Monday, February 25, 2008

A Visit to the Ogdens

On Saturday morning I had the good fortune to visit the garden of Scott Ogden and Lauren Springer Ogden in South Austin. I have to admit that when the tour opportunity came up I hadn't heard of the Ogdens. I certainly didn't know they are gardening celebrities, or that Lauren had coined the term "hell strip." I merely jumped at the chance to peek into someone else's garden.

I was thrilled to learn upon arrival that their front and back yards are primarily dry shade gardens. Live oak trees cover most of the yard. I am always looking for help with my dry shade front yard, and little did I know at the beginning how fortunate I was to be learning from these professionals. The Ogdens were delightful--funny, knowledgeable, obviously very passionate about plants, and generous with their time.

And wow, what a garden. The only downside of the visit was that we weren't allowed to take photographs, but I'll do my best to still give you a picture of it.

This urban garden is a plant collector's dream, jam packed with agaves, palms, and cycads, architectural power plants, which are softened and sweetened by plants with finer textured foliage. Because of the shade, the Ogdens choose plants that emphasize foliage and texture over flowers.

The garden is also tough and low maintenance. It has to be. The Ogdens live bi-state-ly: two weeks a month in Austin, and two weeks in Lauren's home in Fort Collins, Colorado. The plants must survive with watering. The only garden area with any irrigation is the hell strip and that's more because of the risk to life and limb when trying to water or weed near the busy street, than a concern for the plants' well being. Lauren has a very stern, off with their heads policy for underperformers.

Scott started this urban garden in 1999; the house and lot were what he could afford at the height of the dot com boom. The front yard was essentially a parking lot; the backyard held a bicycle half pipe taller than the house. The only amendment Scott made to address the heavily compacted soil was live oak leaves from his trees that he spread across the lot. On occasion he and Lauren have added rabbit food—alfalfa pellets—from Callahan's to reintroduce microbes into the soil.

Scott's gardening style is casual. His plan, if you can call it that, includes strewing seeds across the yard and waiting to see what grows. Part experiment, part laidback Austin. When he and Lauren married, the challenge became how to incorporate her desire for a more formal, designed garden with his existing beds.

(Scott's more infamous seeds came a palm in the parking lot at Expose, a nearby, ahem, gentleman's club. Lauren jokingly chastised him for adding that particular detail, but he assured her that he was there only because the way the palm was trimmed made it easy to see and "rescue" the seeds.)

One of the changes Lauren made was to add a circular space in the back to give the area more structure. Originally St. Augustine grass, the patch is now a form of Texas sedge that Scott rescued from an empty parking lot. The plugs made the space originally look like the hair club for lawns. Now, fully filled in, the sedge is very tough and low maintenance. According to Lauren, the fine texture makes the yard look bigger.

The plants Scott and Lauren include are from areas with similar soils and temperatures as Austin—the panhandle of Florida, the Mexican states due south of Austin, and South Africa, where the Ogdens have made several trips recently.

I really can't do justice to the number and variety of plants in the garden. The Ogdens provided us with a partial plant list, and it was three, single-spaced typed pages in a small font!

So I will try to highlight the unusual plants or just the ones that caught my attention.

In the front yard, Lauren pointed out golden groundsel, a small, ground cover. Its yellow flower isn't spectacular, but the foliage looks lush even through the summer. The giant groundsel also has dark green, wet-looking leaves.

While gardens are often used to soften or highlight a house's architecture, the Ogdens decided the best use for their garden was to hide the house! The front is covered in an evergreen clematis. A large Mexican weeping bamboo also disguises a less than beautiful fa├žade.

Palms and cycads are not my personal favorites, but I really liked the foliage on the silver Mediterranean fan palm, which is listed as a full sun plant but is growing well there in part shade.

The only flowering plants in the front yard were cyclamen. They are blooming now, but Lauren likes them because the foliage remains attractive for most of the year. And, if I remember correctly, they come back regularly. In the back yard, they grow hardy cyclamen, c. hederifolium, at the base of the trees.

In the one full sun area, in the backyard, the Ogdens have used some unusual plants to soften the mix of aloes and yuccas--fennel, giant fennel, and salad burnet. I was also taken in by an unusual purple oxalis with a beautiful tube-like pink bloom. A friend of Lauren's has been cultivating these, and they should be available at the Natural Gardener some time this spring.

Many of their bulbs were in bloom. Some of Scott's favorites include Blue Magic iris, which has beautiful reflective foliage in addition to the pretty flowers; grand primo daffodils, an heirloom variety that comes back each year; and toadshade bulbs, which have interesting foliage.

Among the other standouts were the sunquat, sour orange, Mexican grass tree, Saratoga bay tree, South African asparagus fern, tree yucca, and Arbequina olive tree.

At this point, I just have to stop myself because while I took notes, I was only there for little over an hour, which is isn't even enough time to notice all the plants, much less take notes on them all.

The garden really is full, too full, both Lauren and Scott admit, but when you hear them talk about each plant—each seems to have a fascinating history—you understand why they want them all.


  1. Pam/Digging

    I am so jealous that you got a personal tour of the Ogdens' garden. You took great notes and wrote about it so well that even without pictures I got a good idea of the space and the plants. Thanks for sharing!

    I hope you'll enable non-Blogger comments in your comments setting. My blog Digging isn't hosted by Blogger, so I'm reluctant to comment when other options aren't enabled. But I really did want to tell you how much I enjoyed this post. Thanks again!

  2. Pam,
    I keep trying to make the comments open to all. I hope this time it works! Thanks for letting me know it wasn't working.

  3. Yep, non-Blogger comments are now working. Thanks for listening, Vertie!

  4. Lauren Ogden thought up 'hellstrip'? Your whole post was fascinating, Vert, but that little fact sort of jumped out at me.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  5. Just found your blog. Good to see another Austinite gardener.

    How cool to get to see the Odgen's gardens! Your description was great.

    I am currently working on a bit of a garden redo - and have a ton of dry shade. Any chance you would share their plant list? If you are able/willing, I will send you my email address.