THIRTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, MY DAD built a fantasy playhouse in the back yard for his two little girls. Two stories high, it had dormer windows, built-in beds, and running water in the kitchen. But despite its perfection, the house remained largely neglected because, instead of playing in it, my sister and I hauled the tables, chairs, and dishes out to the dense wax-leaf ligustrum nearby to set up housekeeping. Fortunately my dad appreciated the irony of our open-air preference. Perhaps he realized we were fledgling participants in a Texas lifestyle that celebrates our state’s 80-degree winter days and frequent balmy nights: namely, outdoor living.
Turning our houses inside out is nothing new for Texans, who in earlier times were forced to consider climate when building their abode and knew the value of a shady, breezy space outside. Then along came air conditioning. We built Cape Cod saltbox houses and thought, “What style!” We shut the door and our tiny windows, cranked up the AC, watched The Beverly Hillbillies, and watered our African violets.
Then we began to miss the natural light. We rediscovered leisure gardening en masse. We thought about saving energy. The sporadic cookout soon evolved into a nearly nonstop al fresco affair, and the outdoor room, an airy extension of our indoor living space, was born. We clamored for objects that would make the wilds of our back yards as decorative and inviting as possible: antique garden ornaments, pots the size of sports cars, vintage lawn furniture, and statuary from the religious to the ridiculous. We dared to get creative. Gates were made into tables, chairs were intentionally mismatched, and anything at all—rusted-out watering cans, headless statues—had potential. (The greatest benefit of decorating outdoors? You don’t have to dust. Let the dirt and moss build up and call it patina.) And lest you think outdoor living is pure indulgence without any redeeming social value, consider this: As people move out onto their porches and meet their neighbors, the sense of community goes up and neighborhood crime reportedly goes down.
In my search for garden furnishings I blithely ignored the dozens of well-intentioned chain garden centers, patio stores that specialize in name-brand casual furniture, roadside vendors selling Mexican pottery, and gift shops festooned with wind chimes. I steered clear of catalog stores and artisans who do mainly commissioned pieces. And I left out grills, outdoor fireplaces, lighting fixtures, and the sturdy but often aesthetically challenged wooden benches—boxy designs of treated pine or redwood—screwed together by guys with more power tools than taste.
What’s left? The unusual, the whimsical, and the extraordinary. Along with architectural-salvage yards and antiques stores specializing in my chosen prey, several nurseries are included in this selective guide, not so much for the objects you can buy there as for the do-it-yourself inspiration they provide. These idea factories aren’t mega-nurseries but individually owned businesses—disguised as peaceful gardens with paths and patios and seating areas—that appeal to the nature lover in you first and the rabid consumer second. (If you crave a more comprehensive selection, check out Great Garden Sources for Texans, by Nan Booth Simpson and Patricia Scott McHargue, a compendium of hundreds of garden-related businesses across the state.)
But even if I had bought Dell stock five years ago and could afford to actually shop at the most expensive of these places, I’d probably still be an incorrigible scrounger. If it’s cheap enough, I swear, I can learn to love it (husbands excluded). When hunting aged garden goodies at reasonable prices, I keep my eyes peeled for any antiques or junk store that appears to have exploded; the flotsam scattered outside is bound to include yard art bargains. At my secret junk emporium (somewhere on U.S. 290 west of Austin), I bought two metal folding chairs of an unusual design and encrusted with many layers of lovely paint for a mere $5 each; I’ve seen similar chairs at antiques shops for ten times as much. If you’re one of the truly cheap (like me), with no sense of shame when it comes to pawing through other people’s discards, prowl city neighborhoods the evening before bulky-item garbage pickup is scheduled. I once scored four great redwood lawn chairs that were destined for the landfill and needed only some glue and a couple of screws to restore them to their former glory.
Despite my addiction to junking, I can still appreciate merchants who will do the sorting for me, who carefully collect and display their wares with contagious passion. Here, then, are fourteen businesses, culled from the seventy or so I visited (a directory of addresses and phone numbers is on page 159). They should inspire you to get out there and start living.
SEVERAL OF THE COURTYARD SHOPS, a collection of antiques stores housed in a former lumberyard, seem to be competing for the Vintage Garden Ornament Store of the Year award. Although the race is close, the winner in my book is Robuck Antiques, where you can find a life-size cast-iron eagle, dated 1906, that once perched on the roof of a bank ($1,200) or a concrete “log” table reputed to have been made in the twenties by the late, great Dionisio Rodríguez of San Antonio ($2,000). How about one of those classic concrete-basket planters from the thirties, with a tall, arching handle and encrusted with large pieces of broken tile and china ($1,200)? Not funky enough? Then feast your eyes on the round coffee table covered with avocado-colored figure-eight tiles that comes with “matching” turquoise planters ($300). The cache of curiosities goes on and on: a Victorian cast-iron sunflower birdbath ($450), a turn-of-the-century wrought-iron glider bench ($900), even a pair of pink concrete flamingos—yes, flamingos—that inhabited the San Antonio Zoo in the forties ($975 for both).
Garden-Ville of Austin Nursery, long known for its organic expertise and decidedly undecorative products like supermanure, is blooming with creative ideas. Gravel paths wind through rose-covered arbors, past the vegetable garden, the deer-resistant garden, and the formal herb garden,