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Yard Art and Handmade Places

Yard Art and Handmade Places
Extraordinary Expressions of Home
Foreword by Betty Sue Flowers; krista Whitson, Principal Photographer

A beautifully illustrated book that explores how the making of yard art expresses an exuberant sense of self and helps build communities.

November 2007
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188 pages | 8 1/4 x 9 1/4 | 122 color illus., 1 map |

Relatively few people in America build their own homes, but many yearn to make the places they live in more truly their own. Yard Art and Handmade Places profiles twenty homemakers who have used their yards and gardens to express their sense of individuality, to maintain connections to family and heritage, or even to create sacred spaces for personal and community refreshment and healing. Jill Nokes, an authority on native plants and ecological restoration, traveled across the state of Texas, seeking out residents who had transformed their yards and gardens into oases of art and exuberant personal expression. In this book, she presents their stories, told in their own words, about why they created these handmade places and what their yard art has come to mean to them and to their communities.

Rather than viewing yard art as a curiosity or oddity, Nokes treats it as an integral part of home-making, revealing how these places become invested with deep personal or social meaning. Yard Art and Handmade Places celebrates the fact that, despite the proliferation of look-alike suburbs, places still exist where people with ordinary means and skills are shaping space with their own hands to create a personal expression that can be enjoyed by all.

  • Foreword by Betty Sue Flowers
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1. Places Full of Memory and Meaning
  • Chapter 2. The Repertoire of the Garden
  • Chapter 3. Cascada de Piedra Pinta
  • Chapter 4. A Natural and Peaceful Spirit
  • Chapter 5. Little by Little, He's Been Blessing Us
  • Chapter 6. Stories from the Valley
  • Chapter 7. The Love You Have To Do It
  • Chapter 8. Placenames and Family
  • Chapter 9. Mango's Jungle
  • Chapter 10. The Ardent Virtuosity of Collectors' Gardens
  • Chapter 11. One Big Cactus and Succulent Dish Garden
  • Chapter 12. A Surprise Comes Every Day
  • Chapter 13. Sculpture You Can Live In
  • Chapter 14. The Flower Man
  • Chapter 15. The Cathedral of Junk
  • Chapter 16. Casa de Azúcar
  • Chapter 17. Stories from the Panhandle
  • Chapter 18. A Great Peaceful Place
  • Chapter 19. The Only Trees for Miles Around
  • Chapter 20. A Windbreak for the Homeplace
  • Chapter 21. God and the Birdhouses Brought Us Together
  • Chapter 22. A Lesson in Landmarks
  • Chapter 23. This Is How You Stay Alive
  • Chapter 24. Desires of the Heart
  • Chapter 25. More Than Four Seasons
  • Notes
  • Index

Jill Nokes is a landscape designer in Austin, Texas.

Krista Whitson, AIA, is an architect and photographer in Austin.


As you may guess from the title of my last book, How to Grow Native Plants of Texas and the Southwest, the focus for much of my career has been the study of woody plants indigenous to the region I have been most familiar with all my life. In this book I take a look at the ways ordinary people organize and shape the space around their house to express identity and belonging. As a horticulturist, I obviously have had experience with garden-making, but there are many other reasons I have been drawn to this subject. I hope to contribute a new perspective on the ways residential property can be transformed into extraordinary places of memory and meaning.

Real Places

My family was a typical product of the prosperity that followed World War II. The G.I. Bill raised my father above his parents' educational level, and with his diploma in hand, he eagerly left his hometown in the Rust Belt region near Buffalo, New York, and headed to El Paso to make a new life for himself and my young mother. Throughout my Texas childhood we seldom visited our great aunts and grandparents back East, but I held on to faint memories of the way their attics and basements smelled when I secretly explored them, and of the funny stories they told of eccentric New England uncles and cousins. My family stayed in El Paso less than ten years before becoming corporate migrants, moving so often that I lost track of how many schools I had attended. We lived in a series of anonymous new neighborhoods where everyone was just like us, but after a while we quit trying very hard to make friends because we knew we'd just be moving again soon. I used to envy kids with big families and grandparents who lived in the country, or those with a religious or ethnic heritage that made them feel part of a group. Carrying my lunch tray into yet another school cafeteria where no face was familiar, I never felt like I belonged anywhere.

Learning Where to Look

In graduate school, as the rest of the nation was preoccupied by the Watergate hearings, I was spending time in the piney woods of east Texas with my special new friend, Oza Hall. Oza had retired from the Texas Forest Service, so he had time to show me around remnant virgin hardwood bottoms, stands of long-leaf pines, and other places in Newton County that had been his home for nearly seventy years. In fact, he had hardly left the county in his whole life, but he could find his way around those woods in the pitch dark with his hunting hounds.

