This free-spirited Texas garden puts herbs front and center
A carefree cottage garden of herbs, annuals, perennials and roses surrounds Lucinda Hutson’s purple casita in Austin, Texas. A gate leads to a series of intimate garden rooms behind the house.
Recipe: Lucinda's Champagne Sangria
No one can drive past Lucinda Hutson’s little house in Austin, Texas, without gawking. It’s not so much the bright purple color of the house, although that’s certainly eye-catching. The house is a showstopper because lush gardens engulf every inch of outdoor space. Facing the street are annual flowers, herbs, roses, vines and perennial shrubs and trees, all thriving in the carefree confusion of a cottage garden.
Hutson is a culinary writer, garden designer and lecturer whose book The Herb Garden Cookbook (Univ. of Texas Press) has been in print for 22 years and reached the status of a classic. Just as that book is centered in the garden, so too is her life. The old gate to the back yard, topped with a trellis laden with Brazilian sky vine, hints at more surprises beyond.
Once inside the gate, a visitor enters Lucinda’s world of whimsy. The cozy backyard garden is infused with her spirit—her affinity for all things Mexican, her collections of primitive folk art, her humor and grace and, above all, her love of plants.
Lucinda’s garden is a living example of how to make the most of a small space in an urban setting. Although the entire lot is just 50-by-135 feet, it’s all the space she needs to entertain, explore, harvest or simply hang out.
"It was the herbs that did it," Lucinda says, recalling the beginnings of this garden extravagance. She grew up in the desert environment of El Paso, surrounded by cactus and gravel. As a student at the University of Texas, she studied the way Mexican women use medicinal plants. "I started to piddle around with herbs a little. I’d traveled all over Europe and Mexico, and I loved the way people there used herbs in cooking."
Lucinda moved to the little house on Rosedale Street more than 30 years ago, learned the basics of organic gardening from a friend, and started planting her own herbs.
Three decades later, the mature garden incorporates a wide variety of plants, from Mediterranean to tropical to Southwestern. The front-yard cottage garden has a breezy, welcoming style, while the rear garden is framed by large vines, such as passionflower, honeysuckle and coral vine, giving the area a cozy intimacy. Tucked into the back yard is a hand-built cedar cottage that Lucinda uses as her office.
Wherever you walk, you can find a comfortable place to sit or a table on which to set a drink: an invitation to relax and contemplate the view.
About 10 years ago, Lucinda began painting her home and garden with startling colors, reminiscent of Mexico and tropical fruits. The house is now vivid purple and coral, while the backdrop of the Mexican courtyard is bright blue. A yellow wall holds a collection of Mexican children’s chairs, which seem to float in the summer air.
This garden is guaranteed to make you smile as it reveals its secrets. Just inside the gate, a grotto of native stone surrounds a tropical fish pond and statues of mermaids. Enormous brugmansia flowers drape over the pond, emitting their tantalizing fragrance at night. Down the walkway, past the raised bed of herbs and salad greens, is the salsa deck—perfect for dining and dancing—graced with potted plants, including an allspice tree.
A festive tequila cantina is filled with whiskey barrels of mints and other herbs used to garnish beverages. Decorative tequila bottles line a walkway and whole wine corks serve as mulch for the garden beds. Some agaves make handsome garden accents. There’s even a refreshing outdoor shower for hot summer days.
Lucinda enjoys the treasures of this inspiring little garden indoors, too. As she fixes a guest a cool drink on a warm Texas day, she ducks quickly out the back door for a stalk of lemongrass and a sprig of mint for garnish. Beautiful, festive presentations of food are probably what she’s best known for, and the herbs in her garden are the flourishes. She dresses up a simple store-bought sorbet with a sprig of lemon verbena and a few Johnny-jump-ups. A pasta dish becomes a celebration when fresh chopped herbs are tossed in just before serving.
"You can make the simplest thing look so special," she says. "You can step outside and make something beautiful in a minute because you have all this beauty around you."
For more information about Lucinda Hutson, visit www.LucindaHutson.com.
Kathleen Halloran is a freelance writer and editor in Austin, Texas.
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