August 22, 2023
“When I first started, I didn’t know really what I was doing. I just love plants,” Colleen Belk told us when we visited on a cloudy day in May, gregarious pup Jellybean at her side.
Her 40-year journey on rocky land in deer country led to a new career and a garden that evolved in philosophy, design, and lifelong friendships. I met Colleen when she worked at Barton Springs Nursery, enthusiastically guiding me and so many other new gardeners.
Starting from scratch on land above Lake Austin, she and husband Brad delighted in building gardens and the deck that’s hosted family and hundreds of friends over the years.
When Brad, an engineer, watched Colleen struggle with a water hose after work, he designed and built a 4600-gallon rainwater collection system. That barrel to the left in the picture houses a gauge for what’s flowing in. Any thunderstorm meant a rush to the deck to whoop and holler as it inched its way up.
When we first taped her garden in the late 90s, the concept of cottage gardens had been eclipsed by the soldierly shrub and lawn regimen for decades. Colleen and I had both grown up with yards like that, but gradually got away from it. At first, our dads weren’t too sure about what their daughters were up to, but soon jumped on the bragging bandwagon!
To navigate the steep cliff, Colleen and Brad built a staircase and eventually a greenhouse.
Like many of us, she started with a few plants in a small island bed. Soon she had her eye on growth opportunities.
Colleen’s ideas grew as she hopped from one nursery to another, reveling in the community of plant enthusiasts. She became president of the Austin Herb Society. Then, she landed her dream job at Barton Springs Nursery with founders Conrad and Bernardine Bering. “I was given a lot of plants and my paycheck didn’t always come home,” she laughed. She started designing vignettes, like this one with native coneflower, blue Mediterranean fan palm, and Queen Victoria agave just out of view.
In 1992, the Austin Pond Society introduced backyard ponds for hands-on gardeners. Colleen worked with BSN colleague (and later designer) Scott Thurmon to craft a naturalistic pond using stones and boulders from around the property.
Colleen ventured into another design dimension, one that further populated her garden with beneficial wildlife. Various flowering plants join framing anacacho orchid. The sweet foreground plant is Eastern star sedge (Carex radiata).
At first, she used crushed granite to create paths. When someone suggested pea gravel for a brighter look, she went for it. “And it did change the whole look of my garden,” she said.
Every wander in every season invites a different view in sun and shade. Braced by foliar structure, flowers come and go against layers of leafy texture.
This one features Texas sabal palm, Will Fleming yaupon hollies and crape myrtle.
Brad encouraged boundaries to distinguish garden spaces. BSN colleagues built a stone wall at one end, and she topped their entrance with tire planters.
Colleen’s garden lies in deer country, and as much as she loves deer, she doesn’t want to share all her plants with them. Fencing the backyard spared roses and other favorite yummies.
In front, she sticks with plants that aren’t so tasty.
She does include a durable Sally Holmes rose along with retama and oleander, but deer can’t reach its topmost flowers.
At BSN, Conrad got her hooked on plant propagation. In the greenhouse she and Brad built, she grows up new plants from cuttings or seeds. Nary a visitor leaves empty-handed!
In 2020, Colleen lost Brad to one of those unexpected conditions that you never knew even existed. Her loving stories go deep with us all, and our hearts are with her.
Since then, garden therapy’s taken on a far deeper significance. “I just want to garden and be here and that’s what I’ve been doing.”
Watch her story now!
Thank you for stopping by! Linda