One day, Oza took me deep in the woods to the homestead of an ancient African-American man, or so he seemed to me then. The man's house was a plain dogtrot log cabin with a chimney made from clay, mud, and Spanish moss, surrounded by a swept-dirt yard framed by an old tumble-down split-rail fence. In one corner of the lot, a raw-boned mule monotonously trudged round and round in a circle, grinding sugarcane in a crude mill. A fire was lit nearby to boil the strong-smelling sugar water, slowly converting it into thick, dark syrup. The man showed us how he made an elixir for coughs from the inner bark of the chokecherry tree, and how wild ginseng root tied in a small pouch worn around the neck could soothe a deep chest cold. In the back of the lot was the privy; on the other side, a smokehouse and an area for wash pots stood ready. I felt like I had just stepped onto the pages of the recently published Foxfire Book of folklore. I remember being enchanted with the whole scene, yet aware that there was so much I didn't understand, including the old-school style of speech the man used. But the memory of that place and the old man's natural wisdom, simplicity, and self-sufficiency stayed with me for years.

During that same time, I also tagged along with my mentors Benny Simpson and Lynn Lowrey as they searched deserts and woodlands for outstanding native plants to introduce into cultivation. Later, after my first book was published, I found myself visiting cities and small towns either as a consultant or to deliver programs to garden clubs and plant societies on how to use some of those same plants in landscape design. While on those pleasant sojourns, my gracious hosts often wanted to show me the meticulously restored historic home and garden of an important local personage, or the formal demonstration gardens at the courthouse or visitors' center. Though those kinds of places offer interesting ways to learn part of a community's story, I found myself eager to explore instead the older neighborhoods, barrios, and cemeteries because that's where the forgotten heirloom plants and overlooked remnant stands of native species can sometimes still be found. It's also in these personal and experimental places that people are likely to be doing their own yard work, and might have something different to offer.

Thirty years later, as I began the field research for this book, I drove more than two thousand miles on one trip to deep east Texas with various friends who had grown up there, looking for old-time traditional gardens, or at least yards that had some of the features and patterns that the old man had once shown me and Oza. I was looking for people who had the same ability to fashion things from what was at hand, who remembered how to make medicine from a few plants, who cherished something learned from their ancestors, and who were holding on to the old ways. But I never found anyone who came close.

Are these places disappearing? Surely many of the old traditional ways are gone, as the old-timers themselves have passed away and rural areas continue to empty out. But I did learn that in many ways entirely new things or variations on those older expressions have taken their place. We just need to look for them. Perhaps I have been fascinated by real places with stories because I never understood how important they were until I was old enough to share them with a family of my own. Maybe my own background was so bland that I am eager to romanticize and idealize something that seems different or unique. All I know for sure is that looking for and meeting people who have a clear sense of where they came from, and a desire to share part of it with me, has enriched my life and made me want to learn more.

The Vernacular Realm

Vernacular is one of those useful adjectives with meanings generous enough to apply to subjects as different as language, architecture, landscape, and customs. Formally, the word vernacular is used to describe something that is native or originating in the place where it is used or found. Linguistically, it means something expressed or written in the native language of a place, or more commonly, it indicates plain, everyday, ordinary language. Language, place, native: these are the words that link my work with plants to the study of gardens as expressions of home and identity. In hindsight, they are also the signposts that have marked the search for meaning in my own life.

Home and Garden

Most research in the history of landscape design has focused on formal, elite gardens to document their size, location, inventory, and the philosophical intent of the architect, owner, or designer. The stunning grandeur of these sites frequently eclipses any questions about those nameless individuals whose hard work and on-the-ground innovation actually built them. In contrast, the study of vernacular landscapes is often removed from horticulture and garden design and is devoted instead to analyzing how an individual's connection to a larger ethnic or cultural group is expressed through recognized patterns, practices, and vocabulary. Initially I was inclined to assign the creative efforts of individuals I encountered into categories of ethnicity, race, or folk-art products of unschooled naïveté. But as growing urbanization, media saturation, and the restless mobility of the general population contribute to the dilution of pure expression, I discovered that trying to create a rigid catalog of these experiences of space was limiting and incomplete. Gradually, through listening over and over to the interviews with the garden makers themselves, I began to realize that what makes these places worth looking at is something more than ethnic or cultural branding. It begins with "the most monumental aspect of material culture—the use of space." By looking at the ways people use their yard or garden to create particularly exuberant statements about themselves, their history or background, and even religious beliefs, I learned that the larger meaning binding all these places together is what they have to say about the relationship of the owner to his or her homeland. As Robin Doughty asserts, "Settlement is the process of dwelling, of experiencing a sense of belonging in a physical and cultural setting. Human industry transforms a location, a given space, into a place, a repository of meaning."

