A little bit at a time, couple transform their Central Austin home


Don’t tell, but Ami McChesney took time off from work a while back to get her Central Austin yard ready for this spring season.

“It was bothering me because I had a lot to do,” says McChesney, a freelance medical writer who has flexibility working from home.

Among other things, she pruned perennials, getting off the dead growth, she says. She also outlined a bed with rocks.

She had new things to plant, “because I can’t help myself,” she says, pointing to about 20 1-gallon containers of plants such as winecup, yarrow and more. She says she spent about five or six hours each day working outside.

Already, by early March, colorful poppies, four-nerve daisies, pansies, snapdragons and more were brightening up the front yard. A large bed in the back was full of spinach, kale, lettuce, broccoli and other vegetables; now she is getting started on the spring vegetable garden with tomatoes, cucumbers and more. (Last year, she says, she also grew watermelon and pumpkins. “They literally took the whole space. They grew in the beds, but they don’t like to stay in the lines,” she added.)

Many avid gardeners have been busy these days, as the calendar settles into some prime months for them.

McChesney had never gardened before she and her husband, Mike, bought the home more than 20 years ago. The house, built in the 1950s era, had a yard that was “very manicured, but in the old-fashioned style,” McChesney says; it featured a lawn of St. Augustine grass, as well as shrubbery.

“We started out by just taking care of what was here,” says McChesney, 48.

Gradually, they began to change the landscape.

“We started out with an herb garden,” she says, which was an 8-foot circular area in the backyard. Then later they added a few vegetable beds, she says. “I started slowly planting native plants.”

Throughout the years, the front and back yards have been transformed, with no traditional grass but plenty of garden areas.

At one point, “we decided to go big,” she says. Around that time, they removed four or five trailers full of invasive species, she says.

“Then I started slowly planting native plants,” she says.

Now, much of the front yard is a flower garden, with plenty of bluebonnets and more. “I didn’t want to go back with grass,” she says, “so I thought, ‘I’ll just plant pretty things.’”

Some front vegetable beds also have been full of onions, potatoes and cilantro, “which kind of took over,” she says. “The butterflies really like the cilantro, too.”

Also, a while back, drainage issues caused the couple to redo parts of the yard, she says, and they used the opportunity to have gravel put in areas instead of grass.

Outdoor artwork is also placed sporadically around, highlighting certain places. An old lamppost painted brightly is in the backyard. Elsewhere, chimes ring.

Additionally, over time, the couple added three porch areas — front, side and back — to their Brentwood neighborhood home.

Ami McChesney has taken classes on native plants and garden design at Austin Community College (enabling her to draw up garden plans, which she modestly says are “not very polished”). As well, she took training through the Travis County Master Gardeners program, she says.

Mike McChesney says he pitches in, but he credits his wife for most of the results.

“It’s really amazing what she’s done,” he says.

During a regular workweek, she says, she averages a couple of hours laboring in the yard. “Certain times require more work than others. Spring and fall, mainly,” she says.

She knows that in the heat of July and August, “no one wants to do anything out here. It gets so hot, and the mosquitoes are bad.”

“I do like being outside, but I think it also just keeps me grounded,” she says. “You’re more in tune with the weather, the climate, the seasons.”

“I’ve always liked being out in nature,” she says. “Every year is different.” Gulf muhly, for example, she wants to try growing this time around. “They are pretty during the fall season, especially when they have been planted in mass,” she says.

She particularly looks forward to certain times of year, when things are in bloom. “I’m a nerd like that,” she says.

Though nowadays the yard is pretty much how the McChesneys want it, Ami McChesney added, “I might do little projects. … There’s always stuff. Don’t hold me to it.”



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