Sometimes, a garden waits for you. Texan Jeanne Larson always knew she would return to the place that felt like home.
The Larsons’ modest 1920s house in the Old Highland Park neighborhood of Dallas, Texas has Cape Cod architectural elements but was probably a farmhouse moved to the site.
Jeanne Larson and her husband Bill—fiancé at the time—bought their 1,400-square-foot starter home in 1977. But by 1984, it was just too crowded with two kids and hopes for more, so they moved four miles away to a newer neighborhood with larger homes and kept the smaller house as a rental, later buying the house next door, too.
By August of 2009—32 years after they first bought the house—the Larsons’ three kids were grown up and on their own, and the two women who rented the homes were ready to leave. “In my mind, this was a sign that we were meant to move back,” Jeanne says. The neighboring house came down and changes to the landscape proceeded quickly.
A diminutive white picket fence just 2 feet tall patterned after one seen along the Jersey shore adds punctuation to the front yard without overpowering it. “That gave me the bones I wanted,” Jeanne says. The fence provides a look of enclosure without marring the beauty of the salmon landscaping roses in front and the white daisies behind.
Jeanne always keeps rocking chairs handy on the porch, which is flanked by Knock Out roses trained as standards.
Soft lamb’s ears in bloom and cherry-red Knock Out roses take little care. Jeanne loves the easy-to-grow pink hedge rose ‘La Marne’ for its good fall bloom, and her “absolute, all-time favorite rose,” Marie Daly, developed specifically for Texas gardens.
Creating the right paths were a key element of design. “I’m really a soft-surface person,” Jeanne says. “I have no hard paths other than a teeny cement curb.” Having permeable pathways not only looks beautiful, it allows rainwater to remain where it lands instead of running off.
Pea gravel jumps into flowerbeds, so Jeanne chose crushed granite. The original 4-inch layer of granite on the paths has sunk nearly 2 inches into the ground now, creating an easy-walking surface. She chose pink-and-gray granite that looks even pinker when it rains. “I like a lot of pink,” Jeanne says.
The white arbor, adorned with the climbing rose ‘Zephirine Drouhin’ and clematis, with crushed granite path below beckons visitors to come inside the garden.
A bit of water trickles constantly in a front-yard fountain located near berry-filled yaupon trees. Jeanne hopes to attract birds of all kinds, but especially her favorite, one of the state emblems: the mockingbird. “They’re the last to sing at night here,” she says.
Mulch is Jeanne’s must-have garden “tool” to conserve moisture in the face of ever-tighter restrictions on watering. Here, it aids pole beans twining up the shepherd’s hook, phlox, landscape shrub roses, and ‘Stella d’Oro’ reblooming dayliles.
“I mulch faithfully,” Jeanne says. Between the rows of her vegetable bed she uses hardwood chippings from a local arborist, or finely chopped hardwood mulch from a store. Around plants that slugs like, such as petunias or strawberries, she places a layer of locally available cracked pecan shells. The slugs don’t like the sharp edges, and the uniform, fine-textured shells look beautiful to Jeanne.
Purple coneflowers, native in much of the eastern and central portions of the United States, are low-maintenance and beautiful.
The double lot allows Jeanne to have something most gardeners merely dream of: an expansive cutting garden. Her massive 30 x 50-foot cutting garden produces a bounteous assortment of blooms, including several varieties of perennial phlox, seeded annual zinnias, multiple salvias, “stick ” verbena, yarrows, daisies, roses, sunflowers, and old fashioned cleome, “which I love with their whiskers and lacy look,” Jeanne says.
The space was so large and productive that she invited friends and neighbors to cut flowers and herbs for themselves. Others volunteered. Now, six to eight people from a core group of 25 can be found at least once a week in the garden, sipping cool beverages, nibbling on treats, and cutting and tying bouquets of herbs and flowers that are sold at a local market. Often, volunteers swing by to weed and tend the garden, perhaps snipping a few herbs or picking a few tomatoes for themselves.
In the North, overhead watering can lead to mildew issues, but in the South the water knocks off spider mites and dries before causing diseases. The 1,000-gallon cistern on the back of the house collects rainwater from the roof. “It’s amazing how little it takes to fill it,” Jeanne says. “I access it with a hose, and my plants are getting the good stuff.”
