Weekend Garden: Native Wisdom
A solitary cedar elm was the last tree standing on the once-wooded lot that Chip and Nancy Northrup purchased as the site for their new Dallas home. Years earlier the land had been parceled off from a neighboring house and cleared, eventually lying fallow as the previous owner’s construction plans stalled. While the land had few features to recommend it, the location has plenty. It’s a corner lot in an established neighborhood, fronting a park alongside Dallas’s popular White Rock Lake. The Northrups presented the challenge of blending their new home into the bare lot to landscape architect David Hocker, who found a simple source of design inspiration: He walked across the street and looked around the lakeshore.
“I knew if I took my cues from the park, the landscape wouldn’t feel out of place,” says Hocker. “In the areas that were relatively untouched, like a section of meadow that wasn’t being mown, I could see what plants would thrive here naturally, without excessive water or maintenance.” His plant palette and landscape plan evolved accordingly.
In a swale along the street, Hocker planted prairie buffalo grass and mixed in yucca and cactus, mimicking the look of the meadow. Making use of the soil excavated for the home’s foundation, he built up the areas surrounding the house and rimmed them with a retaining wall of locally quarried limestone—the “white rock” for which the lake is named. Broad slabs of saw-cut limestone became the starting point for a pathway that leads along the front of the house to a small lawn of hardy zoysia grass, then winds through the side yard and culminates in a patio with a dipping pool. Stacked limestone encircles the pool as well, with chunky river cobblestones and moisture-loving iris at its base. Hocker enclosed the pool area with his take on the traditional picket fence: Instead of wood, he used two-inch-diameter painted steel pipe, a material he says “related better to the architecture.”
Along the path he planted varieties of trees found in the neighboring park—live oaks, Southern wax myrtle, redbud, whitebud and additional cedar elms—offering some shade to the house and partially restoring the formerly wooded setting. Broad swaths of indigenous plants, like Texas sage, gulf muhly and Mexican feather grasses, weave under the trees and around the house. Planting them en masse increases their visibility.
“In nature, you see communities of plants together,” says Hocker. “When you put one or two plants here and there, people tend to think natives look weedy; I prefer to take a plant palette and explode it into more impactful mass plantings.”
In choosing species, Hocker paid particular attention to those that would add seasonal color or blooms, an element that was important to Nancy, who grew up in the Northeast. Hocker found regional plants that offered comparable appeal to the perennials of her childhood: redbud and whitebud trees that bloom in the spring, sage and yucca with pink flowers that last most of the summer, even varieties of grasses that turn bold colors in the fall. “He convinced me that you could use natives and still have strong seasonal interest,” says Nancy.
With landscaping complete, the original lone cedar elm now looks at home among a garden of its contemporaries. “In revitalizing and re-vegetating the lot,” says Hocker, “it felt like we were healing the property.”