Home GardeningGarden Diary Deborah Hornickel’s modern-formal garden invites outdoor lounging

Deborah Hornickel’s modern-formal garden invites outdoor lounging


May 28, 2024

Deborah Hornickel credits her garden’s timeless good looks and livability to her good friend James David, a hugely influential designer formerly of Austin with a showpiece personal garden and a revered boutique/nursery called Gardens. (He and partner Gary Peese now call Santa Fe home.) Thanks to James’s design vision, Deborah’s tiny Bryker Woods bungalow was made to live larger by extending her living space outdoors.

In 1991, James convinced Deborah to plant an allée of Bradford pears down the center of her backyard. As they grew, he helped her train them into a tunnel on a custom rebar arch. Aligned with Deborah’s back door, the allée draws the eye from inside the house out into the garden.

String lights run the length of the allée, which leads the eye to a potted Ming fern on a limestone pedestal. Not long ago, Deborah lost one of the pears and has planted a new one to replace it. The gap is hardly noticeable thanks to the strong architectural form of the allée.

(Does this pear allée remind you of another Austin garden I’ve blogged about? Designer Jackson Broussard, who worked for James and who’s also worked with Deborah on her garden, has a similar allée in his personal garden.)

Over time, the pears have grown around the rebar tunnel, becoming one with the frame.

Italian terracotta pots throughout the garden hark back to the classic style of Gardens. Two terracotta bowls of purple heart elevated on limestone plinths mark the entrance to the pear tunnel.

A rectangle of lawn makes a verdant outdoor area rug on one side of the allée.

In the center, framed by a square of clipped boxwood, stands a focal-point pot. Deborah told a funny story about shopping with James, when he spotted this pot and insisted she had to have it. She hesitated. “Trust me,” he said. She did, and he was proved right. This was a theme in every story she told about James’s influence on her garden: “you need this,” “trust me,” and “he was right.”

Notice how deep the fence-line bed is — 8 or 10 feet, I’d say. Newly planted screening shrubs — replacing plants killed by recent deep freezes — include Arizona cypress, cherry laurel, and ‘Brodie’ eastern red cedar.

Against the back of the house, a metal arbor encloses a small patio adorned with candelabras, a limestone console, and a garden-reflecting mirror.

At the far end of the lawn, a limestone bench under a vitex tree terminates the axis view.

Vitex’s pretty purple flowers

At left of the vitex, a trio of elevated pots makes a focal point at the end of the pear allée.

Mangave in one of the pots

Beyond the allée, a raised container pond beckons. A Monet-green bench under the allée overlooks the pond.

Green bench and ceramic table positioned in the shade

The raised concrete walls of the contemporary pond elevate it about a foot. A long steel pipe emerges from a boxwood border (recently replanted with blight-resistant ‘Winter Gem’) to spill water into the pond. Yellow-stemmed ‘Alphonse Karr’ bamboo and a limestone bench accent the modern lines of the pond.

Steel-pipe fountain and a hot-pink waterlily


A massive slab of limestone on faceted pillars makes a custom dining table near the house. Deborah said James made sure the pillars were set on a reinforced foundation for stability.

Mushroom lanterns and a stone bowl of shells and slag glass make a pretty tabletop vignette.

Shells and chunks of green glass — this reminds me of another old-Austin garden I once knew.

In a circle of clipped boxwood, a pebble-filled birdbath on a pillar stands ready to welcome thirsty birds.

Deborah’s covered porch overlooks a fire pit patio under the sculptural limbs of a crape myrtle.

A stone (or hypertufa?) trough of water anchors a grouping of potted plants, including a diminutive Japanese maple. This reminds me so much of vignettes in James and Gary’s old garden (see part 1 and part 2).

A patchwork patio contains old bricks and stone pavers.

Deborah was delighted to discover among the found bricks one stamped from Palmer, Texas, where she has a family connection.

Porch decor, each piece carefully curated

In Deborah’s garage, a farmhouse sink and slatted table make a handy potting area. The sink doubles as a drinks basin during parties. A large window — another idea of James’s — provides a connection to the covered porch.

Mexican folk-art skeletons are a theme in Deborah’s garage decor.

More collected objects

Out front, Deborah shows off a beautifully tended collection of succulents in terracotta pots, displayed on a metal bench and a concrete step.

‘Cherry Chocolate Chip’ manfreda

‘Praying Hands’ mangave

No idea what this beauty is.

Kalanchoe tomentosa

On the porch, a limestone console table displays candles and dried botanicals in glass vases. Below, like a log in a fireplace under a mantel…

…stands a fascinating planter — sort of faux bois-esque. A tropical plant creates the effect of flickering green flames.

A Moroccan-style lantern hangs from the eave.

Another handsome terracotta pot with succulents and a stone obelisk

Deborah’s front garden is subdivided by sculpted green blocks of clipped boxwood. A Dr. Seussian yucca or nolina, its shaggy head sprouting from a quirky trunk, adds a vertical element.

Side paths lead to tiny hidden garden rooms, like this one with a green urn and sphere.

A pink crinum and purple-leaved canna offer bright color.

Jerusalem sage…

…and sunflowers provide a jolt of yellow.

Along the stone-slab front walk, boxwood cones (recently clipped hard to reshape them) and spheres lead the eye to the front door. A desert willow makes a natural arch over the path and will be blooming soon, providing color all summer.

I adore Deborah’s modern-formal garden, whose living architecture complements her charming home and makes it live large. Thank you, Deborah, for sharing it with us!

Deborah’s garden was featured on Central Texas Gardener in 2007. For my own past visits, follow these links:

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Digging Deeper

June 1-2: Take a self-guided, 2-day tour of ponds and gardens in and around Austin on the annual Austin Pond and Garden Tour, held 6/1 and 6/2, 9 am to 5 pm. Tickets are $20 to $25.

Come learn about gardening and design at Garden Spark! I organize in-person talks by inspiring designers, landscape architects, authors, and gardeners a few times a year in Austin. These are limited-attendance events that sell out quickly, so join the Garden Spark email list to be notified in advance; simply click this link and ask to be added. Season 8 kicks off in fall 2024. Stay tuned for more info!

All material © 2024 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

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