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Annie in Austin
Welcome! As "Annie in Austin" I blog about gardening in Austin, TX with occasional looks back at our former gardens in Illinois. My husband Philo & I also make videos - some use garden images as background for my original songs, some capture Austin events & sometimes we share videos of birds in our garden. Come talk about gardens, movies, music, genealogy and Austin at the Transplantable Rose and listen to my original songs on YouTube. For an overview read Three Gardens, Twenty Years. Unless noted, these words and photos are my copyrighted work.
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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Green Screen

Those of you with larger lots may see little need to plant trees and shrubs for privacy, but where houses are crowded onto quarter-acres, there are some of us who find a green screen is not just a nicety, but is essential for sanity. Two pecans, probably planted in the late 1970’s, shade the right half of the back yard.

When we first hauled our 100-plus pots to this house in the summer of 2004, that part of the yard looked and felt leafy and private, but late that fall the leaves fell, revealing not only the bare boughs, but the surrounding roofs, walls and windows. This depressing vista proved that almost everything along the fences of our adjoining yards was deciduous – pecans, crepe myrtles, ash trees, oaks, tall Mockoranges… even a magnolia ID’d as evergreen turned out to be a deciduous saucer type instead. So the next spring we added some broadleaf evergreens along the back fence, and also planted young trees on the treeless left side of the yard. When we’re sitting outside, it's not exactly our own little kingdom, but the loquat helps, and the six-foot ‘privacy fence’ makes a good background, and the greenery will fill in eventually.
While we’re waiting for that sense of enclosure to develop, let’s see how tall everything is now.
Our idea is that once these crepe myrtles get their crowns above the fence line, they’ll soften the horizontal line of the wood, and their irregular branches will break up views of roofs and house walls. The tips on the left one stretch to 6’ 6” now, and the right crepe myrtle has just hit 6-feet. By the end of this summer we may be able to tell whether our theory will work.

Halfway between the crepe myrtles is a tiny evergreen with potential. This is Pinus pinea, the Italian Stone Pine. I bought it at some garden club sale at Zilker Park a couple of years ago, and it's supposed to do well here. At the time it was an unbranched sapling, about 10” tall, growing in a plastic tube for $1. Now it has branched out, and reached the amazing height of 17”. This pine is seen in classic Italian paintings, and is the source for pinenuts. Who could resist an Italian classic for one buck?
You've seen our Magnolia “Little Gem’ folded over in the ice photos.
'Little Gem' was measured at 56” last February, and it has grown some, but not much, to 60”. But as you can see, there's more than 4" of new wood on the individual branches: Apparently, when the weight of January’s ice fanned the tree branches outward, some of the height was transmuted into breadth.

This loquat was a foot-tall seedling with a few leaves when I got it in 2000. It’s been in the ground for over a year and has reached 9’6” tall, and can actually cast a little shade on the patio. It's also branching out, so it's starting to look like a real tree, instead of a sapling.

Diva-of-the-Dirt Buffy gave me another foot-tall loquat seedling in spring 2005. I keep moving it to larger and larger containers, while occasionally taking off the bottom leaves. This loquat is now 35-inches tall.

We need beauty and fragrance as well as privacy, so we planted a small, evergreen shrub in the Triangle Garden. It's called Texas Mountain Laurel, botanically Sophora secundfolia, from the pea family, totally unrelated to the Eastern Laurels. At 26” inches tall, this slow-grower won’t make much impact for awhile, but it has a few flower buds!

In this photo from 2004, you can see what we hope for this spring.

We had three mountain laurels at our previous Austin house, and took a closeup of the beautiful, fragrant purple- blue flowers. The fragrance is described as grape Kool-aid or grape bubble gum.
It might be easier to catch the fruity fragrance once the flowers are at shoulder level rather than near our knees.

Do any of you grow Michelia figo, also called Banana shrub? It’s related to Magnolias, and the small flowers really do smell like bananas. I bought a one-foot, one-gallon plant in fall 2004, so at 38-inches, it’s done well, but will have to do a lot of growing if it's going to reach the fence top. Off to the right there are two unseen evergreen shrubs, a 40" Loropetalum, and a 30" Podocarpus, sometimes called Buddhist Pine.

Last February I remembered to measure the camellia and recorded it as 55” tall. So what happened – a year later it measures only 54"!! Since the branches show new growth, I guess this is another case where the shrub is now growing outward instead of upward.

Philo estimated the larger Pecan to be 40’ tall, and it's probably been here a quarter of a century. But we don't need our plants to be 40-feet tall - eight or ten will do, and we like watching things grow, so we'll try to be patient as we wait for our green & private Eden to develop.


