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Birds, Wildlife and Gardening

Modern ranch garden embraces water collection and wildflowers in New Braunfels

May 17, 2021

Last spring Cody and Michelle Koehler finished their garden installation at their home in New Braunfels, Texas. Less than a year later, February’s epic freeze killed most of their large specimen plants, including Weber agaves, olive and palo verde trees, and toothless sotol.

Like everyone else in Texas, they’re reevaluating plant choices and giving damaged plants time to recover. But they’re taking it in stride and enjoying what still looks terrific and performs well: a striking layout by Gatewood Designs, with steelwork by Latuya Construction and site work and planting by LUSH GreenScape Design; colorful wildflower meadows in front and back; a barn-like garden entrance and carport that also serves as a covered play area for their three young children; a rainwater-collection system that supplies clean drinking water for ALL their household needs; and a contemporary ranch aesthetic prioritizing views of majestic live oaks, native wildflowers, soft grasses, and even free-ranging cattle.

Cody invited me to come see his garden after the freeze had done its worst, which I considered quite brave. It’s easy to believe that one’s garden has to be in top form for visitors to enjoy it, but that’s not the case. The bones are still there, even if all the plants aren’t. More than that, a garden is a process, a wild experiment, not a fixed result. Cody knows that, and his passion for plants, sustainable gardening, and living lightly on the land were evident when I talked with him.

A couple of weeks ago, when the blanketflowers were in full bloom, I drove from Austin to New Braunfels to meet him and Michelle and learn more about their garden.

Longhorn crossing

Entering their neighborhood, I hardly noticed as I crossed a cattle guard, until suddenly a longhorn was standing in the road. Hello, free-range cattle!

Cody and Michelle’s house sits on 8-1/2 acres, and their neighbors have similarly large lots. A herd of longhorns has the run of the place, grazing even up to the barn gate and fences. The neighbors all lease their unfenced property to the cattle owner, providing pastureland, and in return they receive an agricultural exemption from the state, which means their undeveloped land is valued for tax purposes at a lower rate.

Entry garden

The longhorns can and do mosey right up Cody’s driveway to the “barn,” a rustic yet clean-lined structure that’s part carport/trike-riding space, part breezeway, part storage, and all charm. The breezeway is gated to keep cattle (and deer) out of the garden.

Cody and Michelle built their modern-farmhouse home in 2019, and the contemporary front garden complements it. From the shady breezeway of the barn you step into a sunny, open space. Corten steel outlines striking panels of green turf, raised planters, and a zigzagging path to the front door. A few feet higher, behind a stacked limestone wall, a naturalistic wildflower meadow contrasts with the geometric garden.

The planter immediately in front held a big Weber agave before the freeze. (Click here for pre-freeze photos.) Cody says he won’t replant that agave again but may try whale’s tongue agave, which handled the cold much better.

The panels of lawn are Celebration Bermudagrass, which Cody describes as incredibly hardy, disease resistant, and sun loving. Perhaps surprisingly, Cody opted not to install irrigation for the lawn or any area of his property. He and Michelle do not have city water, and while they have a well, they prefer not to use it. “We wanted to show ourselves and others that there is a way to be one less straw in the ground,” Cody says. “At peak summer temps, the Bermuda can go a good 10 days without any water before it shows stress. About day 12-14, I will prepare to water it. All of the watering is done by impact heads on risers or by hand. I place a glass measuring cup on the lawn areas to get an accurate reading of the amount of water being applied. Now, this was last year, in its first months after install. I fully expect the more mature turf to have deeper roots and be able to go longer without water.”

A freeze-damaged Texas mountain laurel (at left) is in limbo as Cody waits to see if it can recover. But he definitely plans to replant the ‘Desert Museum’ palo verde that graced the steel planter in the center of the lawn. “It was just stunning, and I loved the yellow flowers that seemed to last for months. The pollinators were big fans too.”

Wildflower meadow

Amazingly, he was able to save from the freeze the large Argentine saguaro cactus (center) by wrapping it in three layers of protective cloths and appliance boxes. Several large golden barrel cacti sustained some damage, but Cody hopes they will survive. I was also surprised to see that a large ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) — a West Texas desert species occasionally planted in humid central Texas, with mixed results — survived the freeze. It was even blooming!