As you will see from the stories that follow, the yards and gardens included here present many layers of meaning, and sometimes homeowners with little else in common employ the same vocabulary to describe their achievements, thus suggesting common themes that transcend other differences. Yet what they all share is their strong identification with the particular spot where they live, and their determination to use their property to express publicly a very personal vision of what it means to live and belong there. In this context, the idea of home is described as being more than just real estate and property values. Instead, it is seen as something mythic, something remembered and yearned for. At their best, these places become an important contribution by an individual and family to a life-affirming order.

The Garden as a Gesture of Hospitality

In the introduction to the publication series Placenotes, Kevin Keim, director of the Charles Moore Center for the Study of Place, remarks, "As we all sense that everywhere looks more and more like nowhere, we seek out places that make us feel as though we were somewhere." For several decades, we have seen increased attention given to place-making and sense of place as important indicators of cultural and social vitality. Yet in the familiarly tragic way humans have of valuing something just as it slips out of reach, today we are also witnessing the rapid replacement of our indigenous landscape by relentless sprawl-spawned monoculture and homogeneous development. As Neal Peirce explains, "Since 1970, a third of all new housing units have been built with rules (usually made by the developer) the homeowner is obliged to join if he wants to live there." Paint colors, plant selections, and size of lawn are just a few of the things that must be approved by the association before the owner is allowed to modify his property. But security, orderliness, and predictability are benefits that come with a price: more generic landscapes, less understanding and tolerance of outsiders, and a diminished sense of community and long-term attachment. In contrast, the homeowners in this book remind us that the garden can be a powerful gesture of hospitality and sociability. The unexpected and playful outrageousness of many of these yards is often a source of pride and delight to the neighborhood rather than a despised aberration from the norm because they provide a kind of "intermediate zone where individuals, families, neighbors, and strangers can interact."

Home as Life Territory

The scale of some of the projects in this study actually exceeds the typical definition of yard and garden (see Chapters 18, 19, and 20). Nonetheless, they still relate to the house from which they are viewed and enjoyed, so I do include them as examples of the way the personal property around a home can be a vivid demonstration of place-making. Through the experience of being inside these modified spaces, they can offer an understanding, aided by all the senses, of what it means to live and work in a certain area. Architect and urban planner Timothy Beatly expands the definition of home: "Our home is our life territory, the communities, landscapes, and bioregions that we occupy and depend on for our emotional existence." Beatly and others view the private home within a larger context of natural and human ecological systems where property values, social relationships, and cultural norms either encourage or deter the individual from feeling deeply connected to a particular place.

Texas, with ten vegetational areas or ecoregions as diverse as subtropical beaches, the Chihuahuan desert, pine forests, and vast treeless plains, offers many different contexts in which to consider whether a particular regional response or practice develops in reaction to local weather, soils, cultural affiliations, or history. Some of these gardens exist in climates so harsh and extreme that it's hard for outsiders to appreciate how challenging it is to make a garden there, or even to spend time outdoors. It may be unreasonably difficult to enjoy, but when it's all you have, you make the best of it. I found that some of these efforts to "make the best of it" resulted in superlative celebrations of home and region. As we know from the stories of pioneer settlers who struggled to carve out a homestead from the wilderness, some of the gardens profiled here reflect an attachment to place that is amplified by the difficulty required to achieve it. In other instances, as we shall see, the struggles preceding the embellishment and decoration of property were not so much environmental as personal or societal (see Chapter 5). As the embodiment of overcoming some private adversity or a daunting ecological challenge, like getting trees established on a dry windy plain (see Chapter 20), the garden becomes a symbol of endurance, of permanence, a steadfast declaration of "I was here, I did this. This is where I call home."

Texas offers much to the study of vernacular gardens because its ecological, historical, and cultural diversity make what we find here relevant to garden-making throughout the United States. Its enormous urban populations and rural enclaves provide ample variety for comparisons to other cities and regions. Steady immigration into former Anglo-dominated communities is also initiating change in some of the same ways seen elsewhere. Generalizations can be tricky and misleading, but a survey of a big state like Texas casts a net wide enough to make the mix interesting.

