A Garden Full of Secrets: A South Texas Folk Garden

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Petey Nokes invites visitors to enter the garden through the archway.
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A sugar bowl, a concrete angel, a terra-cotta shell from a cracked flower pot, and an angular piece of karst limestone adorn this section of wall.
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An arbor vitae stands sentinel beside the pathway into the garden, surrounded by Confederate rose, hibiscus and an anacacho orchid tree. The terra-cotta mermaid watches the garden from her vantage atop the archway.
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With a pomegranate tree in the background and native larkspur and Queen Anne's lace in front, the wall turns into the yard and reduces from leaning height to sitting height.
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The garden circle, fifteen feet in diameter, provides a space for both solidarity meditation and social gathering.
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Native larkspur and an antique rose frame a corner of the wall. The grill is from India.

Jill Nokes, an Austin, Texas, landscape designer, has long had an interest in the folk gardens of south Texas and Mexico, and they have inspired her own spectacular garden and storybook garden wall. “I wanted to honor the artisanship of the people who create those folk gardens,” Jill says. “Folk gardens are an exceptionally exuberant effort by an individual to personalize his territory and possessions.”

In their backyard in Austin’s Hyde Park neighborhood, Jill and her husband, Jack, have crafted a tribute to these folk artists in stone, collected objects, and plants. Her garden is certainly more elaborate and sophisticated than the average folk garden, but the essential qualities of unrestrained creativity, uninhibited playfulness, and spiritual reverence abound in the stone wall that borders the yard, an archway that includes both sacred and secular sides, and the plants that Jill has chosen.

An inviting wall

Perhaps the crowning glory of Jill and Jack’s garden is a wall inlaid with a variety of objects that amount to a diary set in stone. The wall presents an archeological record of their–and others’–lives, from seventy-million-year-old fossils to marbles from Hobby Lobby. A birdbath bowl makes a large blue circle on the street side of the wall, while a male figure from the same birdbath adorns a mini-grotto. The cast-concrete angels are long-ago Christmas gifts from their daughter. Jill collects snow-globes, and because the wall was constructed in the autumn months following September 11, her New York City skyline/Twin Towers souvenir is embedded near the archway. The wall also includes pieces of black granite from Llano, Texas; a basalt stone from Arizona; fossil shells discovered during soil and water percolation tests; rocks Jill found along the Rio Grande; and the Exogyra fossils from a Cretaceous oyster bed she discovered behind an outlet mall in Comal County, Texas.

One of Jill’s criteria for the wall was that it be the “right height for leaning on.” The wall and the archway entrance are not meant to exclude passersby and neighbors, but rather to invite them in. “We were not aiming to create a private sanctuary,” she says, and indeed the wall has become an informal gathering place in their historic central Austin neighborhood. Neighbors and passersby sometimes add their own things to the wall; items left on ledges and in crevices have included a set of false teeth holding an old spoon, an old pocket dictionary, and a small antique medicine bottle. “Things like that appear and disappear, and at times the wall is like an interactive swap meet for trinkets,” she says.

Jill asked Berthold Haas, a stone carver, furniture maker, painter, and grotto builder, to design the wall’s archway. “The idea for the structure was to go as loosely as possible within the form, and be a little bit baroque,” she explains. “We needed formal edges to contain the chaos.” She and Haas picked through a large pile of gathered objects, looking for pieces that would fit within the structural constraints of an archway. Haas embellished the arch with flat stones that protrude from the surface to create ledges on which to place all sorts of things. He also used Swiss cheese-like karst limestone rocks with holes at different and sometimes intersecting angles, which are prevalent in the Texas Hill Country. He comments, half-jokingly, that the “holey” rocks contribute to the structure’s shrine-like appearance.

As the arch was under construction, Jill noticed the side facing the street was being composed primarily of objects with a religious association, while the items embedded in the side facing the yard and garden were of a more worldly nature. Of its own accord, it seems, the archway turned out to have sacred and secular halves. The grotto structure above the arch features a carved stone Virgin of Guadalupe statue facing the street, while the garden side is topped with a mermaid figure that Jill rescued from a broken pot.

Plants with stories

More than 275 species of plants and trees thrive in Jill’s garden–most of them native to South Texas and Mexico. Last spring she planted lots of annuals in close proximity, creating a look she calls “K-Mart on steroids.” Native Texas wildflowers provide a diversity of colors. In early summer, firewheels, or Indian blanket, fill the middle section of the curbside area between the wall and the street with their carmine flowerheads and yellow-tipped reddish-orange petals. Other natives include the larkspur (commonly called the espuelas de caballero because of its resemblance to a horseman’s spurs), the Maximillian sunflower, Zexmenia hispida, four-nerve daisies, red columbine, and the Mexican shrimp plant.

Jill has stories to tell about most of the larger plants. The brugmansia, or angel’s trumpet, a shrub in the nightshade family, makes fragrant blooms at Christmastime. The twisted-leaf yucca’s blossom is the nursery for an endangered species of moth, but the flowering stalk is also a delicacy for the over-populated white-tail deer who unfortunately devour the stalks before the moths mature.

The garden’s maguey plants make Jill especially proud. Meso-Americans believed the Creator gave them maguey to provide almost everything they needed. They made the large pointed leaf blades of this agave plant into plates, roofing material, and fiber for weaving. Other parts of the plant were used to make soap, medicine, and food.

A friend from the Rio Grande Valley brought Jill a large Spanish dagger yucca. Birds love the fruit of the vicious-looking granjeno, or spiny hackberry, but she says it’s on probation in her garden until she weighs its attractiveness to birds against its sleeve-snagging, skin-scratching characteristics.

Jill has also planted several varieties of native trees, including the shrubby, uncommon anacacho orchid tree from Val Verde County. Anyone familiar with the Texas Hill Country would recognize the Texas mountain laurel and the Texas redbud, which color the roadsides and hillsides with blooms in early spring. The mountain laurel blossoms resemble those of the wisteria vine, while the redbud’s branches are covered with thickly clustered pink flowers. Jill’s goal is for the garden to consist primarily of native shrubs such as the colima, or prickly ash, and the Vasey’s adelia, a rare south Texas shrub, which are already in place. “This garden is only two years old, but I envision a gradual evolution toward an enduring garden, an interesting collection of native or adapted plants, often overlooked, that are associated with a personal experience or memory,” she says.

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