A San Leon yard teeming with variety of plants attracts pollinators and other wildlife
Forty years ago, Mark Fox had a one-man, lawn-mowing service in the Clear Lake area. His business consisted of a truck, a mower and a wheelbarrow. Because of his interest in botany and attraction to nature, Fox began to educate himself about anything and everything that had to do with native and habitat plants.
He soon made a name for himself, becoming one of the most well-known and sought-after landscape contractors in the bay area. Aside from operating a nursery in Bacliff for 13 years, Fox and his crews planned, planted and created beautiful yards for a multitude of clients before Fox retired three years ago.
Although he still does some consulting, Fox no longer oversees any of the landscaping, preferring to focus on his own property in San Leon where he’s lived for 17 years with his wife, Grace.
There is a house hidden somewhere in the mix of the jungle-like atmosphere that Fox likes to call “organized chaos.”
Structure is important to him, he said.
“My yard is totally designed,” he said. “You may not be able to tell it, but it is a combination of texture, shape, form, color, fragrance and movement. All of those elements were thought out.”
The yard is a harmonious testament to his philosophy.
Pollinators, such as long-tailed skipper butterflies, are on a perpetual vacation as they zoom in and out of various bushes, shrubs and trees.
A Giant Dutchman’s pipe vine hugs an arbor leading to a swing surrounded with thick jasmine.
Yard art, mostly created by Fox, is abundant. He refers to his work as “spirit art.”
“David Butler, a famous folk artist, was my inspiration to have a spirit yard,” Fox said.
Spirit yards keep the good spirits in and the bad ones out, Fox said.
Flagstone and crushed granite pathways provide a bit of walking space to explore the gardens and unusual items such as an old fiberglass iron lung, now being used as a composter, and an altar built to resemble a Cajun house and that contains artifacts that are a memorial to Fox’s sister-in-law and mother-in-law.
A small vegetable garden of cabbage, kale, bok choy and Swiss chard provide healthy greens that are great for putting at the bottom of a bowl of chili or beans, Fox said.
Bushes with tiny red peppers make tasty snacks for the flocks of birds that visit daily.
Various shapes of colored glass bottles atop pieces of pipe protrude above a wooden fence. They resemble an African-American bottle tree designed to catch the sun, Fox said.
“I get inspiration from various traditions and put my own take on them,” Fox said. “For instance, I gained a lot of knowledge from my South Asian customers.”
Redbud trees, Florida sabal palms, banana shrubs, giant ligularia with large glossy, heart-shaped leaves are just a few of the hundreds of species thriving in the backyard. A crucita bush with lilac blooms is an important nectar source for butterflies. Barbados cherry, chile pequin and American beautyberry are good food sources for wildlife.
A redbay tree — “we make tea out of the woody parts” — is something Fox learned about while growing up in Patterson, La., along the Bayou Teche.
“You have to have variety in a yard for it to be healthy,” Fox said. “One insect eats the other — the carnivores eat the vegans that eat plants — so you need a balance, something you won’t get without a large variety of plant life.”
Fox never sprays insecticides and only uses bio-active organic fertilizer, he said.
“Cardinals, blue jays, mockingbirds, a variety of bees and wasps love it here,” Fox said. Fox also doesn’t use birdseed and doesn’t need sugar water to attract hummingbirds, he said.
“The birds have plenty to eat in my yard,” he said.
Mexican Turk’s cap with sleepy, scarlet flowers and a Chinese hat plant with pink tubular blooms add color; Martha Gonzales roses with bright scarlet blooms, along with the red-orange blooms of Cinco de Mayo roses, add fragrance.
A wooden shed decorated with a cluster of Mardi Gras beads, stainless steel bowls, objects made of wood, aluminum, brass and rusting chains cover the entrance to where Fox stockpiles art objects for future projects.
“It’s sort of an homage to Southern folk artists,” he said.
With decades of experience under his belt, Fox has some free advice for anyone new to landscaping.
“Start with larger trees, then the understory trees, next the shrubs and lastly, the perennials,” Fox said. “All landscapes should be driven by structure, not flowers, but that’s just my opinion.”
There’s not much Fox would change about his yard. He finds it soothing and meditative. But there is one thing he wishes for:
“I’d get property with a bigger yard next time,” he said. “I’m running out of room.”