The summer afternoon is scorching as I roll into town. After the wettest May on record, we are in a four-way tie for driest July, and there is no rain in the forecast. Native plants know what to do: little bluestem grass, tall, thick, and green a month ago, now has a protective brown layer shading the inner leaves of the low clump, its taller central stems rattling drily in the sweltering breeze. Live oaks' leaves, recently bright green and tender, have darkened, broadened, toughened. I see a recently-landscaped yard whose thirsty tropical plants are succumbing to the heat. In the days and weeks after recent flooding, it was easy to imagine that water scarcity was no consideration, but whoever planted these things was overly optimistic. This is Texas, after all.
Birds are hunkered down, riding out the heat of the day, their songs replaced by the ubiquitous chirring of the cicadas, as I step out of my car. Ryan McWhirter, a long-time resident of New Braunfels, pulls off a leather glove to shake my hand, his face hidden by sun glasses and the shadow of his hat. His rugged face is sincere, and he grins as he indicates his latest landscaping project. "Well," he says modestly. "What do you think?"
Full disclosure: I've known McWhirter for years. We met at a wood shop where I was the production manager and he was the new kid. Though he was new to woodworking, he was eager to learn, willing to work, enthusiastic. Coupled with his passion for Texas music, film, and lore, is a little spark of mischief, and we started hanging out after work. When the shop dried up, I asked Ryan to help me with a remodel project. For a year we worked together, hanging siding, building decks, laying floors, all the while discussing business. We thought we were going to open a wood shop together, but after a year, I could tell his heart wasn't in it. "Why aren't you doing something with your plants?" I asked him. "That's therapy. It's my sanctuary, not my business," he replied. But he sounded uncharacteristically uncertain. That was two years ago.
The backyard of McWhirter's house in downtown New Braunfels may be smaller than my car. However, every square inch of it is impeccably detailed, welcoming, and chock full of potted plants. These are not grandma's house plants, though, much less her flowerpots. Predominantly cacti, agave, and yucca, each plant is a perfectly manicured specimen, its soil tastefully dressed with rocks, carefully arranged in its own container, which in turn has been placed just so among dozens, perhaps hundreds of others. The containers immediately catch my eye. Largely consisting of salvaged steel, they are lengths of pipe, tubs, bowls, and tubes, round, square, and oblong, their flaked paint and bright rust adding color and texture to the dense foliage above. This is no junkyard heap, but an immaculate shrine to industry and nature, ancient desert dwellers juxtaposed with modern architecture; McWhirter is an artist.
And the plants! While agave and sotol, prickly pear and desert sage may bring to mind barren mesas and blowing sand, McWhirter's presentation repeatedly brings one word to mind: lush. Fast forward two years, and Ryan is the owner, director, and primary visionary of LUSH GreenScape Design, a high-end boutique landscape and design service. "My goal is to educate my clients," he says. "They can have the color, density, and variety they want without wasting water. Look at these!" He indicates the herd of one, ten, and thirty gallon pots clustered together on the edge of his current project, where Mexican feather grass, brake light yucca, candelilla and palo verde appear to be eager to stampede into the sweeping corrals of steel planter boxes. "These will look this good year-round! Look at the red on these flowers!" He begins listing the colors and seasons of blooms expected on each plant species. "And not one hose, no pipes, not even drip [irrigation]. These are all plants that can handle much harsher conditions than you find here." "Ryan's headed in the right direction as far as water usage," says Bob Fitzsimmons, organic gardening guru of local radio stations KGNB and KNBT fame.
Now McWhirter begins pacing, at once reminding me of a man possessed and an eager schoolboy. He's racing up the hill to the uppermost bed which runs along the street. As he traverses the bed, he points out the variety of agaves already planted there. "Agave parryi. Whale's tongue. Agave stricta. Harvardiana. Neomexicana. (You can't get these specimens from a typical nursery; you've gotta know where to find 'em! I source my plants from far west Texas down to the valley.) Oh – and the Cadillac of agaves, the Queen Victoria-Reginae 'Compacta'. This is a new variety of rosemary, just come out. And this is a dwarf yucca – underused – vibrant color. Isn't that fine!?" With that, he's down the hill to show off his planters, of which he is justifiably proud. "That's reinforced concrete, four inches thick. Three foot cube. (You should see the shadows of these San Pedro cactus on the wall at night!) That steel ties in here, three sixteenths plate. That's so it doesn't crease. Lighter stuff wouldn't hold that curve. Isn't that nice?" I'm reminded now of Roald Dahl's Willy Wonka as McWhirter rubs his hands together, hopping deliriously from one delight to the next, his words coming out in a torrent, his thoughts stepping on one another as his mouth is outpaced by his ideas. Suddenly he is silent as he kneels down and gingerly flicks a single pebble from the top of the stone retaining wall. Not one leaf, twig or stone will be out of place when he is finished with this project. "That planter hasn't been leveled yet," he apologizes for the third time. His attention is drawn like a magnet to the as yet incomplete parts, the loose ends, and he cackles as he imagines them in place, finished, wrapped up. "Is this what you expected?" he demands. And as perfectly balanced, as painstakingly detailed as this landscape is, it is exactly what I expected to find, as Ryan is one of the most demanding, meticulous people I have ever met.
Beyond the elements which McWhirter incorporates into his LUSH landscapes, there is something intangible about good design. "Ryan has 'the eye'," says Matt Gatewood, one of Austin's preeminent landscape designers. "You can't teach what he has – his design sense, his passion, his love of the industry – he's one of a kind." Scott Jarisch and Jean Longone, owners of 764 West Contemporary Art Gallery, are enjoying the evening on their porch when I drop in. (Scott helps design and produce a line of LUSH planters available from the Grassmarket located in front of the locally celebrated Huisache Grill.) Jean indicates their front yard where I see the telltale signs of McWhirter's handiwork. "That's not just a landscape; it's an installation piece," she says. Scott nods in agreement. "Maybe we're just tired of mowing grass," quips Andrew Nance, principal and co-founder of A.GRUPPO Architects, located in San Marcos and Dallas. "But once that grass is gone, most people just think it's dirt, barren. McWhirter sees a pallette, a canvas for featuring these sculptural plants, for creating a scene, an environment." LUSH's residential clients seem to agree. "After we had seen the plans, had gone through the design process, we knew we couldn't go with anyone else," says Brooke Simmons, for whom LUSH recently completed a large installation. "We have people stopping all the time to look at what he's done. And that's a testament to his design ability."
As with any fine art, the work done by LUSH is not to everyone's taste, and merits careful and repeated study for full appreciation. Accustomed as we are to manicured lawns as the gold standard of urban refinement, McWhirter's approach is a bold departure from anything else I've seen in New Braunfels. His work is informed by modern trends in bigger cities throughout the world, with stark lines, negative space, and carefully selected geometry of cold-hardy desert succulents contrasting with the whimsical wisps of tall prairie grasses, the lazy trailing of prostrate rosemary and skullcap. This is not big city posturing, though, nor arrogant disregard for tradition, but a confident stride into the immediate future, where water is precious, resources are limited, conservation is necessary, and we continue to gravitate to well-designed outdoor spaces and gardens that are... well, LUSH.