The heavy iron wheelbarrow now filled with clay pots is a treasured reminder of her grandfather, who mixed grout in it when working as a tile-layer.
A teal and gray shed anchors one corner of the lot and cutting garden. The 80-foot by 200-foot lot is encircled with a thick windbreak of trees and shrubs. A creek trickles through the back of the property. “You feel like you’re in the country here,” Jeanne says, even though they’re only about five miles from downtown Dallas.
One of Jeanne’s favorite roses is ‘Julia Child’, one of only two yellow varieties she grows. The other is ‘Peace’: “You always have to have ‘Peace’,” she says.
Tiny wind chimes dangle from an iron circle, punctuating a bed with daisies, blue plumbago, and purple-burgundy foliage of Tradescantia pallida, a type of spiderwort that can become invasive if not controlled.
Jeanne designed a series of small garden rooms linked by meandering paths that give the same feeling as the small, boxy rooms inside the house. Jeanne and the gardeners relax on chairs that have either come from “curbside shopping” excursions, or from friends and relatives. When not doubling as tables, these galvanized buckets hold the bouquets of flowers and herbs she takes to sell at a local market.
Throughout the yard, Jeanne envisioned a cottage-country garden, repeating some plants, and using others with similar color schemes to unify the landscape. “I like to spot the same plant throughout the yard and in between, I can add all kinds of funky things.”
Although they look charming, the gloves splayed over the edge of a garage-sale birdbath aren’t there for decoration. Jeanne tosses them there to dry out after gardening. “I keep gloves on every edge of the garden,” she says.
The old scissors hanging on a hook on the arbor are only there for decoration, as if ready to be grabbed on the way to the cutting garden. “They just look cute,” Jeanne says.
Instead of a vertical ending to her miniature white picket fence, Jeanne chose a dog-eared angle to the ground.
Here and there, a stray plant pops up where it wasn’t ever planted. “If it does well, I want it to be there,” says Jeanne, who loves the serendipity of finding yellow butterfly weed (Asclepias) in the front yard when she only planted it in the back. “I like the feeling that I’m not controlling nature.”
Favorite metal chairs, recently painted teal, came from Jeanne’s grandparents and are still making happy memories. “They were always on my grandparents’ screened porch,” Jeanne says. “Then my aunt had them in the ‘60s, and they were painted a dusty pink.
As Jeanne reflects on the journey that brought her back where she started her married life some 3½ decades ago, it’s clear that, to her, this is no ordinary place. “I love the feeling I get when I walk from the house to the end of the arbor,” she says. “I wanted it to feel like Eden.”
Jeanne Larson’s flock of garden chairs includes a charming metal chair with wire motifs of daisies ringing the back. Cushions keep it comfy.
Within the confines of the encircling trees, lush gardens, found objects, and cherished garden ornaments, she cultivates more than plants.
“From a spiritual standpoint, I feel like I’m being protected,” Jeanne says. “I feel like I’m being led by a higher power. I feel like I came home.”
Garden smarter—not harder!
Jeanne Larson of Dallas works part-time as a dietician, sells her own flowers, herbs, and vegetables at a small market, and tends her own garden as well as gardens at a nearby church and convent. Her secret? Gardening smarter.
MULCH, MULCH, MULCH Mulching accomplishes so many tasks with one step. It slows evaporation of water from the soil to conserve moisture for plants; it insulates the top layer of soil, keeping it cooler in hot summers; it suppresses weed growth; and organic mulch breaks down over time, adding nutrients to the soil and improving the soil structure.
GO NATIVE Add native trees and shrubs or newer cultivars of them to your landscape. Natives are adapted to your area so they will need less care from you. Jeanne like Mexican buckeyes (Ungnaidia speciosa), small trees that grow and bloom without the need for supplemental water.
LET IT BE Strive for grace, not perfection. “I don’t prune things a lot,” Jeanne says. “It doesn’t have to be perfect.” She harvests dried seedheads from zinnias, daisies, and coneflowers to sow around the yard. Shrub roses are easiest and take the least maintenance.
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Photographed and produced by Carla Sayklay
© Caruth Studio