A no-fuss, downsized garden that still brings joy

May 14, 2024

I adored Colleen Jamison’s former garden, with its inviting patios, winding paths, charming decor, and custom gates and arbors built by her husband, Bruce. I blogged about that garden 11 years ago, as well as the median of her street that Colleen transformed into a community park. You can view her garden on Central Texas Gardener too.

Colleen and Bruce are renovating their new old home

A few years ago, Colleen and Bruce sold their home and garden and bought a 1930s bungalow with a backyard rental unit in the Brentwood neighborhood. Colleen mourned her old garden for a while. Then she realized that she didn’t mind having a smaller yard. It was, in fact, exactly what she wanted.

Colleen set about making a new, no-fuss garden with tough, low-maintenance plants. This time around, her goal is a garden she can walk away from whenever she and Bruce travel, without worrying whether it’ll be OK without her. She’s resisting the temptation to garden up every inch, the way she did at her old place. She’s kept some lawn in front and back, and she’s focusing on adding splashes of perennial color, like black-eyed Susans, and planting trees to screen a busy street along their corner lot.

To hide the street, Colleen carved out a deep corner bed in the front yard. Trees fill the back layer nearest the street. Heat-tolerant flowering plants like sunflower, lantana, bulbine, and coneflower step down toward the lawn. An arched arbor set within the trees offers access from the sidewalk.

A potted palm makes a textural accent.

Sunflowers provide golden color and feed birds.

A flower plate, elevated on a stand, makes a picture-like focal point beside the round pads of a prickly pear.

A side path leads to a small patio tucked between the main house and the rental unit. Colleen turned this dead zone into a tiny courtyard with chairs, iron decor, and a Monterrey oak, which she plans to prune up to shade the space. Inland sea oats, a shade-tolerant native grass, fills the foreground.

The dangling oats move in the breeze and catch the light. They’re pretty in a vase too.

In the rental unit’s small backyard, Colleen opted for a no-lawn patio garden with trees around the perimeter for a green backdrop. A gravel path arcs around a central mini-meadow. Early spring wildflowers were recently replaced by summer flowers, just getting started…

…like sandpaper verbena.

Under the trees, a disappearing fountain gently burbles, enticing birds to come drink.

Colleen has planted around 40 trees on her small lot, she told me, focusing on making a green screen around the perimeter. Mexican buckeye is one of these, with its dangling, lime-green seedpods.

One of Colleen’s favorite trees is arroyo sweetwood (Myrospernum sousanum), an underutilized and graceful tree with fragrant white flowers and pea-like seedpods.

It was almost done flowering when I visited last week, but a few blossoms were hanging on.

The dangling seedpods look like the heads of ducks to me. Do you see it?

A blue-painted star mirror is dressed up with a tendril of berrying vine.

Bruce designed and built the gate that leads into his and Colleen’s backyard.

Their house overlooks a small lawn edged by a dense border of native trees, including Lacey oak, Monterrey oak, arroyo sweetwood, and anacua.

Native anacua (Ehretia anacua) leaves feel rough and gritty, hence its common name, sandpaper tree.

Colleen is training star jasmine up four trellises attached to the ADU. A long bench in front offers a spot to soak up the vine’s sweet fragrance. The fence is Bruce’s design. He louvered horizontal boards to admit light and breezes.

In one corner stands a handsome and shaggy beaked yucca.

In the middle of the border, a turquoise fountain makes a ribbed focal point.

Easy to maintain, the garden offers green texture and screening, seasonal flowers for color and fragrance, and bird-attracting water features. Best of all, says Colleen, she can enjoy it without being a slave to it.

Colleen Jamison

After all, the life of a gardener has seasons too. For years you may be all-in on your garden, planting it up, creatively sculpting an overall vision for your space, and enjoying the immersive experience as it comes together. Eventually, however, there may come a time when you want or need to scale back. Perhaps in retirement you want to travel or pursue other passions, or your body isn’t up to the physical work of intensive gardening anymore.

And that’s fine! It never has to be all or nothing. I’m grateful to Colleen and other gardeners for showing how to downsize gracefully, without sacrificing their gardening joy.

Thank you for sharing your new garden with me, Colleen!

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Digging Deeper

May 18: On Austin Home’s Great Outdoors Tour, held 5/18 from 10 am to 3 pm, find “Pinterest-worthy pools and outdoor kitchens to thoughtful plantings and stylish urban density solutions.” Tickets are $30.

May 18: Pop up to Dallas for the 2024 DCMGA Garden Tour on 5/18 from 10 am to 5 pm. Tickets are $18 if purchased online prior to 6 pm on 5/17, or $22 after 6 pm on 5/17 or at the event. For a sneak peek, click here.

June 1-2: Take a self-guided, 2-day tour of ponds and gardens in and around Austin on the annual Austin Pond and Garden Tour, held 6/1 and 6/2, 9 am to 5 pm. Tickets are $20 to $25.

Come learn about gardening and design at Garden Spark! I organize in-person talks by inspiring designers, landscape architects, authors, and gardeners a few times a year in Austin. These are limited-attendance events that sell out quickly, so join the Garden Spark email list to be notified in advance; simply click this link and ask to be added. Season 8 kicks off in fall 2024. Stay tuned for more info!

All material © 2024 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

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