A West Texas Oasis
Horticulture Magazine, June/July 2002
In case you’ve never been there, Texas is Big. Leaving the last vestiges of the South behind in San Antonio, it is still five hundred miles west to El Paso and six hundred miles north to the top of the panhandle. Out in the middle of that vast triangle sits the oil country of the Permian Basin, an ancient sea bed which today is still an oceanic landscape now composed of bobbing pump jacks, knee high scrub oak and mesquite. In the center of the oceanic flatness, visitors seeking landfall will find the upstairs–downstairs sister cities of Midland and Odessa, a paradigm of the west Texas culture limned in the recent popular movie “Friday Night Lights”. They don’t call it “midland” for nothing — Alaska gardener Les Brake, who grew up in Odessa says, “It was always three hundred miles to anywhere.”
So it’s all the more wonderful, the sight that awaits visitors when they drive west out of Odessa on the Kermit Highway, (“ No Trees – 29 miles”), and roll down the gravel lane to Barbara and Pete Chambers’ garden. Massive banks of roses cascading out over the roadside fence are a harbinger of the impending reality shift. Turning into the driveway, colorful perennials, shrubs, roses and annuals welcome visitors to the garden oasis.
A LABOR OF LOVE
After years of living away from their hometown of Odessa, Barbara and Pete Chambers returned in 1989, and Barbara began caring for her ailing mother. The cathartic power of her love of nature and the garden returned to sustain her through a long period of personal grief and loss. “I always wanted to be a nurse, and I got to be one” she say. “Gardening is the most healing experience.”
The Chamber’s compound is divided into four distinct gardens. In them mingle the traditional and the wild. Their south-facing front garden was shaded for years by large cottonwoods, which Barbara recently had removed. “It was painful to see them go, but it was just too shady. I made a mistake in the beginning when I planted them so close to the house,” she laments. The influx of sunshine has imbued the area with a new vigor. A flagstone patio, bench and fountain are surrounded with a corona of color. Yellow Spanish broom, ( Spartium spp.), red autumn sage (Salvia greggii), blue catmint ( Nepeta siberica ‘ Six Hills Giant’), butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii), red-hot poker, oriental poppies, and various roses are knit together with drifts of pink Mexican primrose ( Oenothera speciosa) and mounds of lavender. Garden phlox , “Stella del Oro” daylily, obedient plant, ( Physostegia virginiana) — or disobedient plant as Barbara calls it — and other common perennials mix with butterfly-nurse plants like purple fennel, bee balm (Mondarda), parsley, and chokecherry.
The star of this front yard garden, however, is an dazzling Mexican sage plant that is only now finding its way onto plant lists elsewhere in the country. A tender perennial in colder climes, Salvia darcyi grows especially well in west Texas, mounding more than four feet high and six feet wide. It’s spikes of inch-long lipstick red flowers are held beyond foliage. “It’s my very favorite” Barbara declares. “It starts blooming in April and goes until November.” An added appeal is the plant’s neatness, with flowers that fad invisibly.
In fall, another showy native sage from the Trans-Pecos region, Salvia regla, grows three or four feet tall with tomato red flowers. Yarrow, ( Achillea “Moonshine”), black fountain grass ( Pennisetum setaceum purpureum), reed grass (Calmagrostis “Karl Forster”L, and other perennials nestle around the flagstone patio and bench.
AGAINST THE ODDS
Barbara’s big gardening epiphany came when she visited the xeriscape demonstration garden at the Commemorative Air Force’s Midland headquarters, which was created and maintained by the local Master Gardeners. Ablaze with large Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia , Salvia greggii (a west Texas native), desert willows ( Chilopsis linearis), Apache plume ( Fallugia paradoxa ), rabbit brush (Chrysothamnus nauseosus), yellow columbine (Aquilegia chrysantha) and other colorful perennials the garden opened Barbara’s eyes. She immediately enrolled in the Master Gardener program.
“I became obsessed and I read every relevant magazine and book to learn what would grow here,” she recalls. She also remembers how, at a Master Gardener conference in another part of the state, every person, without exception, said “You live in Odessa? – You can’t grow anything there”. She set to show them otherwise. And she did, with flair.
Barbara brings an artist’s eye to the garden. “I’m a painter. The only thing that I am as passionate about as gardening is painting,” she says. “I took art lessons for 15 years. I would stay up for three or four days working on a painting. I just had to get it done.”
Her skill with color shines near the new open-air “pavilion” on the house’s side. Themed in blue and yellow, flower beds flare out on either side of the cool north-facing structure, with drifts of bread poppies (Papaver somniferun) adding hints of pink and purple. A small white-flowered Texas native shrub, Bauhinia congestsa, adds vertical interest. Larkspur, red valerian (Centranthus ruber ), tickseed (Coreopsis grandifloara), Russian sage, native Verbena bipinnitifida, and rough-leaved Salvia transylvanica crowd alongside Gaillardia and grasses, mingling with cobalt blue pots to direct the eye toward the structure. Inky blue masses of Mealy Cup Sage ( Salvia farinacea “ Victoria” ), collude with Engelmann daisy (Engelmannia peristenia), a native wildflower that produces a tall, yellow thicket.
The shady meadow garden found under the tall trees on the property’s northeast quarter oozes with charm. Barbara had hinted to Pete that she really wanted a rock wall to make it a secret garden, and he promised her a surprise for her birthday. The surprise turned out to be a carved wooden shingle proclaiming “The Not So Secret Garden”. Today, the sign adorns an arbor covered with a massive ‘New Dawn’ rose , one of two entrances to a dappled glade that is reminiscent of Van Gogh’s The Starry Night. Pink evening primrose sprawls under the leafy canopy, with quirky birdhouses, statuary parked at jaunty angles and paths leading back to a cluster of red canna lilies (Canna ‘Phasion’) snuggled up beside a purple-leaved sand cherry ( Prunus x cistena ). The meadow has an Alice in Wonderland feel, especially at dawn or dusk. On the floor of the copse, there is love-in-a-mist (Nigella), Coleus, (Persicaria), , hollyhocks (Alcea rosea), larkspur, coleus and sedum.
Barbara is devoted to purely organic methods. She loves birds and butterflies and is willing to sacrifice any fussy neatness for liveliness. She has adopted a “no till” technique that works miracles on her plants. Each spring she top dresses the entire garden with a hefty layer of composted cow manure. She plants by digging a hole three times the size of the root ball, down through the compost. “I couldn’t believe how much better things grew,” she marvels. Barbara thinks the beneficial effect has something to do with not disturbing the microorganisms in the soil of this particularly difficult gardening locale.
Barbara’s laugh characterizes her relentless humor, unrestrained curiosity and. big-as-Texas spirit. When told that the breeze north of town seemed redolent with the aroma of petroleum and natural gas, she can’t resist one more jape. “I grow fragrant plants to mask that smell,” she grins. “When friends from Odessa used to come down to visit in our place on the Rio Grande in Del Rio, they would always sniff and say ‘What’s blooming?’ and I would tell them, “Why, that’s fresh air.”
She grins at this, and then hesitates for an instant when asked if she considers gardening to be her hobby, she pauses. “No,” she says, “It’s a magnificent obsession.”