A San Antonio Property Is More About the Drought-Resistant Yard Than the Tiny Home It Surrounds

In a state that has been wracked by extreme weather, an architect decided to build smaller and hire an expert for an innovative outdoor space.

In 2023, Central Texas endured its second driest summer on record, for the second year in a row. Rivers and lakes dried up, once-green lawns turned crunchy and brown, and even native plants withered, unaccustomed to the new reality of record-breaking heat.

After reading about landscape designer Ryan McWhirter’s firm in a local paper, architect Karin Scott reached out about working on a San Antonio, Texas, lot where she and her husband were building their new home.

After reading about landscape designer Ryan McWhirter’s firm in a local paper, architect Karin Scott reached out about working on a San Antonio, Texas, lot where she and her husband were building their new home.

But at least one yard in the region thrived throughout the scourge. Toward the end of a street in San Antonio’s Terrell Hills neighborhood, so close to Fort Sam Houston military base that you can hear "Taps" played each afternoon as the flag is lowered, Don Doughtery and Karin Scott’s freshly landscaped yard withstood the conditions with surprising vigor.

In both its design and its resilience against harsh conditions, Don and Karin’s yard is distinctly Texan: By late October, amid summer’s last gasp of heat, a group of paloverde trees, planted just months earlier, had grown so full they looked like bushes. An aboveground planter, supplied with a drip-irrigation system, was overflowing with enough basil to supply a restaurant. And a sprawling heritage live oak tree—the lot’s centerpiece and the reason Don purchased the property six years prior—stood tall and verdant, an outlier compared with the scores of trees nearby.

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The yard surrounds a newly built 563-square-foot home that Karin, an architect, designed. After living in close quarters during the Covid pandemic, Don and Karin realized they preferred it and built their new home accordingly. The surrounding land intentionally overpowers it, and large picture windows make it clear that the yard—and the oak tree, in particular—is the lot’s real focus. "The placement of the house was all about the tree," Karin says.

As Karin drew plans for the house, she reached out to Ryan McWhirter, a landscape designer and the owner of Lush GreenScape Design. She learned about his work while reading a story on his firm in the San Antonio Express-News, but it was finding out that they had mutual friends that convinced her he was the one for the project.

The little house has a firepit surrounded by a steel bench that McWhirter designed, and the couple grow vegetables in raised beds. They "sped up the process a little bit," McWhirter says, on the corrugated steel fence’s patina by using hydrogen peroxide, vinegar, and salt.

The little house has a firepit surrounded by a steel bench that McWhirter designed, and the couple grow vegetables in raised beds. They "sped up the process a little bit," McWhirter says, on the corrugated steel fence’s patina by using hydrogen peroxide, vinegar, and salt.

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As McWhirter explains on a drizzly afternoon in late October, Don and Karin gave his firm full creative control, with the understanding that the landscaping would meet a few stipulations: The tree "needs to be celebrated," and the rest of the yard needed to be as low-maintenance and sustainable as possible—a tall order in the region these days.

 "It was a conscious choice of ease of maintenance," Karin says. "It’s like this house. We didn’t want a whole lot of house to take care of; we didn’t want to spend hours maintaining a big lot like this." The resultant yard is spare but considered—minimalism in yard form. A metal retaining wall frames the front yard, and a small patch of Saint Augustine grass surrounds the live oak. Beyond that patch, which is watered with conventional irrigation, the rest of the lot is covered in pea gravel and dotted with cacti, steel planters, and paloverde trees.

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"You want to take the size of plants and trees at maturity into consideration. You see so many projects that are overplanted."

—Ryan McWhirter, Designer

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"We’ve learned some things over the years with these so-called once-in-a-generation storms that we’re seeing every year," McWhirter says, referencing recent prolonged regional freezes. "Everything in here—the cactus, the sotol, these paloverde trees, the agave—is pretty much bulletproof, cold-hardy wise, and drought-tolerant."

But don’t mistake McWhirter’s work for "zero-scaping"—a trendy landscaping term that conjures images of cold, gravel lots and that he says is generally not accurate. "There’s no such thing as zero maintenance," he explains. "I think when you have these different textures along with the hardscape features, you don’t lack for warmth."

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Between the harsh conditions that define Texas winters and summers, there are—fingers crossed—a smattering of perfect days that lull any Texan into forgetting about the bad ones, to rip off that famous John Steinbeck quote. When those days come, Don and Karin have a firepit and a steel pergola situated for entertaining friends outside. The house is too small for many guests, by design. The yard, however, is ready and waiting.

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Project Credits:

Landscape Design: LUSH GreenScape Design

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