The Culture

A Garden Grows in West Texas

Author photo: Robert Diego

Jim Martinez and Mary Lou Saxon appeared at the 2019 Texas Book Festival. Read more from our collection covering the festival's authors here.

When Jim Martinez and Jim Fissel began building their house in Marfa, they had no interest in the sort of traditional front lawn that one can find even in this water-starved part of the world. In fact, they barely had any interest in a front lawn at all.

“My idea of front yards is that they should be the smallest piece of property in the world,” Martinez says. “You never really utilize your front yard. So I pushed this house as far as the city would let me push it forward.” The result is an extremely modest strip of land between the street and the house’s entrance, and an unusually spacious backyard enclosed on two sides by a modern, L-shaped building.

That backyard isn’t a traditional backyard, either. Martinez, a garden designer and soil scientist, and Fissell, a designer of software and hardware user interfaces, have spent years turning it into a showcase for waterwise plants, including succulents, herbs, trees, shrubs, vines, and grass species. Sixty-five of those plants are the subject of their recent book, Marfa Garden: The Wonders of Dry Desert Plants (Trinity University Press), which features text by their friend Martha Hughes and beautiful plant photographs by Mary Lou Saxon.

The book’s overriding purpose is to encourage us to rethink our ideas about the desert land of West Texas. “Marfa and Far West Texas are internationally known for grand landscapes, large expanses of open space, beautiful skies, and distant mountains,” Hughes writes. Marfa Garden’s intent is to get the region’s visitors and residents to look away, for a moment, from the stunning vistas and pay attention to what is happening on the ground. The photos more than make the case, highlighting not just the prickly cacti and agave that one might expect, but a host of plants that sport colorful flowers and berries. (And, in some cases, powerful aromas, though there is no scratch-and-sniff component to the book.)

If Martinez and Fissel can make their garden bloom with minimal irrigation in the unforgiving climate of West Texas, there’s no part of Texas where it can’t be done. The book’s appendix is a useful how-to for Texas gardeners, offering information about which plants can be grown in which parts of Texas and under what conditions.

During a recent visit to the garden—which is not open to the public, though tours are available on request—Martinez gave a running commentary on the plants the couple have nurtured.

This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

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Tags: Books, jim fissel, jim martinez, Marfa Garden, Texas Book Festival

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