Studio Outside coaxes many landscapes from one neglected ranch.
By Anne Raver
There’s a journey-like feeling to this landscape, both in space and time, as the path curves through dense stands of red cedar and yaupon holly, then out to open savanna, dotted with live oaks and groves of post oaks.
“You can’t really understand these landscapes and the plants on the surface until you understand the underlying soil types and drainage patterns,” said Tary Arterburn, FASLA, a founding principal of Studio Outside, one sunny cool morning in early November.
“It’s sand, sand, and sand,” said Amy Bartell, a project manager at Studio Outside, who has spent countless hours on site here. She knows where the fine clayey sands of the Southern Blackland Prairie to the west finger into the coarser sands of the Northern Humid Gulf Coastal Prairie to the east.
The Dallas-based firm first walked the 132-acre property in 2015 to assess the site and create a master plan for clients with seemingly opposing interests: The nature-loving wife wanted to increase plant diversity and habitat for birds and other wildlife; the husband wanted a polo field and barn for his seven horses and those of visiting equestrians. How to buffer birds from thundering horses (plus horse trailers and vehicles and the madding crowd) is as much of a challenge as bringing back little bluestem to the forgotten prairie.
Tylee Farm, about 75 miles west of Houston, is a remnant of the Southern Post Oak Savanna. Tucked into a narrow ecoregion called the East Central Texas Plains, it is a land of transitions, with the diversity that comes with many edges. Bison once grazed here, always on the move, so deep-rooted grasses quickly grew back. Seeds hopped a ride on animal hides or in their guts, germinating in the soil broken up by sharp hooves. Natural fires, or those set by Native Americans to attract game to the fresh shoots that sprouted in the ash, kept the grasslands open and diverse. But by 2005, when the current owners saw the For Sale sign and climbed over the fence to explore, the long-abandoned ranch had been overgrazed for centuries.
“There was a little grove of post oaks, and a higher pasture with oaks, and we found the little duck pond, but the interior of the property was so brushy it was mostly impassible,” recalls the client, who did not want her name to be used.
There were a few cattle, to keep up an agricultural easement, but eastern red cedars, water oaks, and a tangle of vines and yaupon holly had grown up in the old fields. The rolling savanna landscape appealed to them. It wasn’t too far from their home in Houston, and their three young sons would have a place to roam. The land was a remnant of the 4,600-acre land grant from the Stephen F. Austin Colony to James Tylee in 1834. Born and raised a New Yorker, Tylee had left the city with his young wife, Matilda, to homestead. But Matilda left him soon after setting foot on the prairie. And Tylee died at the Alamo in 1836.
“My husband is from New York, so that was one connection,” says the owner, who also felt a pang for a man deserted by one love, and then killed before he could enjoy the other. They bought the first 82 acres in 2007, and named it Tylee Farm. A few years later, they bought 50 more acres from a neighbor who owned a rustic camp house perched on a slight rise to the southeast, adding not only higher ground but two more ponds, an intermittent creek and seep, and hardwood forest to the property.
They had hired a caretaker, cleared underbrush and cedars, and built a house by Dillon Kyle Architects, with gardens and a main drive designed by the landscape architect Sarah Lake. They were about to put the horse barn next to the caretaker’s house when it occurred to them they needed a master plan.
“We were clumping everything on one side of the property, without thinking of the overall scheme,” the owner says. A path their young boys had unthinkingly made through the lawn and up through the meadow was not only unsightly, but causing erosion. The gardens around the house were languishing in too much shade from fast-growing sycamores. The additional land had opened up new possibilities, not only for a barn site, but more vistas and nature rambles. They could picture eventually adding home sites for future generations.
So the Texas architect Ted Flato suggested they call Arterburn, who has a feel for natural landscapes. The team from Studio Outside—Arterburn, Bartell, and Gwendolyn McGinn, Associate ASLA—walked the farm with the clients in early 2015. Arterburn recalls the interplay of open meadows and woodlands, especially “the savanna landscape over by the pond, where trees floated out over the field.”
He could visualize the viewsheds from the front and back of the main house, as trees were selectively cleared. He recognized the potential of the half-mile drive, which curves through dense woods and open grassland. By taking out unwanted species and adding intense plantings of hollies, wax myrtles, and other natives, or a few oaks in the right place, by varying mowing patterns to emphasize the drive’s curves, or a particularly beautiful tree or vista, a simple ride becomes a journey.
“I like to devise ways for people to move through nature, to make it as experiential as possible,” he says.
Bartell, who has a bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture and a deep knowledge of plants, was amazed by the feeling of expanse on a relatively small farm. “It has so much diversity on it, even though there are only a few high and low spots,” she says. “But the way the viewsheds are set up, you feel like you’re walking in the state of Texas.”