Ocotillo in leaf and flower, surrounded by native Texas wildflowers

Winecup (Callirhoe involucrata)

A little closer

Cody scatters fresh wildflower seed in the fall. When I visited in early May, blanketflower (aka Indian blanket or firewheel – Gaillardia pulchella) was in colorful full bloom. A few nonnative red corn poppies had snuck into the front meadow too, but Cody mostly grows these in his backyard meadow.

The family enjoys their meadow view every time they step out on their front porch, as well as from interior windows. A backdrop of native juniper trees (“cedars”) supplies privacy and greenery.

Steel-edged gravel pavers draw you toward the meadow…

…and then turn toward a steel gate flanked by tall steel pipe planters — like botanical organ pipes!

Pipe planters

The big box planter at left held a Weber agave pre-freeze. But even with missing or damaged plants, this is a striking area of the garden.

I have a few pipe planters in my own garden, so of course I loved these. The spineless prickly pears planted in them fared surprisingly well during the freeze.

Other plants like candelilla, toothless sotol, and golden barrels, not so much.

A zigzagging seat wall made of board-formed concrete helps to define the front porch area.

Poured-in-place concrete pavers outlined with Texas Black gravel lead to the barn-carport.

The long view across the garden

The steelwork is creative, with planters tucked here and there — like this one behind the concrete wall.

A golden barrel survivor in all its pleated, yellow-and-green glory

Zooming in, I found a katydid hanging out on top amid the flexible spines.

Ocotillo and blanketflowers, with a few winecups and red poppies mixed in


Argentine saguaro (Echinopsis terscheckii)

Peeking over another golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii) toward the barn

Multi-use barn

Upcycled steel planters hang from the barn’s open-air rafters, though they’re hard to see in this photo. They were planted with small succulents, but those didn’t make it through the freeze. Cody says he’ll replant them. Sliding barn doors on two sides of the carport allow circulation, making this a good outdoor party space as well.

At the back of the meadow I spotted Texas skeleton plant (Lygodesmia texana), a new-to-me wildflower.

And zexmenia (Wedelia acapulcensis var. hispida)

Cody transplanted this Yucca rostrata into the meadow after the freeze, wanting an architectural focal point there. It’s a beauty.

On one side of the barn, a gravel patio provides a shady play space for the kids or a hangout space during parties. A few more steel pipe planters (brimming with foxtail ferns, pre-freeze) cleverly serve as supports for long benches.

String lights from the hayloft create nighttime ambiance.

Backyard swings and play lawn

The kids can swing beneath a grove of live oaks in the side yard. Shade-tolerant ‘El Toro’ zoysiagrass makes a soft cushion for bare feet, although Cody hasn’t been thrilled with its performance. He says, “The jury is still out on this grass. I believe I will need a full growing season and some normal-ish weather/rainfall before I can determine a full opinion on this choice.”

His favorite lawn choice, after a year of living with three different turf grasses, is Habiturf, a native-grass blend created by the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. It flows like a soft, blue-green skirt from the back porch down to the fence line.

Even though it’s his favorite, it took some effort to get it to this point. Cody says, “It was established by seed and took a hefty amount of work to do. I planted 50 lbs. of Habiturf on that hill. The seeding rate, the watering to get it started, the babying of anything seeded — it was a process. However, once established, it’s been incredible. I can totally ignore it. No fertilizer, no water, and no mowing. I only mow after the grasses have produced a seed head and the seeds start to drop. Then I will mow to manually disperse the seed and let the grass re-start the seed-out process. This helps thicken the clump grass. I might mow it once every 30-45 days depending on rainfall and growth.”

A long back porch overlooks the lawn and green rolling hills that surround their home.

Water-collection system

Below the house, outside a recycled oil pipe fence, sits a gigantic 31,000-gallon cistern. The cistern is what allows the Koehlers to be independent of city water or well water, and it supplies every ounce of their household water. “It’s exciting to use water that comes from the sky,” Cody says, “and we love not pumping from the well for house use.”

