On a city lot in Magnolia, a landscape architect is proving sustainable gardens can be attractive as well as eco-savvy. This garden fits so seamlessly into the neighborhood you'd never guess every inch has been retrofitted with sustainable features and systems — including a composting fence, fruits and veggies, a sedum-roofed hutch for rabbits that...

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On a city lot in Magnolia, Jennifer Carlson is proving sustainable gardens can be attractive as well as eco-savvy. An artist and landscape architect with her own design/build practice, Carlson has the skills and eye to design a garden that fits so seamlessly into the neighborhood you’d never guess every inch has been retrofitted with sustainable features and systems.

When most of us walk into a garden we see the plants, the house, the patio. Carlson looks beyond the surface to discover a property’s physical history: where the sun falls, the composition of the soil, how water flows and where it collects.

From topography to maintenance, Carlson ponders how each part of the garden can be built, engineered or planted so that it adds up to one integrated, sustainable whole.

Birds, berries, buckets of coffee

In the case of Carlson’s own garden, the whole is pretty inviting. The house is painted a handsome brick red with leaf-green trim and a purple door. Birds flock to the native plants in this organic haven; berries, apples and vegetables abound. Colorful little hutches and coops hold cooing doves, a quail, chickens and a pair of impossibly fluffy angora rabbits whose fur Carlson harvests and spins.

When Carlson, her husband and teenage son moved to Magnolia six years ago, she started right in ripping out ivy and removing a dead cherry tree and shrubs planted too close to the house. Then she set to building healthy soil.

“Every week I’d take in a couple of empty buckets to Caffè Appassionato and exchange them for two full buckets of coffee grounds,” says Carlson. She removed lawn to widen the beds, dug in compost along with the coffee grounds, which enrich and improve the tilth of the soil, and started planting.

Carlson left small swathes of grass front and back so that her garden would blend into the older, lawn-heavy Magnolia neighborhood and also for open space between planting beds.

Her tough-love regime

Every shrub, tree and perennial is sufficiently durable and drought-tolerant to survive Carlson’s tough-love maintenance regime. “I’m out here just five times a year weeding, deadheading, and that’s it except for mowing,” says Carlson.

She repeats sturdy, self-reliant plantings throughout the garden, adding in liberal doses of edibles and native plants in the side and back gardens. She favors perennials like rudbeckia, crocosmia, euphorbias and sedums, paired with small shrubs such as Viburnum davidii, Spirea ‘Magic Carpet’ and yellow boxleaf honeysuckle (Lonicera nitida ‘Baggesen’s Gold’).

Even the narrow, sloping side garden is productive and beautiful, with fig trees espaliered against the house, five kinds of artichokes and rhubarb, plus flowering currant to feed the hummingbirds.

When you round the corner to the back garden you’re hit by the complexity of Carlson’s accomplishment, from the green roof on the rabbit hutch, to the raised-bed kitchen garden, composting fence and permeable patio.

Three huge cisterns gather rain from the roof to water the entire back garden. Then there’s the espaliered fruit hedge, blueberries, strawberries, chickens and doves.

Carlson points out how the animals fertilize the garden, and how the rainwater collected from the roof is used to irrigate the vegetables, concluding, “I’ve always been a big-picture person.”