After hours of discussions with the owners, the team pulled together data from a wealth of sources: topographic maps from the U.S. Geological Survey, hydrology maps from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, ecological systems and vegetation classification maps from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and images from Google Earth. “We had a sense of how the site was laid out, we saw the ridgelines, and started to understand how the water flows,” says McGinn, who has a graphic arts degree from the Rhode Island School of Design and has since left Studio Outside to work with Spackman Mossop and Michaels. By mid-June of 2016, in a steady rain, they assembled on site with a team of experts from the Ecosystem Design Group of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. McGinn marched along, her GPS receiver held aloft on a stick, like some modern-day Joan of Arc, mapping the existing roads and pathways, noting washouts and key trees, wood duck and bluebird boxes. As the rain came down, only a few weeks after an 18-inch deluge had flooded Houston, they saw what the lines on the maps really meant.
“You can make assumptions based on topography,” McGinn says, “but the site was saturated, so all the hydrology was extremely evident. Where there were low points and intermittent streams, all that started to come together.”
Bartell mucked about with the hydrologist and soil scientist, learning that the three ponds were sized correctly for the watershed, where boggy conditions ruled out roadways and pathways or buildings, and just where water drained off the slopes and into the seep.
Arterburn and the client glued themselves to botanists and ecologists from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, recording plant species and getting a sense of which areas could be restored by prescribed burns. McGinn found the ridgeline that had shown up on the USDA topography map, running on a north–south diagonal through the center of Tylee Farm. The relatively wide, flat ridge, hidden in the woods, suggested itself as the best place for the five-acre polo field, with adequate runoff. And little soil would have to be moved to create it. McGinn also came upon a lovely opening in the dense red cedars, cleared years before by the owners, where beautyberry carpeted the forest floor.
“Amy and Tary were working more slowly and scientifically in many ways, looking at plant species, whereas my mission was to cover as much of the site as possible,” McGinn says. “So I had a walking experience of the site, more of a knowledge of what it felt like.”
The ridge, with a dense cedar forest to the west, also suggested a natural dividing line between sporting equestrians and quiet birding and walking. Winding trails to the southwest led through the much more open post oak savanna, around the ponds, and into the shady seep where birds and many other animals come for water, food, and shelter. Arterburn had been a bit confused by the water oaks proliferating in the woods. But he was reminded by ecologists that these, along with red cedars, are the pioneer species that seed themselves into old fields, gradually turning them into forests like the one covering the ridgeline.
“It had been agricultural at one point, so it had the least desirable trees,” Arterburn says. “Which meant we wouldn’t be losing any long-lived trees, like oaks, to build the polo field.” The meticulously groomed field, planted with Bermuda grass, would be a dramatic contrast to the surrounding horse pastures and paddocks, planted in native grasses. “They are much more nutritious than coastal Bermuda,” Bartell says.
The barn, large enough to accommodate 16 horses, could then be sited at the top of the polo field, where a north–south breeze would cool the horses. That epic day in the rain began a conversation across disciplines and laid the foundation for the master plan. As McGinn later wrote, “priorities were developed for habitat restoration, increasing the diversity of plant species and the curation of aesthetic experiences.”
In its analysis, the Ecosystem Design Group noted, “Historically, in the presence of natural wildfire cycles, the ecological climax community for these soil types would be a savanna system with a composition of 75 percent grasses, 20 percent woody plants, and 5 percent forbs.”
And as Arterburn says, “once you understand the climax community, then you know what to shoot for.” The team set out to develop a timeline for managing three different canopy types—grassland, savanna, and woodland—with a goal of restoring 50 percent of the farm to prairie–savanna. They worked with the Cat Spring Wildlife Management Association to prepare the site and carry out the first prescribed burn in January 2016 on two meadows on the front and back side of the house.
“We had a very wet year the year before, so there was a very small window when they thought it was dry enough to burn,” Bartell says. “And some areas were too wet to burn.”
Bartell had orchestrated the selective clearing of the overgrown meadow beyond the pool the previous fall. “I had tagged some of the trees, mostly cedars and a few water oaks, and we cleared one at a time,” she says. Then she would run back toward the pool to check on the view, and to get a thumb’s up from the owners sitting by the pool. “Because you could not put them back, or replant them.”
It was the husband, she recalls, not the nature-oriented wife who encouraged them to keep going as two live oaks were revealed, and the forest on either side of the meadow became more transparent. “He said, ‘That’s what I’m looking for,’” Bartell says. “He could see the tall tree trunks and a high canopy. Those cedars can block your view completely, so you can’t see through the woods. But now we were looking at the trunks of water oaks and live oaks.”
