August 6, 2014

Sandra Brown’s Garden Inspirations

The bestselling author and her husband create a haven that’s wonderfully unexpected.

Behind the tall gates, leafy elm and oak trees spread a green canopy over a large, two-story home. Novelist Sandra Brown is at the front door, her red hair shining, the collar of her white shirt popped up in her signature style.

She smiles and calls out a greeting. From the open door, the view is straight through the house to the Eden beyond the sitting room’s glass wall. A bird flutters down to perch on a bridge that spans the narrow creek that bubbles down from a koi pond at the front of the house and meanders through the back of the property.

In the spring, azaleas and Texas whitebud bloom in a landscape thick with shade-loving wood ferns, caladiums and hostas.

The garden is a wonder that does not simply surround the house — it cradles it, sings to it.

“That’s what I love about this house,” says Brown. “It’s like you’re in the garden the minute you step inside.”

This lush setting could be one of the sumptuous gardens of the deep South or an estate in far East Texas, but it’s not.

This surprising 2-acre sanctuary is tucked into an Arlington neighborhood a short drive from Dallas/Fort Worth Airport. It’s such a serene and satisfying haven that Brown and her husband of more than 40 years, video producer Michael Brown, have lived here longer than any other place they’ve called home.

Brown grew up in Fort Worth and attended TCU, where she and Michael established the Sandra Brown Excellence in Literary Fiction (ELF) Scholarship in 2008 and where she received an honorary doctorate. But for a time, the Browns lived in Tyler surrounded by the Piney Woods.

“I loved that East Texas look, and this place reminded me of that,” she says. “I wanted to hold on to the woodlands ... to replicate that here.”

When the Browns bought this place in 2004, they were already familiar with the property and jumped at the chance to own it. Envisioning, among other things, airy rooms with views of the grounds and a made-over kitchen, they hired an architect and set to work making the well-maintained property their own. Renovations took a year.

Brown is a disciplined and driven storyteller with 78 books to her credit and some 80 million books in print worldwide. Five days a week, she writes from an Arlington office that she owns. Weekends, she works from a small home office she shares with Michael.

On this day, she has already finished Mean Streak (Grand Central Publishing) and is expecting galley proofs later in the afternoon. It comes out Aug. 19 and is the sort of thriller that has landed 64 of her books on the New York Times bestseller list.

Fans can expect another white-knuckled ride packed with love, deceit and plenty of twists after a young doctor is abducted while she is out for a morning run.

If this house with its lush garden is a place to work, it is also a place to entertain, to find comfort and to welcome family. “I want our home to be enjoyed ... a put-your-feet-on-the-furniture kind of place, a place you love to come and hang out,” Brown says.

But the gracious house owes much of its charm to the garden that is at once wild and ordered. Like the starlet who spends hours in front of the makeup mirror so she can look “natural,” this natural-looking woodland gets lots of primping.

When the Browns bought the property, the grounds seemed more a wooded refuge than a garden, says Don Allen, the property manager.

Now wide planting beds hold a variety of azaleas: Coral Bells, Pink Ruffle and Snow. In the spring, clumps of white Maureen tulips bloom.

Oak leaf hydrangeas, among Brown’s favorites, are showy additions to this garden that is rich with layers of ground cover including mondo grasses, liriope and Asian jasmine.

Ornamental trees such as Savannah holly and Japanese maples, another of Brown’s favorites, dot the landscape, and delicate Fannie Munson caladiums unfurl their translucent pink leaves in the damp shadows.

Kimberly Queen ferns fill containers on the stone terraces. Some of those terraces are original to the house; the Browns have added others.

The garden is always changing, she says. Plants die and are replaced with something different. Each season peppers the landscape with light and shadow. Wind, ice, rain and drought mark the garden, too, leaving work to do.

Brown wanted to add the chartreuse shock of potato vines. “I love that bright green color,” she says, but they couldn’t find a spot with enough sun.

Brown stands at the edge of a large terrace with an impressive rock fireplace. This was a problem area, she says, often muddy, and nothing they planted thrived. Now this expansive patio, large enough to accommodate several seating and dining areas, is the centerpiece of outdoor entertaining.

“We come out here with the grandkids in the winter and do s’mores in the fire,” says Brown. Grandchildren. How time passes.

Brown strolls through the garden remembering when she began writing. She’d lost her job as an on-air personality with WFAA/Channel 8 and decided to treat writing a book as if it were a job. After a few books were published, she says she thought, “If I keep going, I could end up on the New York Times bestseller list.”

She did keep going, stacking up one New York Times bestseller after another, along with other awards and honors and building an enthusiastic fan base — and what she says is an unexpected life.

“All this ... I never expected all this,” she says and waves a slender hand as if to take in not only the entire property, but all of her life as well.

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