If you’re curious how the water-collection system works, here’s Cody’s full explanation:

“The cistern size is based off the size of the home, number of occupants, number of water-using appliances, number of bathrooms, and whether the water fixtures are low gallons-per-minute, toilets are low-flow, etc. With all of that taken into account, along with our average annual rainfall, the cistern was built to withstand a 6-month stretch of no rainfall. That said, now that we have lived in the home for 1.5 years, I have a much better handle on our water use, and I’m confident the 31,000-gallon tank could last us 8 months. The lowest we have seen it was 45% full, just last month before the generous late spring rain refilled it.

The rain is captured off the roof of the home. Every roofline is guttered, leading to 4-inch downspouts and 6-inch buried trunk lines. Those trunk lines take the water to the cistern. Because the elevation of the cistern is lower than the lowest roofline of the home, there is no pump required to move water into the cistern. Head pressure moves the water freely from the house to the cistern. The cistern is equipped with a first-flush system as the first line of defense for capturing clean water. This system works by way of a set of valves that diverts water away from the tank at the very start of a rain event. This initial flush of water — the “dirty” water off the roof/gutters — is not captured. After a set amount of time, the valves close, and water is moved into the tank. 

The water is filtered 4 ways. At the tank, a mesh leaf basket stops any debris that doesn’t get diverted during the first flush. When water is pumped from the tank to the house, it goes through a triple-filtration system: a sediment filter for fines, a carbon filter for taste, and a UV light filter to kill any bacteria the water picked up off the roof or gutters. In theory rain comes out of the sky clean, but it could pick up bacteria off the roof, most likely from bird droppings. 

The water is naturally soft, so no softener is required. We enjoy spot-free drinking glasses, spot-free glass shower doors, and of course being one less straw in the ground. The entire system was designed and installed by Tall Drink Rainwater Harvesting in Austin.

We do not capture water off the garage roof. That metal roof is corten, meant to rust over time and provide a rusty, old-roof look — not ideal for capture. But the roof of the main house is paint-grip metal. We have had the water tested for chemicals, etc., just to make sure we aren’t picking up anything off the metal or anywhere in the system. All is good! Testing was done through Texas State University in San Marcos.”

Along the outer curved edge of the Habiturf lawn, Cody cleared the soil and scattered poppy and other wildflower seed. A bumper crop of red poppies stole the show during my visit, but blanketflowers were popping too.

As were winecups, prairie verbena, and greenthread.

Bees love the wildflowers.

Red corn poppies

And more bees a-buzzing

Looking back up the Habiturf lawn, I admired its painterly texture as well as the charming white house.

Heading back through the swing grove, Cody pointed out an embracing live oak and juniper. To me it looks like they’re doing the tango.

Here a few more wildflowers were doing their thing, like Texas thistle (Cirsium texanum)…

…and bluecurls (Phacelia congesta), which Cody said is also called scorpion flower for its curled-up flower clusters, like a scorpion’s tail.

I left so inspired by the Koehlers’ water-collection system, beautiful garden and meadows, and the modern-ranch aesthetic of their home and garden. Thank you, Cody and Michelle, for sharing your garden and sustainability efforts with me and my readers!

To see Cody and Michelle’s garden before the freeze impacted it, check out the stunning photos at LUSH GreenScape Design — Doehne Oaks garden. LUSH even won a Luxe RED Residential Excellence in Design Award for it this spring.

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Digging Deeper: News and Upcoming Events

Need garden coaching? If you want a garden-coaching session to help you bounce back from Austin’s February snowpocalypse, I’m offering coaching services again for a limited time. We’ve all lost plants, and it can be hard to know what to prune back, what to give more time for recovery, and what the best replacement plants for your yard might be. I’m here to help! Contact me to let me know what’s going on and what you need help with. Austin and Cedar Park locations preferred, but I’m flexible within a 25-min. drive, so let me know where you are. Weekday mornings only.

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Join the mailing list for Garden Spark! Hungry to learn about garden design from the experts? I’m hosting a series of talks by inspiring garden designers, landscape architects, and authors a few times a year in Austin. (While in-person talks are currently on hiatus due to the pandemic, I hope to resume again this fall.) Talks are limited-attendance events that sell out quickly, so join the Garden Spark email list to be notified in advance. Simply click this link and ask to be added.

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