And by saving a few oaks and venerable red cedars, they created an artful viewshed. “We didn’t want a bare meadow going up that slope; it’s the composition of the remaining trees that gives it a bit of character,” Bartell says. Their intense work together that day had created a kind of epiphany. “When people have that moment, they know it,” Bartell says. “You have to wait for it to appear. It appeared, and we all got on the same page immediately.”
By November, when we walked the farm one morning, little bluestem and bushy bluestem were flourishing in the upper reaches of the burned meadow. And the path that used to cut straight up the slope has been moved, to curve in and out of the eastern woodland. But Bartell shook her head over the wet patches that had refused to burn at the bottom of the slope, where the team envisioned a tall wildflower meadow.
“I’m experimenting with the species that like wet feet,” she said. And instead of sowing seed, she is using one-gallon pots. In other areas, coastal Bermuda grass, long used as forage in Texas pastures, continues to outcompete young native grasses, sprouting after the burn. So some areas have been spot-treated with herbicide. But watching these prairie grasses take hold is part of the experience of the place. Much of what Studio Outside is doing here is standing back, and doing less.
At the duck pond, fed by a seep that drains down the eastern slope, the owner planted native irises in the shallow mud. But the edges are no longer mowed. Invasive species will be removed, but as Bartell says, the natives will come if you give them half a chance. “In this part of the world, things make themselves at home all the time. You don’t have to force it. They’re there. It’s just a matter of making sure the yaupon doesn’t shade everything out.” McGinn suggested putting in a boardwalk, around part of the perimeter of the pond, and going partway into the water.
“Right now, we can’t see the critters on the edge, but you could go over and see everyone who lives down there, by looking into the water,” McGinn said. It’s one of those “curated moments” that Arterburn is after, to intensify one’s experience in nature. (And lifting one’s head from the intimate life in the pond, to the wide expanse of the savanna, as one turns to continue up the path, is another one of those moments.)
We strolled along the wide mown path, through open grasslands punctuated by post oaks, and occasional live oaks, to another pond, which in summer is covered by white water lilies. Three live oaks stand together at the far end of the pond, their low branches forming a perfect shelter—once for cows, now for humans.
“I think they’re so perfect the way they are, I wouldn’t dare try to improve on that area at all,” Bartell says. The team will remove any water oaks or yaupons growing into the dams of these ponds—“we won’t pull them off, we’ll just cut them off,” Bartell says, to keep the dams intact. “We’ll do less mowing around that pond, to let the natural species re-emerge.”
One of the client’s favorite spots is the seep that runs down this slope, between the lily pond and the meadow that leads toward the old camp house. The land forms a natural crease, where water runs or trickles, depending on the weather, and yaupon holly, wild grape, Chinese tallow trees, and water oaks have made a dense thicket for birds and other wildlife.
The team wants to put a series of weirs along the seep, to slow down the flow of water and create the kind of puddles and trickling water that attract many birds and other animals. A small boardwalk would allow the client and others to quietly observe life up close.
McGinn has been fascinated by the different plants that spring up, as soil and conditions change, even in the slightest. “This area has distinctly different habitats, so where there is a wetland, we’re trying to find a way to cultivate it more, create more intense diversity.” They will take out the Chinese tallow and other exotic species, and cut back the leggy yaupon, to encourage the hollies to fruit closer to the ground. “And we’ll add various things for the birds, which have very specific needs,” says the owner, who has started collecting books and expert advice on the subject.
As McGinn says, the project isn’t so much about “selecting plants and defining a set spatial plan” as it is “about creating relationships and responding to the site.” She adds, “It’s strangely exciting to design something that will never be any one specific thing, but something that grows and changes.”
One reason for burning the meadows near the house was not just aesthetic. Its progress can be noted daily by the owners. The bird lover has started to record what birds she sees, what flowers are blooming throughout the seasons.
She watched the bluestem sprouting in the spring, after the first burn. “I’d only seen it before as a tall grass,” she says. “But after a burn, these little mounds of green start to shoot up. It’s a completely different look.”
And in the evenings, she hears the barred owl call near her house. And she answers back.
Anne Raver gardens in Warren, Rhode Island, and writes about nature and the environment.
Landscape Architect Studio Outside, Dallas. Ecosystem Consultant Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Austin, Texas. Burn Team and Seeding Wildlife Habitat Federation, Cat Spring, Texas. Land Management Natural Resources Conservation Service, Bellville, Texas. Landscape Installation JMA Living Landscapes, Bellville, Texas.