Leaving Your Mark

There was a time in America when almost all people participated in the act of building. Whether it was building a cabin or corral, barn or root cellar, expressing one's life through building and shaping space was common. Even plain utilitarian structures often bore the imprint of their maker, perhaps in the form of something as simple as initials carved on a beam or a special stone laboriously positioned as a fireplace mantel. Today building technology is so complex that "it has become the exclusive domain of professionals." Note, however, that about one-third of the people included here designed or built their homes themselves. The yard and garden remain as one of the few common realms where people with ordinary means and skills can shape space with their own hands to create a personal expression that is visible to all.

In this book, I use the terms yard and garden interchangeably, though for most people, a garden is more often considered the specific area designated for intensive planting, like a vegetable or flower garden. Yard is often used to describe the area with the lawn as a setting for the house, usually including some foundation planting and perhaps some space set aside for leisure and work activities. As we become more and more removed from rural settings, the yard is usually understood to be one's property that is maintained to varying degrees according to the standards of the neighborhood, but without the special attention or display that signals that the owner is a dedicated hobbyist or gardener. To many people, garden implies either an elite or grand landscape or an elaborate horticultural display, requiring expertise and resources. Thinking about it in this way, almost everyone has a yard, but fewer people will claim to have a garden.

Garden will always be the preferred term for an intensively cultivated space, but to me it can also apply to someone's concrete patio decorated with planters made from recycled materials filled with plastic flowers. Yards and gardens are outdoor spaces near the house that have been shaped, organized, and modified for habitation and display. What all of these very different gardens presented here have in common is that they are occupied space. Instead of serving only as vacant settings for their homes, these yards are used and lived in. Because of the inseparable connection to vernacular architecture, fencing, walls, fountains, and other built forms are included here as part of the yard.

I Wonder as I Wander: Methods and Criteria

Familiarity with the state was essential to the search for special yards and gardens. My goal was to look in most of Texas' ten bioregions to learn if each had built landscapes that were as distinct as the indigenous soils, climate, and plant communities surrounding them. Looking at major urban areas with their own histories and demographics was also important, but breaking a large city into comprehensible zones that could be surveyed in a reasonably thorough manner was often very difficult. Random cruising of neighborhoods actually turned up some interesting sites, but in almost every area, I was lucky to have local people as scouts to suggest where to look and who to talk to. This was the only way to check my impressions about a town's character against the experience of someone who truly lived there.

One unexpected difficulty in the search process was to provide my scouts with enough information about what I was looking for without being so explicit that they might eliminate something of interest because they assumed it wouldn't apply. Over the years as I described this project to others, they often surmised that I was searching only for wacky yard art or outrageous odd-ball environments. I had to learn ways to suggest the general intention of my searching, while still allowing for some open-endedness that would leave room for discovery. My initial request for local help often revealed how people understood and viewed their own community. It was not unusual for people, even in smaller cities, to admit they were unfamiliar with huge sections of their town, or for them to be surprised at what we found there by merely driving up and down the streets. Sometimes a simple question about a natural feature, such as "What is your definition of a bayou? How does it differ from watershed or creek?" would temporarily stump my local guides, as they had never thought about anything so familiar and so much a part of their landscape. A bayou is just a bayou!

Even when these explorations did not turn up something suitable for this project, just the act of looking and asking questions from an outsider's ignorant standpoint was always worthwhile. Driving through small north-central Texas towns, I saw empty Victorian brick opera houses and train depots, markers of the community's brief moment of glory and prosperity when cotton was king. I could imagine a scene when the town's people gathered to celebrate with bands and barbecue, tossing their hats in the air when the ribbon was cut or the first train arrived. Down in rice-growing counties, small Czech-Tex towns bypassed by the highway today seemed forlorn and nearly empty, yet the neighborhood streets still possessed a melancholy dignity provided by matched rows of huge live oaks whose branches reached across like cathedral arches to cast an eternal shady canopy. Someone who was optimistic about the town's future must have planted them seventy-five years ago. Searching for current, active sites with one eye on the past helped me understand how landscapes often reflect many layers of cultural and natural history. As Elizabeth Barlow Rogers explains, "Because landscapes have a temporal dimension, altering with time, they can be read as palimpsests, documents in which nature's own powerful dynamic and the changing intentions of human beings over the years inscribe a historical record."

