Anyone who has ever gardened in Central Texas knows there are challenges. The heat of summer, the periods of drought followed by rain, the differences in soil even from west of Interstate 35 to east of Interstate 35, the wildlife who seek sanctuary yet can be pests.
Yet when a true backyard oasis is created, it can be an extension of the home's living spaces, a quiet refuge or gathering spot.
Today, we take a look at three of the homes on the new Austin Outdoor Living Tour on Saturday. The tour, from the creators of the Austin Modern Home Tour, will feature 10 backyard spaces in total.
RELATED: Austin Modern Home Tour features home that feels like a treehouse
Steve Shelton's property on Mesa Drive in Northwest Austin is like a magical wonderland that surrounds a typical red brick suburban house. Layer upon layer of native plants and grasses flow from planters Shelton's company Ecotopes has created. Many are prototypes, and Ecotopes uses the property as a site for experimentation.
Shelton, who has a landscape architecture degree from the University of Texas, combines steel and wood to create tall rectangular planters for anything from succulents to trailing vines. They are statement pieces found throughout the garden. Lower square planters serve as accent pieces.
Seating areas abound in this yard, from cantilevered benches at the front to picnic tables of wood and metal in the side yard to low Japanese-style seating areas surrounding a natural coffee table of rocks and succulents.
RELATED: Create a cool backyard for heat of summer
Shelton finds a way to get circles throughout the landscape. In one spot in the side yard, two tiers of circles contain zoysia grass topped by a round millstone in the center. Shelton uses mostly native plants, but he's experimenting with zoysia to see how it will hold up in this yard that has a lot of shade. One way he'll know it's working is if he gets approval from his wife, who likes a much more manicured, established look. In a spot in the front yard, a tree is surrounded by a rock circle with a bench. Circles also show up in raised planters that could be used as a base for a hibachi, and in a fountain.
Much of Shelton's yard is an experiment of materials left over from jobs. He built a bridge out of half of a metal pipe and then turned the remaining pipe into a fire pit. His children's playhouse turned into his office.
RELATED: 20-year dream comes true with backyard pond
This property is a certified wildlife habitat. At one point, a mama deer and her babies were hanging out here. Butterflies flock here.
There's a certain amount of flexibility in the design. A circle where Shelton thought he might sit and work became home to a beautiful agave that took root here. An old shed became an entrance to the backyard that blocks the view of the home's outside air conditioner.
Shelton thinks a property like his and the ones that he designs for clients are for "folks that have an open mind and don't want a stereotypical landscape," he says. They also don't want to have to water a lot to keep the landscape going.
A secret garden
Celeste Duarte wanted a secret garden in her backyard on Euclid Avenue in South Austin. At least, that was the way she wanted it to feel.
The function, though, and the whole reason she hired Native Edge Landscape, was to deal with the property's drainage problems. The flat lot didn't have a way to deal with water flowing off the roof when it rained, and it was affecting the home's foundation.
The solution had to be in the landscaping as well as adding rainwater tanks on the side of the house to collect the roof's water runoff.
Duarte didn't want landscaping that would require a lot of watering, and Native Edge's plan has allowed her to mostly just use the water in the tanks once a week to keep the garden alive. Most of the plants have taken root and thrived.
"We wanted it to be lush but not need to be watered and do well in the heat," says Native Edge's Jill Zimmerman. Now, four years later, Zimmerman says she's super impressed by how lush it has become.
They chose a lot of plants that offered textures and different shades of greens and grays. Some do flower, but they all have interesting leaves.
They listen to the garden and let it follow its nature. The plants are allowed to grow into the space. That means that sometimes when a volunteer plant shows up elsewhere, they embrace it. And when a plant starts to take over some of the gravel areas between paver stones, it's not a bad thing.
Native Edge created different areas of the garden. A rectangular patch of grass serves as the play field. Benches on each side give spectators a space to enjoy the games. A hammock in a corner was where Duarte spent her first few months of motherhood with her daughter. A large picnic table is where Duarte can envision her daughter coloring or doing homework as she grows. And a large concrete pad features an outdoor living room set, which is great for adult entertaining.
RELATED: Step inside one Cool House Tour home made with owner's future
Eventually they might add a pergola with plants growing on it over the outdoor living room to give it more shade, but for now there are many ways this family and their friends are able to move through the garden and make it their own.
Privacy off a busy street
The house off Clifford Street was nondescript. When homeowner Dan Street called Moontower's Jeff Muñoz to talk about a paint color in 2015, it turned into a complete remodel inside and the landscaping outside. The landscaping was a collaboration between Moontower and Foresight Land Design.
The remodel was designed to be very open with big windows, but the view from those windows of busy Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and the dumpster of the corner store wasn't inviting. The solution was jasmine climbing on metal privacy screens in the front yard and cedar screens on two levels of the front porch.
The homeowner also wasn't sure what he wanted from the backyard. There was talk of a pool or a yoga studio or both. They decided to keep it pretty flexible with a screen of bamboo contained by metal fencing to keep it growing upward at the back of the yard. They left most of the backyard gravel or mulch while a future plan revealed itself.
The front yard became the focus of entertaining for now. A picnic table gets shaded by a Mexican sycamore, which is fast-growing and in two years has already created that shade. A European olive tree is on the other side. Pots of a dwarf fruit trees line the walkway. A hedge of xylosma across from the jasmine defines the shape of the yard. Planters with succulents sit in front of the porch.
One of the biggest changes was the placement of the driveway. It originally sat in the middle of the front yard. Now it has shifted to the side to make the yard more usable.
Most of the plants were chosen with the idea that they did not require a lot of water. They are on a drip irrigation system, but after a few more years, they will be established and will probably not need that, says Kyle Bryant of Foresight.
With the remodel of the front yard, especially, the homeowner has so much better use of the space, says Moontower's Frank Farkash. Entertaining doesn't have to be relegated to the indoors. The homeowner and his guests can sit on the front porch or at the picnic table and enjoy the yard while feeling connected to the street and the neighborhood but not consumed by it.
RELATED: What's the best sunscreen? We put more than 20 to the test