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, and into corrals containing a variety of pots and concrete statuary. Benches and swings are scattered about, perfect roosts for sitting and studying the possibilities. Lots of yard art by Texas craftspeople is tucked among the greenery, including steel trellises and scrollwork crosses ($49—$60) by Tuesday Welders, two steel-twisting sisters from Dale; leaded-glass sun catchers ($25—$60) by Natural Curve in Leander; and rustic cedar trellises by Dripping Springs’ Tom Denning ($22—$40).
HMI ARCHITECTURAL ANTIQUES AND SALVAGE is located in one of the most surreal settings this side of a Tarantino flick—the former Longhorn Ballroom in Dallas, where the atmosphere in the massive walled parking lot is Wild West meets mad muralist. Inside HMi, however, the look leans more to stylish pack rat. Lots of the artifacts come with a little history: circa-1890’s cast-iron planters from an old house in Waxahachie ($1,100 a pair); an 1840’s Javanese Ganesha ($4,000), an elephant-faced god carved from volcanic stone, holding a little cup that—so the story goes—villagers filled with milk each night and was magically empty by morning (couldn’t have had anything to do with the porosity of the stone, could it?); two-headed wooden goats, possibly Persian, that flanked the front walk of a house in Marshall from the mid-1800’s until a few months ago. Every inch of space, upstairs and down, is packed with stuff: a little moss-covered concrete squirrel ($85), for instance, miles of iron railings from England and New Orleans (starting at $30 a linear foot), and stacks of salvaged windows and doors ($20 and up) that, when nailed together, have a second life as whimsical greenhouses. Build your own or HMi will build it for you, starting at around $800 for a four-foot-square, eight-foot-tall structure.
I would’ve bought the six-foot garden bench at Dallas’ Proler Oeggerli Garden Antiques, carved more than a hundred years ago from Italian Vicenza stone ($14,500), but I was afraid it would clash with the family heirlooms already in my garden: three of my parents’ old bowling balls. This swank store does not traffic in kitsch; its European garden antiques are investments in art. Any garden would swap its petunias for such treasures as a two-hundred-year-old water trough chiseled from fossil-pocked Italian tufo stone ($1,900), a century-old stone capital freed from its perch atop a column and currently imitating a curvaceous little table ($5,500), or an 1890’s carved-stone wishing well that belongs in a fairy tale ($14,500). Although it was glaringly apparent that I wasn’t buying, not even an Italian terra-cotta urn with a white glaze that resembled licked icing ($280), co-owner Urs Oeggerli graciously showed me around the yard in the rain, protecting me beneath his black umbrella and treating me as if I were Jackie O.
After visiting a bunch of indistinguishable garden-gift shops, my inner bohemian did the fandango when I walked into Sticks and Stones Garden Market near Highland Park in Dallas. Vintage lawn furniture, such as a metal bench with three springy sunburst-design seats ($795), cozies up to slick galvanized-steel folding armchairs ($225) and brightly glazed ceramic pots in jade or ocher ($189 for a ten-gallon size). A primitive wooden ice-cream cart covered in flaking taxicab-yellow paint ($460); a four-foot-tall, antique cast-iron urn from an estate outside Atlanta ($2,900); and a strap-steel chair sporting Technicolor layers of paint ($49) also caught my eye, a tiny sampling of the treats found here.
Still can’t quite grasp the notion of the outdoor room? A visit to Weston Gardens in Bloom, on the southeast edge of Fort Worth, ought to clarify the concept. Its retail nursery is a straightforward purveyor of native and well-adapted plants with little in the way of accessories besides pots, steel yard stakes (giant swizzle sticks topped with dragonflies, rabbits, and snails, $15—$40), and gazing balls ($49—$200). But cross the street and pass under a stone archway, and you’ll think you’ve gone through the looking glass. The spring day I strolled around Weston, I watched other visitors succumb to the magic of its intimate green spaces. One woman sat on a teak bench by a waterfall with wisteria and iris blooming around her, knitting away, and another rocked her baby in a secluded cove near the formal lily pond. Each of the five or so “rooms” featured a comfortable seat, a bit of ornament like a yard stake or a concrete cat, and a meditative feature like a pond, fountain, or waterfall.
