Not far from one of Arlington’s busiest streets hides a quiet garden with a vibe that hints at a tropical forest. Homeowners Kathy Phelps and Tom Donaldson have transformed their modest back yard into a leafy retreat perfect for quiet contemplation.
Elevated boardwalks cross three in-ground ponds that Donaldson dug himself. Additionally, a series of cascading pools contained in rectangular wooden boxes — water flowing from one to the other through cutouts — surrounds a thick-trunked vitex tree that dominates the space. A tented gazebo flutters above an elevated deck.
Green plants — many of them tropical — range freely, with pops of color provided by container plants.
Explaining how he planned the space, Donaldson says, “I just started building, and this is what I ended up with.”
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I love my fish. They add another color element and movement to the garden, and are just fascinating to watch.
Kathy Phelps, Arlington homeowner
The first, and largest, pond anchors the gazebo. Ringed with bright yellow esperanza, lime green asparagus fern, rock rose and purple heart, the pond supports some 30 colorful koi. Robust clumps of airy papyrus growing from the water offer shade for the fish under the spokes of their umbrellalike canopy.
“I love my fish,” Phelps says. “They add another color element and movement to the garden, and are just fascinating to watch. They also have a way of relaxing you.”
A couple of years and another project later, Donaldson created the upper pond and cascading waterfall — all contained within plastic-lined, treated-lumber boxes he stacked to create the falls. The upper pond hosts additional koi and waterlilies.
Installed within each box is either a clump of Carex grass or lizard tail, used for filtration. The plants sit freely in the water, allowing their roots to collect dirt, fish waste, and other impurities. For maintenance, Donaldson lifts them periodically and gives them a quick rinse under the hose.
Complementing the rustic character of the boxed ponds, the delicate tracery of long-jawed orb weavers hovers above the water — the webs of garden spiders awaiting the entrapment of thirsty bugs.
Two newer, smaller ponds situated on either side of the boardwalk greet guests as they step out the home’s back door. Goldfish and calico-patterned shubunkins, a hardy goldfish species, patrol these ponds amid surroundings populated by freely spreading pink Mexican petunia, ferns, sherbet-colored lantana and purslane. In addition, pops of gold coreopsis and periwinkle Blue Daze peek through layers of vining ground cover.
To create the fullness and texture she prefers, Phelps mixes upright, trailing, and bushy plants. For a backdrop along the home’s brick walls, Chinese wisteria climbs unfettered.
Just past the small ponds, two tall Texas palms planted on each side of the boardwalk suggest entrance gates to the watery haven. Pushing back leaves of papyrus, guests spy the gazebo, capped with canvas and sided with a layer of gauzy mosquito netting under decorative draperies. Two patinaed lounge chairs offer Phelps and Donaldson a place to stretch out, and a TV — hidden in a box when not in use — adds to their relaxation.
This year, Donaldson built an elevated wooden planter to hide electrical boxes near the gazebo. Phelps filled it with purslane and angelonia, dependable annuals that stand up to the Texas heat. She liked it so well that she asked Donaldson to build two more planters, then introduced hostas, purple verbena, and sweet potato vine to the garden.
“We enjoy spending time in the garden,” Phelps says, “starting the day with a cup of coffee or tea, reading the paper, enjoying a bite to eat ... . [We] cannot imagine a better way to start than in our little slice of paradise.”