Arlington resident Sandra Brown's lush gardens. Photo by Dan Piassick
Nature, She Wrote. . . In early evenings when there’s still enough sunlight filtering through the leafy canopy overhead, novelist Sandra Brown wanders into the garden with legal tablet and pen. “In the stages when I’m plotting out a story and playing ‘what if’, I’ll sit out there for inspiration,” says Sandra, whose gardens and home comprise four woodland acres in north central Arlington, about 30 minutes west of Dallas.
Behind large gates and shrouded from the street by a thicket of elms and oaks, the property is both manicured and wild, a hidden oasis in an area best known for strip malls, the Ball Park at Arlington, and the Dallas Cowboys Stadium. “It’s such a shock to people who’ve never been here before,” she says.
Photos by Dan Piassick
Water and the woodsy terrain are an alluring habitat for armadillos, raccoons, opossum, rabbits, owls, and red tail hawks, which have been seen on the property. Once, Michael came face to face with a bobcat in the driveway after an early morning bike ride.
The Browns bought the large two-story estate in 2004 and spent a year renovating it. “We loved the bones of the house, but we did a lot of rearranging inside,” including opening up rooms to take advantage of massive windows overlooking the Pennsylvania blue stone terraces, says Sandra. “When you walk in the front door, you can see straight out the to the back. It’s like walking into the garden the minute you come inside.”
The already extensive terrace was expanded by another third, and they added a large stone fireplace, which enables them to entertain outside year round. “We’ve had dinner parties at Christmas, and we’ll go outside with a bag of marshmallows and roast them for dessert. On New Year’s day we had a family gathering by the fireplace. It was just perfect,” she says. A seating area perched high on the upper terrace is ideal for informal lunches when her son and daughter visit with their four children. “We can watch the kids play on the other side of the bridge from there.”
The gardens, which had already been established by Naud Burnett & Parnters when the Browns purchased the house, only needed a little sprucing up. Ornamental trees were added, including Japanese yews, pistachios, and Japanese maples -- one of Sandra’s favorites. Drought and insects have taken a toll on some of the larger, older trees. “Any time we’ve lost a tree, I’ve had it replaced with lace bark elm. It’s fast growing, heat resistant, drought tolerant, and grows into gorgeous shade trees with bark that curls up like lace.”
Photos by Dan Piassick
A profuse understory of flowering shrubs like sweetly-scented cheeswood, Chinese loropetalum with its deep pink petals, and white-blooming wax leaf lugustrum help give the gardens density. But it’s the vast emerald carpet of ground covers that that are the real stars, providing manicured elegance and texture, including English ivy, dwarf and standard mondo grasses, creeping verigated vinca with its tiny blue flowers, and the hardy liriope, or monkey grass, which produces purple blooms like water hyacinth. Harsh summers, ongoing drought, and periodic ice storms are a challenge for sustaining the garden. A new water system recycles water from the creek into a small koi pond, and helps with circulation and conservation.
Novelist Sandra Brown and golden retriever, Chase. Photo by Dan Piassick
“Maintenance is a huge issue that takes a lot of effort,” says Sandra. “Some years the tulips are pathetic looking if the soil wasn’t as cold as it should be during winter. Other times, the azalea blooms freeze before they open. So many things depend on the weather and the rain.” Unlike the books she pens where the action is entirely under her control, gardens are dynamic and unpredictable. “You can do your best, but at the end of the day, mother nature is in charge.”
A version of my story also appears in the April issue of Modern Luxury Interiors Texas.