A SIX-FOOT-HIGH CYCLONE FENCE SURROUNDS the big, ramshackle house at the center of Adkins Architectural Antiques near downtown Houston. I’m not sure if it’s supposed to keep nighttime marauders out or all the merchandise in. I loved the 1910 patio set, a table and four chairs that must have been fashioned by a metal worker with a doily fetish ($550); the eight-foot-tall white-marble fountain with the tactile allure of a baby’s skin ($6,500); and the vintage green enamel Snack Master cooler (don’t look for it; I loved it so much I bought it for $65). Adkins sells a variety of reproduction Victorian patio sets and streetlights, but it’s the bits of demolished buildings and the European curios unearthed by partner Hervè de Salve that make this such a happy hunting ground. Take the four-foot-square lead panels with two lions’ heads in bas-relief, salvaged from a Chicago office building ($995 each); Hervè suggests mounting one on a garden wall, drilling a hole in each lion’s mouth, and making a fountain. Or the lacy cast-iron floor grates ($20 each; use them for trivets or small tabletops) and the 1901 paving bricks ($1.25 each). You’ll find superstylish tomato cages topped with finials ($10— $50), simple five-foot-tall steel trellises ($22), and carved-stone fountains, like one with a wide-eyed man spitting water ($7,500).
If nineteenth-century Europeans had known how expensive their ceramic chimney pots would be someday ($175—$1,200), they never would have sent smoke up them. In addition to a grand collection of these oddities, which look like slightly sooty chess pieces for the Jolly Green Giant, the Garden Gate sells a wealth of antique garden benches with a-peeling green paint jobs ($1,000—$1,350), antique hip-height ceramic olive jars from Greece that could hold a double-lifetime supply of martini garnishes for Dean Martin ($2,100 each), a concrete birdbath covered with a green and mauve tile mosaic ($600), iron folding chairs (lyre-back $375, bistro-style $149), and a six-sided English dovecote I know my cat would love to live in ($1,089).
THE ALLURE OF THE GARDEN CENTER at Los Patios is twofold. First, the nursery is tucked in a shopping complex so charming that my first visit there several years ago influenced the design of my current house. You exit the congested Loop 410, then cruise down a meandering drive through a tunnel of trees to the stores—homelike structures, connected by pathways and breezeways, that are clustered in the woods by a creek. (The place is still recovering from last fall’s one-hundred-year flood and seems a little deserted now, but it’s open for business.) In addition to its inspiring setting, the garden center offers a few choice accessories, such as euphonious tubular-steel wind chimes by Music of the Spheres ($65—$325) and occasional tables topped with mosaics of handmade tiles by artist Colleen Sorenson in themes ranging from cowboys with cactus to cats with fish bones ($364—$410).
Patrolled by a trio of friendly felines, Shades of Green is a quiet little nursery that concentrates on plants, but deep in the heart of all that flora lurk ornamental dreams: a birdbath-planter combo made of cypress stumps ($475), a bench fashioned from rough branches and two big slabs of wood ($1,375), and cross sections of tree trunk, two feet in diameter, to use as stepping stones ($45). But wait a minute—tap, tap—that’s not wood! That’s concrete, masterfully manipulated, down to the rough bark and wormholes, by a company in Pleasanton aptly named Illusions in Concrete.
IN AN UNASSUMING MOSS-GREEN HOUSE in a modest neighborhood in Brenham, Margaret Shanks Garden Antiques has a tempting collection of wares. For the past nine years owner Shanks has traveled to Europe—mainly England—and scoured the countryside for old garden furnishings, some dating back to the eighteenth century. Although she and a large chunk of her merchandise were at a Denver show when I visited her shop, what remained behind was still intriguing, like the cast-iron-and-marble table with reclining griffins on its base ($1,600) and the 1930’s French iron chair, all curlicues and whorled leaves, with a cushioned seat and back upholstered in unbleached muslin ($3,000). Shanks has witnessed an explosion of interest in her specialty over the past couple of years. As things like the English glass-and-metal mini-conservatory called a hand light or cloche ($1,100) and the French iron folding tables with small round tops and three flared legs ($900 for a pair) become harder to find, prices have soared. I was smitten with a tiered Victorian plant stand fashioned from wire lumped with generations of paint ($2,000; don’t worry—it’s still there) and a demure octagonal stone birdbath from England (still over my budget at $400). But it’s the memory of the teepee-shaped plant climbers of woven willow, with nary a screw or nail in sight, that has stayed with me—probably because I could afford them ($35—$95).
