Neil Sperry

Neil Sperry discusses how his own garden has evolved

The Sperry backyard shows some of the principles and plants that Neil discusses here and on the radio.
The Sperry backyard shows some of the principles and plants that Neil discusses here and on the radio.

I was sitting in our sunroom a few days ago eating breakfast and wondering what topic I might choose for my column today. It dawned on me that our backyard might serve as an illustrative laboratory of sorts. It might allow me to show you the things I talk and write about.

I took this photo April 1, so you could still see “the bones” of our garden. Yes, we live in the country. No, it’s not nearly as much work as it looks. I’ll explain.

We live in the Metroplex on several acres. This is about two of them. We have landscaped only a fraction of the 11 acres. There’s a dry streambed down in that low spot. We’ve seen it run 5 or 6 feet deep once or twice a year on average. I’ve opted to use it as my dividing line between “landscape” and “nature.” Once the trees leaf out you won’t be able to see very far past the creek.

Most of the larger trees are native pecans with a couple of elms and bur oaks. You see several native red cedars scattered around. In fact, the deck is the shape that it is because we had a dense natural cluster of red cedars 25 years ago that blocked our view beyond more than 15 feet out our windows. We rather enjoyed that close-up of nature, birds, squirrels and such. But as the red cedars lost their lower branches due to excessive shading, I chose to remove them.

Once those plants were gone we had a vast expanse of bare ground in sight. There was a little more sunlight on the ground at that point, so I tried St. Augustine. Failed. I tried six or eight kinds of fescue that a seed company kept telling me was “new and better.” All failed.

Worn out by those battles, I planted Persian ivy (Hedera colchica). I had bought one 1-gallon pot from the old Germany’s Nursery in Fort Worth in 1978, and I had planted it elsewhere in our yard. I loved its huge leaves and the fact that it is winter-hardy in North Texas when Algerian ivy is not. All of this open space in the foreground was covered with Persian ivy, and it looked really great.

However, the very wet June of 2007 brought root diseases into the plantings, so I switched to regular mondograss, aka “monkeygrass.” I had plenty elsewhere in our landscape, so I was able to dig and divide enough to plant the entire area. Some of the Persian ivy remains on the trees’ trunks, but otherwise it’s all gone. And no, ivy on a tree doesn’t hurt the tree. We keep ours nicely trimmed.

It’s difficult to have flowers in extreme shade, but I use garden art for added interest. You see the ceramic globes, and the little church on a post is actually the second one that we’ve had there. I built the first one out of salvaged lumber, but it finally had to be retired.

I didn’t take the photo to feature them, but there are three antique English chimney pots I bought 20 years ago down the walk to the right. You see the top of only one. They add a nice charm to anyone’s garden.

The walk is from antique brick pavers. I bought them from a local city as they were laying new sewer lines down the middle of one of their streets. Since they were fired to spend their lives in North Texas soils, as they have done since the early 1900s, they’re perfect for use in a garden. I laid about 10 feet each night for a couple of weeks. They rest on a bed of packed sand, and they’re placed on edge for greater stability.

That light green tree to the left side of the photo, looking like it’s in some sort of spotlight, is one of my two grafted male (fruitless) ginkgoes. That tree is so cool. Fascinating leaves all summer that turn brilliant golden yellow in fall. Unusual branch habits in winter. I love this tree.

Way over at the far edge of the other side of the creek you can see a row of eastern red cedars. They appear to be in a solid line, but they’re actually zig-zagged across the hill about 20 feet apart in a random pattern. I bought those from an elderly farmer neighbor for $1 a tree just before he was going to mow them down. They were about 15 inches tall, and I knew they would make a privacy screen faster starting at that size than if I started with 6-foot or taller plants. They completely block views onto our property from the rest of the neighborhood and they look like they were here when we moved in.

You see one of our several Bloodgood Japanese maples. Several others are lurking behind other plants, visible from different angles. They’re my wife’s favorite plants, so I’m sure to have them anywhere that she looks. She prefers her landscape viewing from the comfort of indoors.

And then there are the shrubs. There’s no way I can point them all out from just one photo, but the rounded planting surrounding the ginkgo on the left is dwarf Burford hollies. The curved row of low shrubs on camera side of the walk is Carissa hollies. The mass in the distance is primarily hollies (Mary Nell, Needlepoint, Robin, Cardinal, yaupon, and Oakland). There are several snowball viburnums and one doublefile viburnum toward the back, a very large Gold Dust aucuba and an even larger mature cleyera, and two big groupings of oakleaf hydrangeas that will be in full bloom in a month or so. The grass across the creek is annual rye. It was watered one time – the day it was planted back in early October.

So that’s a bit of a tour of part of our place. I offer it to encourage those of you who have growing issues with shade. It’s not a terrible challenge. It’s just a new opportunity.

Neil Sperry hosts “Texas Gardening” from 8 to 10 a.m. Sundays on WBAP/820 AM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227. Online: