Small but mighty is an apt term for Margo Ray’s backyard garden. Behind her Bedford duplex, within tall privacy fences and under a magnificent post oak, Ray’s secret garden awaits exploration.
Her property resembles a small botanic garden. Ray’s strategy for choosing plants is straightforward: She buys what she likes. And, of late, some unusual plants have captured her eye.
For example, dracunculus vulgaris, commonly known as dragon flower, has just unfurled its long, pointed, deep purple tongue. Unpleasant to sniff, its odor attracts pollinators, but the odd, spooky beauty is a showstopper among the more common day lilies and Knock Out roses.
Climbing the garden wall, schisandra chinensis ‘Eastern Prince,’ a native of China and far eastern Russia, dominates a bed of day lilies, strawberries and lamb’s ears. It was found in an Audubon Society catalog, and clusters of pendulous, crimson, grapelike berries appear in the fall and attract swarms of cedar waxwings.
In the shade of an arbor, the shiny, deep green leaves on upright stalks of Farfugium japonicum ‘Giganteum’ resemble lily pads and complement the glossy leaves of the Japanese holly fern, ‘Texas Gold’ columbine and phlox that share its bed. Ray explains that this plant’s clumping habit makes it a good alternative to elephant ears — Giganteum stays in place.
“I never want elephant ears in my yard again,” she adds. “I have chased those things for 15 years.”
Strategically, Ray has placed a dominant feature on each tier of her terraced garden. A wooden pergola dominates the lower garden, crowned with two years’ growth of Japanese wisteria. At its base, Encore azaleas rest in soil she keeps acidic with fertilizer and pine bark mulch.
Beyond the pergola, several oleanders flourish. They will be 6 feet tall by summer’s end, 14 feet in a couple of years. They’re a nod to Ray’s childhood in McAllen, where her parents fenced their back yard with oleanders.
Greeting visitors on the upper terrace is a metal arbor draped with clematis texensis ‘Gravetye Beauty’— known commonly as scarlet leather flower. When Ray heard gardening expert Neil Sperry sing its praises, she thought, “I’ve got to have that!” and bought two plants. The flat, star-shaped scarlet flowers bloom summer through fall and leave whirling plumes of seed heads behind.
Predominantly red, deep pink and purple, Ray’s other well-curated specimens include rock rose, angel’s trumpet, Mexican heather, passion vine, allium, star hibiscus, salvia greggii, penstemon, ‘Anthony Waterer’ spirea and ice plant. A weeping redbud provides a sculptural effect.
Because Ray loves to cook, she has integrated her favorite herbs, fruits and vegetables into her garden. Strawberries, blueberries and dwarf raspberry bushes nestle within the flower beds, while tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic and 10 different herbs thrive in EarthBoxes and in fiberglass planters made by a friend.
It’s a method that allows Ray to maximize space in her small garden: With the containers, she can even cultivate her driveway.
Retired from Bell Helicopter, Ray says she finally has time to pursue her passions, although gardening wasn’t always one of them.
“My mother was an avid gardener, and she was out in the garden all the time,” Ray says, “but I just turned my nose up at it.”
Now things have changed and Ray’s love of gardening is evident. She says she enjoys the challenges — like seeing if she can baby something along and defy the odds of Texas’ extreme weather.
For guidance, she turns to books by gardening experts like Sperry and William Welch. And sometimes, the seeds of childhood lessons lie dormant until the time is right.