Long before most Texans considered “distressed” a positive decorating term, the Homestead dynasty in Fredericksburg was perfecting its brand of shabby chic. In its garden shop, Idle Hours, prices reflect the continuing demand for authentically crusty old stuff and the dwindling supply thereof: a white metal chair with a springy sunburst-design seat and back is $395; a hand-carved stone fruit basket on a pedestal, which graced the entrance to a French château around two hundred years ago, goes for $1,495; a small, round green metal garden table is $195; and a tall, narrow iron panel with a grape motif, perfect for a garden wall, is tagged at $395. If you can settle for simulated character, snag one of the new Adirondack chairs in weathered lilac, pink, or lemon (chair $239, ottoman $135) and the oak rocker with a wash of aqua paint ($275). In the fenced yard next to the Homestead Uptown I found some of the most unusual outdoorsy antiques I’ve seen: the business half of an antique ladder, for instance, whose twelve steps each consist of the cast-iron words “Wicksteed Kettering” ($395) and that could be used as a trellis or a plant stand; an endearingly weird wood-and-iron bench whose nubbly frame faintly suggests tree branches ($495); and an antique concrete-log bench ($1,495).
If Walt Disney and David Lynch opened a garden store next door to the United Nations, it would look like Maas Nursery and Landscaping in Seabrook. A staggering collection of yard art, amassed over the nursery’s 47 years in business, is crammed onto fourteen overgrown acres—which are also home to wallabies, an emu, Longhorns, and potbellied pigs (“$10 each you catch ’em. $50 each we catch ’em”). If the four-foot-tall granite Buddha from China ($3,602) is too tranquil for your taste, perhaps you should really push the envelope on your deed restrictions and truck home the three-foot-tall bronze couple that I can only describe as a cranky monkey-dog-man with a naked winged hussy riding on his back ($1,750). If this pair doesn’t scare away those fire ants, nothing will—except maybe one of the nearly life-size primitive wooden figures from Indonesia and Africa ($1,250—$3,950); wow, are those real teeth? Mounted garfish ($72.99), cast-bronze hippo heads ($215), and sleepy-eyed concrete griffins ($130) co-exist with more understated items: a wooden porch swing painted a soft blue ($285), a classic curved concrete bench ($145), blue ceramic birdbaths ($75), and cool little crankshaft side tables made by local artist John Whear ($87).
Adkins Architectural Antiques, 3515 Fannin, Houston (713-522-6547, 800-522-6547)
Garden Center at Los Patios, 2015 NE Loop 410, San Antonio (210-655-6171)
Garden Gate, 5122 Morningside, Houston (713-528-2654)
Garden-Ville of Austin Nursery, 8648 Old Bee Cave Road, Austin (512-288-6113)
HMi Architectural Antiques and Salvage, 200 Corinth Street, Suite 103, Dallas (214-428-1888)
Homestead Uptown, 302 E. Main, Fredericksburg (830-990-5148)
Idle Hours, 233 E. Main, Fredericksburg (830-997-2908)
Maas Nursery and Landscaping, 5511 Todville Road, Seabrook (281-474-2488)
Margaret Shanks Garden Antiques, 901 Pecan Street, Brenham (409-830-0606)
Proler Oeggerli Garden Antiques, 2611 Worthington Street, Dallas (214-871-2233)
Robuck Antiques, the Courtyard Shops, 5453 Burnet Road, Austin (512-419-1112)
Shades of Green Nursery, 334 W. Sunset Road, San Antonio (210-824-3772)
Sticks and Stones Garden Market, 5016 Miller Avenue, Dallas (214-824-7277)
Weston Gardens in Bloom, 8101 Anglin Drive, Fort Worth (817-572-0549)