  1. You have a nice variety of deciduous and evergreen trees, Annie. I'll bet your sense of privacy will be much enhanced in just a couple of years.

  2. What a beautiful peice of land!

    Looks like you and Philo are making it great.

  3. Hi Annie! It seems to be that time again. My weatherman (Mr. Quad) says it is ok to start planting. He thinks winter is over for us here. Lets see if he is right! Anyways, I really could use your advise and help. Can I send you some pictures and questions? This is my first planting experience in Austin and I am not sure what native plants might do the best! CHAO!

  4. I like that you are measuring and keeping track of the heights of plants. That's something I wish I had done when I first planted shrubs/trees on my bare lot nearly 10 years ago.

    I like to look back over my records to see how things have changed (or stayed the same!) I'm also working to hide a privacy fence and provide more of a "green screen" around the yard.

    I think when it gets above freezing, I'll do some measuring.

  5. Oh my, I had no idea your transplanting (transplantation?) to Austin was so recent! I'm glad you like watching things grow.

    When I moved into my house, I had no idea why there were so many crape myrtles around the yard. It's because my next door neighbor had just built a two-story deck!

  6. Pam, there are so many kinds of evergreens that will grow here, that it seemed weird not to try them! In Illinois most evergreens were conifers, so I wanted to try the broadleaf types, but yes - we need a mix with some bare branches.

    C Clerk, it's small in size, but it's already shaping up; both Philo and I have lots of ideas about what to do next. Although we aren't ambitious enough to plan a greenhouse, it will be interesting to see how yours develops.

    Mrs Quad, Sure, I'll give it a try, but am no expert, just an interested amateur. I live in the far NW part of Austin - you should be able to grow slightly more tropical plants in South Austin, like MSS of Zanthan Gardens, linked at left. BTW, Did you ever get the fence back up after the windstorm?

    Carol, it took 5 houses to teach me the value of the ruler! In past years there were always a few photos with people standing next to shrubs and trees, and we'd look at them to estimate growth. Of course, if the people in the photos were kids, they had grown along with the trees.
    When you show pictures of your back yard we're all too busy staring at your beautiful vegetable beds to notice if any neighbors live close to you.

    Welcome, Incandragon - actually we've been dug up and moved several times. We first came to TX from IL in August 1999, but lived in a different house in the hills-and-canyon part of town where all gardening must be deer-resistent. We left that house to move here in 2004. Good luck with your own future transplanting!


  7. Annie, like you, we have been in our house for only 1.5 years and are continually striving for privacy since our lot is only 1/3 acre and surrounded by other homes. All of our trees are young except for some crepe myrtles and river birches the builder added. I particularly like my young wax crepe myrtle and my dwarf magnolia tree. I enjoy watching them bloom and grow but I get a little impatient sometimes. The flower with the grape Kool Aid fragrance sounds yummy!

  8. Texas Mountain Laurel looks lovely!

    Most of my garden is surrounded by evergreen and they offer a lot of privacy. Hope yours will grow fast and give you the peace and visual quiet that you need in your garden.

  9. I did the same thing in Memphis because all of our yards were cut up with the privacy fencing. I lined them with the bigger pines and cryptomeria japonica (which I loved!!).
    I did the understory with azalea and blueberry, believe it or not!!
    Do you have a full shot of the back? I betcha it's beautiful!
    Where did you live when you were here?

  10. Oooh!! I'm insanely envious of your large pecan tree Annie. Sweating through another warm summer's day I think I could easily pull up a blanket or a swing chair and nod off for awhile.

    Beautiful snaps Annie.

  11. I saw a loropetalum this year that was grown as a tree. It was between fifteen and twenty feet tall. Very interesting.

  12. Mary, we're using the same plants, aren't we ~ I also have a Southern wax myrtle, but it's in a large patio container rather than in the ground.

    Yolanda Elizabet, you have such a lovely garden in the Netherlands, and the evergreens are beautiful. There are few conifers that can take our Central Texas heat and drought - so no spruces, taxus,or hemlocks, and only certain pines can live here. "Visual quiet" - that's a great term!

    Stuart, the pecans are a mixed blessing - they're messy, but that shade makes our garden so much more liveable! The lawn is St Augustine, which does much better in part shade, so this tree helps the grass, too.

    Gary, our Loropetallum is almost 4-feet tall now, and I've seen some at Zilker Park that are in the 6-to-8 foot range. Maybe they can be trees here, too - I don't know. Loropetalum are even planted in those large concrete containers placed outside shops in strip malls, so I figured they must be tough!