To begin the search, my criteria for the yards I might include in this book were simple: the gardens had to be made by the owner and the family themselves. They would not be designs copied from magazines, or built and maintained by a landscape company. They must be active, meaning the owners must be present and still working in their garden. Many of these places, like most gardens, are inherently ephemeral, and without the animating presence of their creators, they soon change or disappear altogether. This rule eliminated a few very worthy and interesting remnant sites that have been maintained to one degree or another by other people. At the other end of the spectrum, I tended to stay away from brand-new subdivisions, having understood, as Robin Doughty states, "the passage of time is necessary for the experience of place." Without history, gardens and yards serve as decoration, not vehicles for stories.

There were occasions when I did look for something specific, like long-established windbreaks in the Panhandle (Chapters 19 and 20) or palm collectors in the Rio Grande Valley (Chapter 9). The trail to these people was surprisingly easy, thanks to plant societies, county agents, and local history museums. With only the vaguest notion of why these places might be worth looking at, I was amazed over and over to discover that the reality of these sites was more profound and interesting than anything that had initially existed in my imagination.

Encounters with the garden makers included here usually led to photo documentation and lengthy audiotaped interviews conducted over several visits. Often my questions would prompt the place makers to reflect about their garden in a fresh way and cause them to question some of their motivations, the way you do when someone asks you about something that to you is just an ordinary part of everyday life. One of the greatest privileges of this project was to enter the gates of a garden with the companionable owners and to be a witness as they told me their story and savored their achievement.

I will not claim to be objective about my selections. As Rita Dove writes, "Subjectivity is what makes life interesting and turns human history into a kaleidoscope of wills meeting accidents." This is not a rejection of methodical approaches that provide empirical data. My goal here was not to map or quantify groups of people or settlements but instead to look for individual expressions that might help explain the role of "imagination and perception in understanding human attachment to land." At the end of this journey, I hope to encourage people to take the time to look at familiar and ordinary places in their own community.

The Community of Stories

Although as a landscape designer I had experienced the automatic intimacy that comes from working with clients inside their personal property, I was unprepared for the degree of openness I encountered with these garden makers and the power their narratives held for me as they explained how their yards came to be. I found that the garden itself is a story with "human hopes and desires part of the landscape." Despite widely differing backgrounds, history, and social status, often a moment occurred in these narratives when a certain piece of that individual's experience could be universally recognized, thus dissolving the differences that keep us separated. In these accounts, we learn of loss or celebration, the memorializing of a life's work, a desire to offer something positive to the community, and the determination to leave a handmade legacy for all to see. Although respect for the people who trusted me with their stories prevents me from revealing all that I was told, it is also true that many of these narratives included hard disappointments and failures, precisely because they are about life and family. So, rather than regarding these stories as idiosyncratic sentimental accounts, or tales told by simple folk, know that by what is said or left unsaid you can be sure that these also include themes common to most families, such as the bitterness left behind after a father deserts the family, the worry when a child falls ill, or the uncertainty about a future that seems to have no place for you. Bankruptcy, unfulfilled potential, and misguided choices are here as well. Some of these gardens were made in spite of these travails, while others offered a way of transforming hurt and failure into a promise of something better. It is my hope that by reading the stories provided by these owners, we will discover that the objects on display are less interesting than the connection we feel to others when we are inside the yard itself. When we view these places only as curiosities or oddities, or focus our attention mainly on the assembly of material objects, we risk distancing ourselves from the makers, and reducing their achievement to an exotic or even fetishized installation. When this dominates the discussion, we miss the opportunity to view the garden, as "a place for mundane tasks, spiritual refreshment, and the expression of ideals, beliefs, and aesthetic values." Here I have tried my best to let the voices of the garden makers stand front and center, telling it in their own words.

A Piece of Earth and a Generous Heart

The search for larger meanings in small personal landscapes offers many sweet truths as well as worthwhile detours. How much can a visitor assume to know about a life partially revealed through a garden? I discovered that it's not as important to extract lofty interpretations or pronouncements about someone's one and only precious life as shown through a garden as it is simply to enjoy the privilege of entering inside the gate to be that person's companion for the time being. Such encounters, with spirits generous enough to share their life with strangers, offer a rich reward. These places are all around us, if we would take the time to look. J. B. Jackson, who spent his life looking at vernacular landscapes, puts it best:

Successful places are embedded in the everyday world around us and easily accessible, but at the same time are distinct from that world. A visit . . . is a small but significant event. We are refreshed and elated each time we are there. I cannot really define such localities any more precisely. The experience varies in intensity; it can be private and solitary, or convivial and social. What moves us is our change of mood, the brief but vivid event. And what automatically ensues . . . is a sense of fellowship with those who share the experience, and the instinctive desire to return, to establish a custom of repeated ritual.


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