June 27, 2023
A Journey from Lawn to Lovely
Lawn dominated their new home’s hillside yard in east Austin when James Barela and Ray Delgadillo unpacked their imagination on moving day five years ago.
The goal: colorful gardens with water-conserving pollinator plants, a retaining wall to manage a slippery slope, and sensory outdoor living. Evergreens add privacy and windbreaks.
We first met James in 2018 at their rental house. When he got into houseplants and succulents, he took pottery classes to design and craft his own containers, supervised by adolescent Luna. He launched Baetanical, first as a blog, and then a marketplace when gardeners asked him to make some for them.
Luna’s all grown up now, and James has grown Baetanical beyond containers to home décor and ceramic art.
“The process of gardening is very much similar to the process of ceramics. They’re both very meditative and they’re both creative. And, you know, you kind of have those moments where you lose track of time,” he said.
“Since then, I’ve actually become really inspired during this process of building this new garden.
And now I start seeing some of the forms in some of my plants influencing the way that I work now,” he said. In fact, when cactus plants froze, he captured his heartfelt loss in clay.
Ray’s a product designer. “I’m on the computer all day. And so gardening complements my creative side by allowing me to do something meditative that takes me away from the computer and allows me to just get lost into some something that is also creative,” he said.
Their backyard sits on a dramatic slope, so it was like skidding down a hill of grass. To turn it into accessible gardens, they studied how to build a retaining wall. Then, they dug out hundreds (thousands?) of pounds of soil and sod. (Watch our video for shots of their amazing feat!)
Locally, they sourced heavy concrete blocks that lock together with fiberglass pins. To stabilize it further and build a gravel base for a plant border, they hauled 10 cubic yards of stone to fill the blocks’ holes and behind the wall.
After letting sod and loam decompose together for months, they mixed in native soil, Dillo Dirt, compost and some topsoil, topping it with mulch. New plants and seedlings took off like rockets.
To extend their patio, they built a deck out of Trex, a wood and plastic composite known for durability. When friends had extra Trex of their own, James and Ray used that to build raised beds. This patio bed features self-seeding plants, including native Rudbeckia maxima, cosmos, standing cypress, columbines and others that bring butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds up close.
It’s a beautiful view from inside, too, one that Luna shares with them, though bird-watching the little water fountain is more her jam.
Another challenge was creating privacy and a windbreak on their windy hill. They tried clumping bamboo, but it’s struggling after hard freezes, so they’re exploring alternatives. For now, American wisteria softens a fence and perfumes the garden in spring.
Existing mulberry trees on the neighbor’s side form a natural screen, delighting birds and squirrels with their yummy fruits (also a treat for Ray and James).
Against the main street, narrow Scarlet’s Peak yaupon hollies established quickly. Against the wall border, a ‘Sam Houston’ peach sweetens up summer.
They chose ‘D.D. Blanchard’ magnolias—supposedly a more vertical variety—to anchor both corners of the back fence. A peach tree screens the view with a sweet touch.
In the wall border, they tied together color end-to-end while varying texture, height, and foliar and flowering color. All suit pollinators and only get watered by hand in summer. They mix in several salvias, catmint, Russian sage, and an easy-care English rose ‘Alnwick.’
Get their plant list!
In front, they’re gradually digging up lawn, carving out beds layered with seasonal bulbs, perennials, grasses, and annuals.
A driveway bed hosts Mexican feather grass, desert globemallow, bearded iris, alliums, salvias, rudbeckia, spring bulbs, and annual cornflowers.
They’re going for successional planting, where every stage of every season brings beauty and pollinators. Here, Mexican feather grass mingles with rudbeckia, Jerusalem sage, and fall-blooming aster jumping in early.
You can bet that delivery folks just love walking up this sidewalk! In May, we’ve got Verbena bonariensis, Rudbeckia maxima, coreopsis, yarrow and others.
‘Royal Purple’ smokebush anchors the bed on the sidewalk’s other side where James and Ray repeated flowers to unite the two spaces.
They choose various flower shapes and colors to suit what different pollinators and birds eat.
Pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) joins Salvia ‘Indigo Spires’, rudbeckia and more. Their habitat includes anoles, lizards and even Texas horned toads!
A tawny emperor stopped by on sea holly (Eryngium Planum) ‘Blue Cap’.
The devil’s strip (coined “hellstrip” by designer Lauren Springer for that narrow strip against the street) demands plants that can take the heat.
James and Ray continually modify their assortment, which now includes bluebonnets, cornflowers, poppies, Russian sage, grasses, and gomphrena in summer.
On the main street side, they defined boundaries with evergreen Texas sage (Cenizo), Lindheimer muhly, Mexican feather grass, and an assortment of perennials and annuals.
Curious and creative, they start many plants from seed. Ray describes gardening “as kind of like painting with plants and you have to think about the seasons and how they’re changing, how the colors evolve.” James adds, “It’s been this nice thing for us to kind of explore together. . .And I think it’s been just a really nice journey for both of us to kind of go on.”
Thank you for stopping by! Linda