Take a stroll through the ninth annual Hidden Gardens of Fort Worth Tour on Sunday, and you might imagine that you are in the mountains of Colorado, on the prairie that once blanketed North Texas or in the courtyard of an English manor as you walk through lush greenery and colorful blooms.
For the event, hosted by the communities of Park Hill and Ryan Place, five established landscapes are poised to delight, inspire and transport guests. Here's a peek through the garden gate.
Key features: Terraced gardens on a steep slope with cascading waterfalls, ponds, patios and meandering stone paths
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Size: 1.3 acres
Owners: Ellen and Rickey Brantley
The house has a beautiful back yard: mature trees, Japanese maples, oleander, trumpet vine, ground covers and a pool highlighted by three fountains. But it's the steep slope down to University Drive that provides the wow factor.
"We bought the house in 1992," Ellen Brantley said. "This hillside was all privet. We could see a pond and some stairs that went down, but nothing else. So we thought it was just a pond." As the Brantleys cleared the privet, the garden revealed itself. More stone pathways, more stairs, more ponds. Even a stone cottage.
Today, the lush terraced hillside is a woodland paradise traversed by stone stairs and pathways, some inlaid with fossils; scattered patios with seating; a copper-topped gazebo; stacked stone walls; and several ponds, all connected by a cascading stream. The bottom pond hosts yellow water lilies and goldfish left over from a child's party.
Because the rocky, shaded hillside is a gardening challenge, the Brantleys have concentrated on perennial, native, drought-tolerant plants. Redbuds, Mexican buckeyes, pomegranates and oak trees provide shade for Turk's cap, American beautyberry, coreopsis, oakleaf hydrangeas and ferns.
Ellen Brantley's favorite season is fall, when the foliage creates a riot of color in the mostly green garden. "When the robins are migrating through, if the fountain is running, they'll get in the water, and the whole creek is covered in robins." Foxes, raccoons and opossums enjoy the garden's hospitality, as do friends and family.
One year, the Brantleys "lost" 50 children on their property for a Halloween party, only to find them in the stone cottage on the bottom terrace. They were telling ghost stories in the candlelit ruin.
Cottage garden; native Texas prairie and woodland
Key features: A steep wooded hillside of hardy perennials, man-made waterfalls and a screened gazebo
Size: 1 acre
Owners: LeAnn Behrens and David Montague
David Montague has created a gardener's garden. The variety of plant life captivates the senses, and Montague lovingly tends it all. "I'm retired, and my life is Scouts and gardening," he said.
The cottage garden that wraps around the front of the house overflows with foxglove, bear's breeches, pentas, ferns, hydrangeas, butterfly bush, rosemary and fennel. Plants to please the eye with texture and color also feed butterfly larvae and hummingbirds. Columbine mingles with salvia, Mexican petunias with mistflower.
This tendency toward sustainability continues around back, where five years ago nothing but a strip of sod, some trees and Chinese privet existed. Montague and Behrens tackled the steep hillside in stages, first ripping out the privet, installing a pool, and sowing native prairie grasses and wildflowers from seed. Sunflowers, yucca, flowering senna, Texas mountain laurel, poppies and larkspur paint the hillside meadow.
Terraced walls, steps and gravel paths began the second phase, as native woodland was created, with specimen trees, salvia greggii, coralberry, skullcap, pidgeonberry and prairie phlox. As in other parts of the garden, plants were started from seed or, as in the case of the wood violets, just showed up. In this garden, something is always in bloom, and that's a favorite feature of the homeowners.
"One of my approaches is to have one of everything, but I'm not there yet," Montague says.
The garden's highlight might be the rushing man-made stream that tumbles down a rocky creek bed, the water constantly recycled. A shady patio near the top terrace and a screened gazebo on the bottom provide repose.
The bottom of the garden is also a testament to Montague's conservation efforts, as large compost piles disintegrate and a rain barrel collects precious water.
Traditional, formal garden
Key features: A live oak boasting a chandelier, vintage garden gates and birdhouses, and English charm
Owners: Susie and Mark Jackson
The pride Susie Jackson takes in her home and garden is evident from the sidewalk. The restored 1920s Tudor welcomes visitors with colorful flower beds, containers brimming with glossy dragon-wing begonia and a massive iron chandelier hanging from the branch of a live oak.
For her annual summer party, "we wanted to do something fabulous," Jackson said of the chandelier. And fabulous it is. So is the tree.
