Dry Creek Hillside Design: Clay Soil and Shade

three woman on backyard boardwalk
For over a year, garden designer Leah Churner’s Instagram pictures caught my eye as she carved a dry creek bed into a rocky, gumbo clay hillside. She and fellow Delta Dawn Gardens designer Holly Gardovsky gradually added plants—native and adapted—that get along with shade and heavy soil.
woman on backyard boardwalk; house in background
Home to Lori Najvar, documentarian and artist, and architect Glen Chappell, we headed out in late November. Hard-hitting rain and bone-chilling cold cut that visit short. When we returned in early December, plants were unfazed with the nips, but we donned wooly beanies!
hilltop house with live oak trees and garden art
When Lori and Glen fell in love with the view over Barton Creek, Glen designed the house to tuck in gently between a rugged cliff and mature live oak trees.
covered patio to hilltop landscape overlooking tree-covered view
“We both love nature and love the creek so much that we want it to feel more like that instead of like a sculptured formal yard,” Glen said.
plants on shady hillside with dry creek bed
But until they met Leah in 2021, it was a failed wildflower meadow and erosion made worse by rainwater that sluiced down the slope.
three woman and dog on backyard boardwalk looking at plants
“In addition to building the dry creek, we also added some terracing with Eastern cedar logs. But they really help to stabilize the slope because they’re very, very slow to disintegrate,” Leah said.
plants and boardwalk under live oak tree
In a pandemic project, Glen and friends had already built the boardwalk for easier navigation and views from all angles. Leah and Holly softened the edges with native and adapted plants, young now, but promising the look of a collaborative natural environment within a few years.
decking around a sunken pond
The pond is yet another Glen pandemic project. With pick in hand, he excavated a 7’ x 2’ wide hole, an impressive feat in rocky clay soil. Luckily, stuck-at-home neighbors cheerfully jumped in. Glen decked around a plastic stock pond, deep enough to deter fishing raccoons. Quickly, toads and Leopard frogs joined the nightly wildlife chorus that Lori and Glen treasure.
house, live oak trees and plants around a dry creek
Leah built on his designs to celebrate the views from inside, elevating some vantage points and screening others.
woman digging into soil
Like Glen and his pond, she wielded a pick to work her way through the soil to plant. Watch our video.
succulents and flowering plants against a dry creek bed
The rocks she unearthed did come in handy, though, including a mound for sedums, graptopetalum, Euphorbia rigida, Nolina texana, and Agave virginica/Manfreda virginica. Evergreen bearded iris don’t mind the heavier soil at all, and get enough light since Glen had the trees limbed up. Beyond, shrubby boneset (fragrant mistflower) continued to bloom for pollinators.
dog on long porch above a hillside garden
Rocks around new plants deter armadillos and doggie armadillo imitators, like sweetie pie Grover, here watching Ed Fuentes and Doug LaValliere for any signs of a treat.
elevated covered patio hillside garden
Before Leah installed plants, she sheet-mulched for months with a layer of cardboard, compost, and mulch. With every planting, she adds more compost to improve aeration. Here’s a quick clip about amending clay soil.
house and covered patio above hillside plantings
She chose plants that work in dappled to heavy shade. Native and adapted plants include evergreen and seasonal bloomers to feed pollinators. “There is something to say about Central Texas, with the less formal approach gardens: I think it is a lot more interesting because you really do experience how they adapt to weather,” Lori noted. Here’s a partial plant list.
mountain laurel seeds mixed with compact discs
Natural beauty engages Lori and Glen year-round, from flowers to berries and seeds.
red Texas mountain laurel seeds in wire mesh container
Since their Texas mountain laurels produce bountiful crops of seeds, Lori gathers a few to display in clever designs from salvages.
moon gate supported by vintage wrought iron porch posts
In another salvage project, Glen created a moon gate from vintage wrought iron porch posts. Covered with passion vine in summer, it’s a whirl of bee and butterfly action for them and their neighbor.
metal teapot suspended in tree
He engineered a vintage teapot to slowly drip into the birdbath.
teapot suspended from live oak tree dripping into birdbath
The hose runs back to a spigot turned down very low, just enough to keep the water softly moving.
outdoor shower built against a cliff
In the corridor between the house and cliff, Glen built an outdoor shower. “They’re really a pleasure to use. I love being out there to watch the moon rise,” he said.
outdoor shower in corridor between house and cliff
Cliff chirping frogs serenade them by night, and by day, they watch little canyon wrens teaching their young to fly.
staghorn fern mounted near stained glass door
He designed a stained glass door that leads outside. In this little corridor, they harbor various container plants and a few of Glen’s staghorn ferns.
woman and man looking at staghorn fern as he lowers it to eye level
“I think they’re living sculpture. I think of myself as an art collector with them. The first one I saw was in a public botanical gardens years and years ago. And I just thought it was the most beautiful thing,” he said.
woman hugging dog in fern greenhouse
His collection ranges from the massive to the miniscule, each one a fascination. Since they must be protected in winter, he converted the original screen porch off the living room into a greenhouse.
old typewriter deer antler sculpture plants against cliff
“So there’s another thing about two artists coming from different perspectives in our homestead,” Lori explained. “We merge some of the collections that I do collect and his structure that he provides. It’s kind of fun.”
fire pit surrounded by limestone blocks with view beyond trees
In Lori and Glen’s “campground,” friends gather for music jams or just to hang out—a real bonus during the pandemic. I don’t know if Debra Peters and Jay Hudson ever joined them around the fire pit, but I thank them for generously sharing their spirited music “Zydeco Shuffle!”
three men and woman with video gear near PBS vehicle
Here’s our valiant crew: Doug LaValliere, director Ed Fuentes, me, and Robert Moorhead.

Watch Lori and Glen’s story now!

Thanks for stopping by! Linda