  13. I enjoy your posts. They are both interesting and informative. I am amazed that you are able to get magnolias and camellias to even grow here. Perhaps Austin is significantly different is soil pH and climate (warmer and more humid) than where my land is located (northern Hays Co). I appreciate your methodical approach to gardening, and the way you journal your experiences.
    Cheers, Carol

  14. I love Texas Mountain Laurel! Years ago, about 12 now, I dated a guy who was at Texas A&M - and visited there often over several years (that's when I got hooked on antique roses too). Once, when I was there in the spring - the TMLs were blooming all over, and I stopped at a nursery to find out what there were, and the nursery person gave me one to bring back to South Carolina - it was about 1' tall and in a one gallon pot. It's now 12' tall and gorgeous and my herb farmer friends are propagating them from seeds - they do wonderfully here but no one grows them! They have about 30 little ones, only a few inches or so.

    I have one Banana shrub, about 3' tall now. It's growing pretty quickly now - I love the fragrance. The italian stone pine looks very fun - you'll have to keep us posted on how it does!

    Oh - do try 'Elizabeth'. It's my favorite spring-flowering magnolia.

  15. Welcome Carol Janov! I went to your garden blog and enjoyed seeing what you're doing in your garden southwest of Austin.

    With all the soil types and microclimates in Austin the variations in what grows can be surprising. I know that my NW area gets colder than Central Austin, but it didn't seem daring to plant a 'Little Gem' Magnolia in this 30-year old neighborhood full of large pecans and good-sized magnolias. The Camellia was a inexpensive container plant, babied along just for fun.

    Pam, coveting the Elizabeth you grow in South Carolina is one thing - paying the money to see if it can grow here in Austin may be quite another thing!
    Most of my experiments, like the michelia and camellia were under $10, and even 'Little Gem' was about $20. Elizabeth looks as if it will be quite large and be a $90 minimum investment. But oh how lovely it looks in the photos!!

    Since you can grow Texas Mountain Laurel in SC, would Mary be able to grow it in Huntersville, NC?


  16. Annie,
    You grow such different things than we do in MIchigan. It must be nice to sit under those pecan trees in the Texas heat.
    It sounds like you have a good plan in place for your private paradise!

  17. Annie, you're right, the green screen is so important! I made the mistake of thinking my neighbor's hedge would always be a good screen to block my view of their backyard, until they moved and the new neighbors cut it all down!

    They've told me they love looking at my backyard so I'm afraid it would seem mean to plant a screen at this point. I love what you've done and I envy you your evergreens that aren't conifers! And measuring is such a good idea. I've never gotten past relying on old photos!

  18. We also like to have the illusion that we have a secret garden screened off from the rest of the world/neighbors too. But as you have experienced it is only an illusion when we realized most of our planting have been deciduous. We hurriedly planted more evergreens which unfortunately take awhile to grow to a size that will act as a screen.

    You have wonderful plants I have not seen before like you blue mountain laurel. This is not the Kalmia I take but some other kind of plant also called mountain laurel? And I have not heard of a banana shrub. Wonderful that you can grow podocarpus.

  19. I'm going to start measuring my trees right now! A blog is a nice way to show the growth over time, but I'm a stickler for details so thanks for the idea.

  20. Hi Annie,
    Your Texas Mountain Laurel is very beautiful -- and grape Kool-aid/grape bubble gum is one of my favorite scents. Do you think we could grow one of those here?

  21. Hi Zoey - some of these plants were things I read about for years, so I just have to give them a try!

    LostRoses, that's happened to us at previous homes - over and over. I don't know what I'd do in your situation.

    Mrs Quad, thank you... maybe! We'll see how it goes!

    Ki, that's exactly what it is - an illusion - but I like my fantasies of a secret garden.
    The Texas Mountain Laurel is in genus Sopphora, species secundifolia. [Chinese scholar tree used to be in the genus, too, but was separated recently.] One reason I gave both Podocarpus and the Michelia-Banana shrub a try, even though they're not necessarily recommended for Austin, was that there are other established plants around my neighborhood. They were growing for someone else here, why not me?

    La Gringa, the way things grow where you live, you'll have to do it much more often than once a year!

    Christin M P I think your area is way too cold- this is a zone 8-9 plant, and will grow in alkaline soil... but on the other hand, you can grow real Mountain Laurels, and we can't.


  22. Your blog is a delight! I grow a banana shrub...or, at least I hope I do after this very cold February we've had! I brought it back from S.C. along with a tea olive a few years back. So far, so good, but the fingers are crossed! I know I'm in zone denial since nobody around here grows them...but, you gotta try sometimes!


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