"We worked really hard on the trees last year. The drought was tough on the trees. We were afraid we were going to lose it," says Jackson of the live oak. But the magnificent tree accents the front yard, which is decorated with a mix of annuals and perennials, boxwoods and hawthorns, rose bushes and Japanese maples. The effect is welcoming.
"It better be, because it welcomes a lot of people, all the time," Jackson said. "I love being able to use my home and to share it."
Walking through wrought-iron gates to the back, the space stays true to its English heritage. Espaliered magnolias and various flowering vines drape the enclosed garden's brick walls punctuated by Jackson's vintage garden gate collection.
A small formal rose garden is laid out in traditional style, but the real delight is the fountain fashioned from an antique English chimney pot.
Colorful birdhouses hang from a tree branch. The bricks lining the turquoise pool's perimeter came from the Stockyards, a previous owner told Jackson.
A covered patio with wicker seating provides a perch from which to enjoy the serene yard. Containers add texture and height. The garden's well-worn finishes and old-fashioned plant choices embellish the English ambience introduced by home's facade.
Meditative green oasis
Key features: A culinary garden, mature trees and a variety of shrubs
Size: About 1/3 acre
Owners: Janie and Rush Hart
When Janie and Rush Hart moved into their home, one tree stood in the back yard. For their daughter's 10th birthday, they planted a bur oak that was barely bigger than her. Today, the tree towers over the stately two-story Georgian home and shades the lush green backyard oasis.
Virginia creeper flourishes here. Visitors can walk along the stone paths that Rush Hart installed, sit on the brick patio both Rush and Janie put in or loll away the hours with a book on the bench beneath the original pecan tree.
Wood ferns, hollies, aucubas and caladiums enhance the serenity.
While the garden is largely green and textural, in early spring, forsythia, spirea, columbine and leatherleaf mahonia provide pops of yellow, pink and blue. The mahonia is a favorite of migrating songbirds, who drop in to savor the deep blue bunches of "grapes."
As the seasons progress, the Forest Pansy redbud's leaves deepen to purple. Mexican petunias pop up. Turk's cap blooms red. "There are things I encourage that are wild," Janie Hart said, like the Turk's cap, the horseherb and violets.
"This is my therapy when things get too hectic," she said. "At least you can control plants!"
Hart has made creative use of the narrow strip of soil along the driveway by installing a kitchen garden. As it's the only sunny space, it's planted with herbs -- parsley, mint, basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary and bay -- and tomatoes and peppers.
Hart uses the bounty in simple recipes like omelets, fish dishes and pesto. This small but productive "farm," as Hart calls it, is evidence that you don't need a big plot of land to grow produce. To provide color, herbs are interspersed with purple asters, oxalis and golden St. John's wort.
Cool summer color
Key features: Annuals, whimsical art and garden statuary
Size: About 1/3 acre
Owner: The Kruse house
Personality bursts from this backyard garden. Broad swaths of coral and fuchsia impatiens add zest to the beds that flow like a river through the green space. Mondo grass adds textural interest in the curving beds. Pots of impatiens ring the live oak that shades the yard.
"I do summertime. I don't do fall or early spring," the self-taught garden caretaker said.
But the garden is populated with enough visual interest whatever the season. Two arbors support wisteria. Red-leaf Japanese maples, a cherry tree and an apple tree supply color and fruit. Lime and orange trees emerge from the house in spring to add fragrance. Hibiscus ornaments a copper fountain. Blue hydrangeas line a fence.
While the plants anchor the garden, delightful whimsical art and statuary create personality. Concrete animals peek out of mondo grass, whirligigs dangle from tree branches, and framed mirrors double the greenery. Contemporary metal art sculptures stand sentry, while bronze human figures dance and sneak a nap on a bench.
Decorative seating beckons visitors to sit and appreciate the vignettes, and a brick patio with table and chairs allows for outdoor dining. At night, uplighting illuminates trees and art.
A new garden border lines the driveway, demonstrating the caretaker's preference for planting by shades. Purple hues in pentas, fire grass, lantana and Mexican heather dance around Italian cypresses. Nearby, big pots of pink hydrangeas adorn a wall. Ferns and a lantern hang from the portico ceiling.
"I plant what I like, what the conditions allow. I don't like gardening, but somebody has to do it," the caretaker says with a chuckle.