In case you’ve never been there, Texas is big. From San Antonio, where the last vestiges of the South drop off, it is still five hundred miles west to El Paso and six hundred miles north to the top of the panhandle. Out in the middle of that vast triangle sits the oil country of the Permian Basin, an ancient seabed that today is still a strangely oceanic landscape of bobbing pump jacks, knee high scrub oak, mesquite, and horizon. In the center of all this flatness, visitors seeking landfall will find the sister cities of Midland and Odessa. They don’t call it midland for nothing-Alaska gardener Les Brake, who grew up in Odessa says, "It was always three hundred miles to anywhere."
So it’s all the more wonderful, the sight that awaits visitors when they drive west out of Odessa on the Kermit Highway, past the mileage marker for the next town ("No Trees-29 miles"), and roll down the gravel lane to Barbara and Pete Chambers’s garden. Massive banks of roses cascading out over the roadside fence are a harbinger of the impending reality shift. Turning into the driveway, colorful perennials, shrubs, roses, and annuals welcome visitors to a garden oasis.
A Labor of love
After years of living away from their hometown of Odessa, Barbara and Pete Chambers returned in 1989. Barbara began creating the garden in 1997, while caring for her ailing mother. The cathartic power of her love of nature and the garden returned to sustain her through a long period of personal grief and loss. "I always wanted to be a nurse, and I got to be one," she says. "Gardening is the most healing experience."
The Chambers’s property is divided into four distinct gardens. In them mingle the traditional and the wild. Their south-facing front garden was shaded for years by large cottonwoods, which Barbara recently had removed. "It was painful to see them go, but it was just too shady," she laments. "I made a mistake in the beginning when I planted them so close to the house." The influx of sunshine has imbued the area with a new vigor. A flagstone patio, bench, and fountain are surrounded with a corona of color. Yellow spanish broom, (Spartium spp.), red autmn sage (Salvia greggii), blue catmint (Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’), butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii), red-hot poker (Kniphofia), oriental poppies (Papaver orientale), and various roses are knit together with drifts of pink Mexican evening primrose (Oenothera speciosa) and mounds of lavender. Garden phlox, ‘Stella del Oro’ daylily, obedient plant (Physostegia)-or disobedient, as Barbara calls it-and other common perennials mix with butterfly-nurse plants like purple fennel, bee balm (Monarda), parsley, and chokecherry (Prunus virginiana).
The star of this front yard garden, however, is a dazzling Mexican sage that is only now finding its way onto plant lists elsewhere in the country. A tender perennial in colder climes, Salvia darcyi grows especially well in west Texas, mounding more than four feet high and six feet wide. Its spikes of inch-long lipstick red flowers are held beyond its foliage. "It’s my very favorite. It starts blooming in April and goes until November." An added appeal is the plant’s neatness, with flowers that fade invisibly.
In fall, another showy native sage from the Trans-Pecos region, Salvia regla, grows three or four feet tall with tomato red flowers. Yarrow (Achillea ‘Moonshine’), black fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum ‘Purpureum’), reed grass (Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’), and other perennials also nestle around the flagstone patio and bench.
Against the odds
Barbara’s big gardening epiphany came when she visited the xeriscape demonstration garden at the Commemorative Air Force’s Midland headquarters, which was created and maintained by the local Master Gardeners. Ablaze with large russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia), Salvia greggii ( a west Texas native), desert willows (Chilopsis linearis), Apache plume (Fallugia paradoxa), rabbit brush (Chrysothamnus nauseosus), and yellow columbine (Aquilegia chrysantha), the garden opened Barbara’s eyes. She immediately enrolled in the Master Gardener program.
"I became obsessed, and I read every relevant magazine and book to learn what would grow here," she recalls. She also remembers how at a Master Gardener conference in another part of the state, every person, without exception, said, "You live in Odessa? You can’t grow anything there." She set out to show them otherwise. And she did, with flair.
Barbara brings an artist’s eye to the garden. "I’m a painter. The only thing that I am as passionate about as gardening is painting," she says. "I took art lessons for 15 years. I would stay up for three or four days working on a painting. I just had to get it done."
Her skill with color shines near the new open-air "pavilion" Pete built on the house’s east side. Themed in blue and yellow, flower beds flare out on either side of the cool north-facing structure, with drifts of bread poppies (Papaver somniferum) adding hints of pink and purple. A small white-flowered Texas native shrub, Bauhinia congestsa, adds vertical interest. Larkspur (Consolida ajacis), red valerian (Centranthus ruber), tickseed (Coreopsis grandiflora), russian sage, native Dakota verbena (Verbena bipinnatifida), and rough-leaved Salvia transsylvanica crowd alongside blanket flower (Gaillardia) and grasses, mingling with the cobalt blue pots that direct the eye toward the structure. Inky blue masses of mealycup sage (Salvia farinacea ‘Victoria’) collude with Engelmann’s daisy (Engelmannia peristenia), a native wildflower that produces a tall yellow thicket.
The shady meadow garden found under the tall trees on the property’s northeast quarter oozes with charm. Barbara had hinted to Pete that she really wanted a rock wall to make it a secret garden, and he promised her a surprise for her birthday. The surprise turned out to be a carved wooden shingle proclaiming "The Not-So-Secret Garden." Today, the sign adorns an arbor covered with a massive ‘New Dawn’ rose, one of two entrances to a dappled glade that is reminiscent of Van Gogh’s The Starry Night. Pink evening primrose sprawls under the leafy canopy, with quirky birdhouses, statuary parked at jaunty angles, and paths leading back to a cluster of red canna lilies (Canna ‘Phasion’) snuggled up beside a purpleleaf sand cherry (Prunus ?cistena). The meadow has an Alice in Wonderland feel, especially at dawn or dusk. On the floor of the copse, there is love-in-a-mist (Nigella), knotweed (Persicaria), hollyhocks (Alcea rosea), larkspur, coleus, and sedum.
Barbara is devoted to purely organic methods. She loves birds and butterflies and is willing to sacrifice any fussy neatness for liveliness. She has adopted a "no till" technique that works miracles on her plants. Each spring she top-dresses the entire garden with a hefty layer of composted cow manure. She plants by digging a hole three times the size of the rootball, down through the compost. "I couldn’t believe how much better things grew," she marvels. Barbara thinks the success stems from not disturbing the microorganisms in the soil of this particularly tough gardening locale.
Barbara’s laugh characterizes her relentless humor, unrestrained curiosity and big-as-Texas spirit. When told that the breeze north of town seemed redolent with the aroma of petroleum and natural gas, she can’t resist one more jape. "I grow fragrant plants to mask that smell," she grins. "When friends from Odessa used to come down to visit in our place on the Rio Grande in Del Rio, they would always sniff and say ‘What’s blooming?’ and I would tell them, ‘Why, that’s fresh air.’"
When asked if she considers gardening her hobby, she pauses. "No," she says. "It’s a magnificent obsession."