 gardens exhibit some 650 species of primarily Central Texas natives that require less water and work, stand up to diseases and pests and provide wildlife habitat.

“That’s our mission here,” says Deryn Davidson, a resident horticulturist, “to show why it makes sense to plant natives instead of exotics.”

As a bonus, the handsome facilities are architecturally innovative. Overland Partners of San Antonio labored mightily to follow Lady Bird’s instructions to make the center “look like God put it here.” The architecture firm combined design that invoked the Spanish, German and ranchland heritage of the Hill Country with innovative “green building” features, such as rainwater harvesting, recycled materials and careful site preparation that preserved trees and natural features.

A tramp through the garden and 2 miles of walking trails gives visitors an understanding of why Lady Bird Johnson fully embraced the subtle delights of her husband’s beloved Hill Country. It’s a matter of appreciating what nature, rather than chain-store plant buyers, intended for arid Texas.

Here you can see what to plant in the broiling sun and what to plant in deep shade. For shade solutions, walk through the Woodland Garden, where such Texas natives as Turk’s cap, pigeonberry and inland sea oats thrive beneath the dense canopy of a red oak, Osage orange and live oak. Along a slow-moving creek, river ferns and water clover spill over limestone.

After the Woodland Garden, check out three Homeowner Inspiration Gardens, where you’ll see that even lawn grass can go native. Limestone, grape arbors and water features bring a regional resonance to many of the gardens, reminding us that the harsh, rocky Hill Country can be transformed into an oasis by shade or the sound of moving water.

Love butterflies? The Butterfly Gar­den abounds with some 350 species of nectar and larval host plants, grouped in various habitats (such as a marshy pond and a woodland edge). Here you’ll find butterfly weed, passionflower, black dalea, flame acanthus, hackberry and more, not to mention a host of colorful butterflies.

In the Theme Gardens, 23 beds show more ways to incorporate natives in your yard. Here you’ll see how to attract hummingbirds, use water features, design succulent gardens and protect plants from hungry deer.

Have your own native gardening question? “We always encourage folks to ask questions,” Davidson says. “We’re the ones in the gardens with dirty hands and shovels!”

• Acknowledge that Central Texas will never be as verdant as England. Find beauty in native plants that thrive in semi-arid conditions.

• No matter where you live in the state, ask your local nursery to stock natives and use them religiously.

• Opt for native perennials rather than flashy non-native nursery plants that are here today, pooped out tomorrow.

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
Where: 4801 La Crosse Ave., Austin
Contact: (512) 232-0100,

Sheryl Smith-Rodgers has written about wildscape gardening for Texas Co-op Power.

Bayou Bend Gardens, Houston

From camellias to azaleas, beauty is the name of the game at Ima Hogg’s southern oasis.

By Kaye Northcott
Lady Bird Johnson, who grew up in the luxuriant vegetation of deep East Texas, could easily have chosen to sponsor a neo-antebellum garden somewhere in the Piney Woods, rather than lend her name to an arid Hill Country garden. But even if a southern-style garden had suited her fancy, Texas already had one, conceived and overseen by another great Texas lady, Miss Ima Hogg, daughter of Gov. James Stephen Hogg. The garden creations and American decorative arts acquisitions for her Bayou Bend estate in Houston are of such renown that her unfortunate name has become a hallmark of good taste.

In 1926, Miss Ima, as she’s always been called, began building a grand estate for herself and her brothers, Will and Mike, who previously had resided in Houston hotels. The garden and Southern-colonial-style home were nestled into an oxbow of Buffalo Bayou. Once she got into landscaping the 14 acres of gardens, she never stopped dreaming and improving.

She gave her home and gardens to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in 1957. Both are open to the public. The River Oaks Garden Club oversees the gardens, which are the state’s only formal, organic public gardens. Steamy, subtropical Houston is the perfect location for this full-blown southern extravaganza with arcing fountains and marble statuary. The optimum time to visit Bayou Bend is in spring when the azaleas and dogwoods are in bloom. But the grounds and the home are open year-round, and there’s always something to enjoy such as camellias in fall and pink Japanese magnolias in winter.

Amid the heavily wooded acreage are eight unique gardens. Three are named after classical goddesses—Clio, Diana and Euterpe. The most whimsical of the eight gardens is the small Butterfly Garden with low shrubs and blossoming plants that form a colorful butterfly.

Everywhere, fragrant, easily bruised gardenias beckon as do antique roses and seasonal plantings. Relatively untamed areas afford traditional nature walks descending toward the bayou. There’s also the Topiary Garden, the White Garden and others named after mythical figures.

More than 50 years after Miss Ima deeded her home and grounds to the public, the gardens maintain their grandeur, inspiring generations with her philosophy: “A love affair with nature is a rewarding experience. It gladdens the eye and replenishes the spirit.”

If you can’t make a visit to Bayou Bend, order the picture book, Bayou Bend Gardens: A Southern Oasis, by David B. Warren (Scala Publishers Ltd. 2006).            
• You may not have 14 lush acres and a crew of gardeners at your disposal, but the concept of separate gardens can be applied to separate niches—or areas—in your yard. Rather than embracing the concept of a big open yard, go for specialized areas. Set aside a common area for adults and a play area for children.

• A cast-iron bench next to a small pool in a secluded elbow of your property can afford privacy. So can arbors, plant screens and hedges.

Bayou Bend Gardens
Where: 1 Westcott St., Houston
Contact: (713) 639-7750,

Tyler Municipal Rose Garden

Treat your nose to the nation’s largest public collection of roses.

Travel to Tyler for the sweetest smelling industrial display you’ll ever encounter. In addition to oil, Tyler has been a major producer of roses for more than a century. To honor the rose biz and provide a location for rose research, the city opened a municipal rose garden in 1952. The largest public collection of roses in the United States is on 14 acres in the middle of town next to the Harvey Convention Center.

From late April until frost, visitors can enjoy blooms produced by nearly 40,000 rose bushes representing approximately 500 varieties. The garden attracts more than 100,000 visitors a year from around the world. Rosarians come to check out the All-America Rose Selection test garden, one of 24 across the country. The national winners for 2009 are Carefree Spirit, Cinco de Mayo and Pink Promise. They have risen to the top of the list after a two-year trial for vigor, flower characteristics and disease resistance.

One can stroll through the formally laid out gardens and just enjoy the splendid blossoms or take notes on what you might want to plant at home. Check out the quaint Heritage Rose and Sensory Garden created by the Gertrude Windsor Garden Club with more than 30 varieties of 19th-century garden roses. A selection of David Austin bush roses is reminiscent of traditional English garden roses. There’s also a less formal IDEA Garden with many native perennials. It’s sponsored by the Smith County Master Gardeners. There’s also a daylily collection, a camellia garden and a meditation garden. The Tyler Rose Museum on the premises is a great place to get grounded in rose history and to see beautiful gowns from past Texas Rose Festivals.

Well before the municipal garden was built—in fact, 75 years ago—Tyler founded the Texas Rose Festival, which consumes the town for four days each October. Unless you want to plunge into the festival mania, avoid visiting the garden during the extravaganza. One of the most popular events, the Queen’s Tea, an elaborate garden party, is held at the gardens. It’s a time to pay homage to the rose queen and her court.

• Pay attention to what grows well in your part of the state before choosing roses to cultivate.

• Since fancy roses require serious cultivation, consider planting them in raised beds with special soil.

• Consider hardy old-fashioned rose varieties. (A great source is the Antique Rose Emporium, Most other roses need coddling. 

Tyler Municipal Rose Garden
Where: 420 Rose Park Drive, Tyler
Contact: (903) 531-1212,