By Babs Rodriguez
Photos courtesy of Dana McGrath
Predicting the weather in Texas is always a roll of the dice. And late winter-early spring is especially dicey. There could be a dusting of snow on the ground or verdant buds on the trees. Either way, it’s not too early to start planning for the new season — as long as you proceed with caution when it comes to planting. To help you get started, we asked two Southlake women — a newcomer to gardening and a seasoned enthusiast — to share insights, tips, resources, wit and wisdom. And, yes, advice on what to plant now.
Local green thumb Dana McGrath grew up in San Antonio but moved to Southlake in 1996. When she and her family settled into the then developing subdivision of Timarron, it was newly converted from pastureland.
“There were literally no mature trees or shrubs — meaning no birds singing, no squirrels leaping, no wind pushing through tree leaves. If you can visualize three sides of wood fencing with a flat box of green grass and compare that image to what surrounds me now, that sums up why I love to garden.”
Asked how gardening took root in her life, she says, “I started mowing the yard of my childhood home when I was 13. It was a chore assigned to my older brother, but he had his first part-time job and hated yardwork. I hated not being old enough to work, so we struck a deal.” Although the gratification now is different than that first $5 paycheck, the rest is history. “I really enjoy the sight, smell and success of gardening.”
A full-time mom and part-time office administrator when her children were young, McGrath continues to work for a local business. And now, with the kids grown and flown, there’s more time to spend on what’s always been a solitary passion. “My kids would rather chew rocks than garden. Maybe because their childhood punishment for antics was to pull weeds for hours on end,” she says with a laugh.
She describes her yard’s style as a “mullet — business in the front, party in the back.” A popular stop on the 2019 garden tour by the Southlake Perennial Garden Society, the front yard showcases a traditional focus on symmetry and balance. The back is natural and playful, with more beds. “I intentionally kept a section of lawn, as I enjoy the unruliness of shrubs and flowers as it meets up with the straight edges that a lawn provides.”
The remarkable centerpiece that had tour viewers buzzing is an extensive fairy garden showcasing bonsai cultivation techniques. “The result is true to scale for the miniature cottages, wood twig bridges and mischievous fairies flitting about.” Because those who love digging in the dirt also enjoy sowing knowledge about it, McGrath now is taking classes to become a master gardener. “I have always loved gardening, and I now have the time to master that knowledge and share it with others.”
Learning curve “Initially, I treated my garden purchases as lottery tickets. That is, I’d buy something that tickled my fancy, toss it in the ground and see if it proved a winner. That is an expensive way to learn. Over time, I’ve begun to take that money and spend it on local gardening books, attend
free classes and join clubs of like-minded enthusiasts.”
Pro tip “My plantings are quite extensive, but I used shrubs and perennials to minimize the expense of replanting annuals every year. Annuals are very dependable as they bloom consistently during their season, but I use them as a small pop of color to keep the expense down.”
Best advice “Think big, start small and don’t be afraid to ask questions!”
Reading list A few of McGrath’s favorite gardening tomes (all found on amazon.com) include Easy Gardens for North Central Texas by Steve Huddleston and Pamela Crawford, Neil Sperry’s Lone Star Gardening and Doug Welsh’s Texas Garden Almanac.
Corrie DeCamp is an executive with Sabre Corporation, a travel technology company based in Southlake, but grew up in North Dallas and has lived in Austin and Arlington, as well as Maryland and Santiago, Chile.
She has been leading her global teams from her home dining room during the pandemic. “This is the longest time that I have not boarded a plane in over 20 years,” she notes. DeCamp says doing something so different from her daily profession is what lured her into getting her hands dirty. Plus, she loves the payoff of watching things grow and bloom, not to mention the flavor of homegrown tomatoes.
She started gardening last July, after her husband, Mauricio Acuña, a native of Chile, took up the hobby while awaiting his green card. “In general, he has decision rights over the backyard, and I have decision rights over the front.” A planned makeover for the front yard includes a large island bed, but the couple differ in their approach to design. “The plants in a nursery ‘talk’ to him for selection, while I often research the heck out of things before walking into the nursery,” she says. Her husband took care of the daily watering last summer and grew tomatoes and peppers as well as colorful flowers. “He has much more sun in the back than I have in the front.”
She likes to combine a natural look with perennials in what she calls her front woods — there are more than 50 post oak trees on the couple’s acre-plus lot. Other than combating weeds, she notes, they don’t actively manage the wooded areas in back. “The back half of the backyard is primarily growing wild. That will likely be a future project with a meandering path and more of a woodland garden.” Multiple beds are evolving, some raised, and because the home is at the top of a hill, retaining walls are already in use. The large island bed in the front will provide more variety and color where possible, the express wish of Acuña, who is from Santiago, where the climate is very similar to that of San Diego. A north face and almost constant shade dictate a need for more texture than color in the front, while an area around a backyard pool welcomes colorful, sun-loving blooms. Containers are now used for tulips and other annual bulbs, which are replaced seasonally.
“I’ve recently purchased some items for seed starting, and I’ll potentially grow greens inside under a grow light for my daily lunch salad. Yes, I’ve gone a little crazy with the gardening.”
Learning curve “I need to be patient. Gardening is not an activity for instant gratification. Plants grow and flower over time — sometimes a very long time.”
Biggest lesson “I need to be more comfortable with failure. Sometimes, a plant doesn’t thrive due to a variety of reasons. Perhaps it doesn’t get the right amount of water, suffers from insect damage or has a poor root system when purchased; maybe I made a mistake. Regardless, I shouldn’t take it personally when something doesn’t work out.”
Philosophical note “Things I learn in the garden are generally good life lessons — also, weeding is not a competitive sport, though it sometimes feels like it.”
Best advice “Go local. Walk in your neighborhood and see which plants work well (and which don’t). Get involved with a local gardening organization; visit garden centers. Don’t hesitate to hire an expert. I asked Toni Moorehead with Signature Gardens (signaturegardens.blogspot.com), to assist with my landscape design. She’s a master gardener and a specialist in the use and care of perennials.”
YouTube channels “I often listen to YouTube as I walk in the neighborhood. My favorite channels include The Impatient Gardener, Garden Answer, HortTube, CaliKim29 and MIgardener.”