Gardening with Stone

I am in awe of anyone who gardens in Texas. Whenever I go back to Ohio, the East Coast or “England’s green and pleasant land,” I want to scoop up all the hanging baskets of nasturtiums, hydrangea beds, lilac bushes and window boxes of impatiens and bring them home with me, where they would promptly die.

Combine Texas heat and drought with my native incompetence and a walled, nearly lightless condo courtyard, and you have years of sorry failure. With one raised bed and several containers, I’ve tried (and failed) to grow everything from ageratums to zinnias.

The saddest case—because for awhile it was so successful—was a jasmine that grew heavily on a trellis used to screen off the heat pump unit. Sadly, I never photographed it, but it bloomed and scented the air promiscuously. Between last year’s drought and the jasmine’s proximity to the heat pump, no amount of watering saved it. By last fall it was a heap of beautiful copper leaves.

BEFORE: White marble and paving stones

Soon after we moved into our condo 13 years ago we covered the small “lawn” of scraggly grass with paving stone and white marble. Since then we have acquired grandchildren, and it wasn’t a very friendly play space. Chloe played in the dirt in the unused flower boxes (in which had died caladiums, geraniums and heaven knows what else), but garden dirt is probably not healthy and may explain the case of ringworm she got last year.

I might as well admit I’ve never been a very successful gardener. My ex has a green thumb and we had beautiful gardens and a house full of indoor plants. I should have the gene, too—my parents always had beautiful gardens, and one of my sweetest childhood memories is my father giving me a few rows in our family vegetable garden in England. I grew peas and ate them straight off the vine. When my ex put in an 1800 square foot garden in our first Texas home (a mini-ranch on what was then the outskirts of Austin, now surrounded by subdivisions)  he planted sugar snap peas, which the dog ate off the vine. Some things aren’t changed by time, latitude or longitude.

The retaining wall for a raised bed between house and garage was made of railroad ties, which had rotted, and when I pulled out a three-inch long spike it was time to fix things. Being retired, I was determined to do it cheaply.

BEFORE: Entry from patio

BEFORE: Raised bed, trellis (without dead jasmine), rotted railroad ties

We raked up all the white marble, which had been a mistake from the get-go: too bright when new, and then filthy. We reused the paving stones to form a new patio, and replaced the marble with river pea pebbles, which are sandy beige when dry and warm brown when wet. The bags weigh about 65 pounds each and we used 20 bags, making multiple trips to our nearby Home Depot so as not to weigh down our vehicles. (I may need a visit to a chiropractor soon).

BEFORE: The “allee,” entry from gate into courtyard

Stones cleared away.

After ripping out the dead jasmine, I removed the trellis and found, at Hobby Lobby, a piece of yard art with butterflies on it. It was very neutral, so I painted all the butterflies. But it was still a little boring. I save every bit of ribbon and lace and fake flowers, so I tarted it up, even using twigs and some of the dead jasmine leaves. Our handyman said he thought Chloe (my five-year-old granddaughter) had done it, and I told him that was what I had in mind. Chloe loves it.

AFTER: Chloe’s butterfly screen with found objects

My favorite butterfly

I reused the flower box in which Chloe had played in the dirt, and sprang the three bucks for a bag of clean play sand and another few dollars for some sand toys, adding discarded kitchen pans and tools. Her restaurant, “Sara’s Kitchen” (named for one of her favorite PBS cooking shows) reopened for business, with new patio dining space.

Condo-sized sandbox

I considered a rain barrel, which costs about $100, but being cheap I instead used two wastebaskets (formerly used for separating recycling, but we now have single-stream) and paid $7 for an adjustable window screen that sits on top of them to keep mosquitoes and debris out of the water.

Rain collection bins behind the AC

The condo association rebuilt the stone wall, including labor, for the difference between railroad ties and stone, and we opted for posterity, also figuring it enhances the resale value of the condo. The whole project cost around $600, including the premium for the wall. All that’s left to do is get some art for the bare gray walls. I’m considering a Mexican pottery sun, but welcome other suggestions. Since we already have the Japanese lantern, perhaps something Asian?

AFTER: Allee with low-water use yucca

Our new outdoor living space. We have a patio on the public western side of the condo but this is lovely for morning coffee and the newspaper…

…or an afternoon drink and a magazine.

Near the entry. Neither plant is real; I gave up after years of seeing everything die from too little light.

New stone wall. The monkey grass and ruellia have always done pretty well. Pool toys have their summer home behind the garage.

New stonework. The contents of the pot died.

Welcome to our condo courtyard.


Addendum May 26: We got some wall art.

We went with the obvious: Mexican pottery in Texas

And lest you think we live in a lifeless world of stone, our west-facing patio is quite green, with hanging plants and a ledge full of herbs: oregano, rosemary, two kinds of basil and two kinds of mint.


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