Jodie Jones discovers the award-winning Balcones Residence garden
High above Austin, Texas, in an undulating topography of limestone, evergreen shrubs, live and red oaks, the uncompromisingly contemporary architecture of the Balcones Residence makes a bold statement.
The view was very different when its owners first acquired the property. Having bought a tired 1970s home on a fantastic four-acre plot, they engaged architect Mell Lawrence and landscape design practice Word + Carr to completely reinvent the site.
“It was a garden allowed to run its course,” explains Mark Word. “The unattended character of the surviving garden served to emphasise the careful precision of the concrete form work. We thought that idea should become thematic.”
The resulting design is organised around a series of negative spaces created by the architecture. Materials were chosen to blend seamlessly with both the architecture and the surrounding landscape. Steel, gravel and boardformed concrete were all repeated, complementing the main house, guest annexe and pool.
The sloping nature of the site, with a fall of nearly 8m from highest to lowest, was also harnessed to dynamic effect. Visitors arrive through the lower garden, where functional steps have been reworked to become a strong feature of the design. The cleverly intersecting angles of these steps create a sequence of landings, encouraging the visitor to pause and framing set-piece native planting combinations that contrast effectively with the precision of the steel-edged risers.
Air spading was used extensively across the compacted and overgrown site. “This has massive advantages over shovelling or removing invasives, such as bamboo, by hand,” says Word. “Our soils tend to be heavy and very tight. Air spading makes the dirt friable and loose enough to remove a much better percentage of unwanted roots and rhizomes without them breaking off and leaving behind significant pieces.”
In addition, he reports that the health and vigour of trees on a site tends to improve rapidly after the soil has been worked over with an air spade. As an unexpected bonus on this particular project, air spading revealed a sinuous limestone strata, which was so attractive that its newly exposed edges were incorporated into the plan. Not only does this revision enhance the overall design, it also underscores the site’s sensitive redevelopment.
The clients requested a low-maintenance, low-water planting scheme. Some existing plants from the old garden, including rosemary and Tradescantia pallida ‘Purpurea’ were edited and allowed to remain among the newly planted Texas natives. Cacti are presented in bold groups along with succulents and a number of native grasses.
Notable amongst the grasses is a new pennisetum cultivar, P. ‘Kickass Grass’, from Pat McNeal of McNeal Growers. “He’s been instrumental in expanding the options for our climate and soil types,” says Word. “It never came to prominence in the retail trade, so we divide a few each autumn and keep a small stock.” The cultivar is particularly effective on this exposed site, where the wind causes it to ripple and sway.
The garden recently won the ASLA Residential Design Category Award of Excellence 2019.