Home & Garden

Garden artist transforms yards into tapestries of stone, wood, foliage

On a beautiful spring morning, Brenda Pender stands pondering one of her gardens. Specifically, she is looking at a sofa — the sofa. When she was designing this backyard a couple of years ago, she knew that she needed something in that exact spot. A cooking area and a dining area flowed one into the other, one space arching a bit in one direction, the other then arching a bit in another.

“That sofa” was something she had seen in a magazine. It inspired her. Big and grand, but natural-looking and inviting. Pender set out to figure out how to make her own version of it. She had a stone mason create the base, a slightly curving design that would allow up to eight people to sit comfortably and chat. She had the cushions custom-designed with air foam covered by a Sunbrella fabric. Perfect.

She and her client, Elizabeth Webb, still are enamored with the stone sofa, but on this particular morning, as the two women sip lattes, Pender is looking slightly behind it and sees something that is not there.

More accurately, she sees something that is not there yet.

“Here we’re going to put a Marjorie Fair antique rose,” she said. “She’s going to grow up and barely arch over the sofa.” Pender gestures with her hand, showing how the plant will flow and explaining that she’ll actually need three rose bushes to create the effect she wants.

Seeing things that are not there yet is a talent. In her business, Texas Gardens, Pender is often faced with blank canvases. A big empty back yard. The plot of a newly constructed home.

To begin the process of imagining, Pender asks her clients questions. “Where do you drink your coffee in the morning?” “Where would you like to drink wine in the evening?”

She considers function first, and then creates form. She also starts by going inside the house.

“I start on the inside looking out because most of the time you’re going to be inside looking out at your garden,” she said.

It’s a process that involves lots of client interaction. If you want a Pender garden, you’re going to continue to get a lot of questions. You’ll also be asked to sign off on illustrations that show the direction she wants to take. Along the way, you will discover that Pender — who started her company a dozen years ago after designing her own backyard — is an artist, but she is also an expert. She knows plants and works mainly with perennials that will give continuously changing color to the landscape. She is also a maestro, coordinating the efforts of iron fabricators, stone masons, pergola builders and other artisans, getting them to work in concert to create her vision.

On this near-perfect spring day, Pender leads us on a tour of two of her gardens, backyard retreats where her imagination took wing and then rooted.

“Brenda saw this big yard and had a vision for it,” Webb said. Webb said she and her husband, Jim, knew that they wanted an outdoor patio and they knew that they wanted a patio, a kitchen and a place for entertaining. They knew they wanted to update their pool, too.

The questions began. And then the plans began: A reconfigured pool with patterned concrete around it. A covered fireplace and seating area outside the bedroom. Two chairs for morning coffee off the kitchen porch. A pergola shading a large area for entertaining. The plans continued. The stone sofa. Oh, and the table.

The table is a reproduction of one that is in Pender’s own backyard and that came from 18th century Tuscany by way of the annual Antique Garden Furniture Show and Sale at the New York Botanical Garden. It’s the only reproduction of that particular table that Pender will ever do.

“I just do something once,” she said. “I never repeat myself.”

For the Webbs, it’s been more than a backyard redo. It’s been a life transformation.

“It really did change the way we live,” Elizabeth Webb said. “We enjoy it every day. Now, our destination is our back yard.”

Debbie Kalas heard about Pender’s gardens from a mutual friend. She and her husband, Larry, were building a house in Mira Vista, Texas, and “we were just to the landscape part,” Kalas said. She met Pender, talked about some ideas and instantly knew it was going to be a great match.

A walk around the side of the Kalas house reveals a host of Pender’s ideas. Along the side of the house, leading toward the backyard is a dwarf garden filled with skullcap, phlox and sedum.

Go through the gate, and you’ll enter the first of several outdoor “rooms.” This first woodland space is rich in texture. In one corner, a living patio holds what looks like a wooden bench. Pender moves across the garden toward a piece and declares it “the prettiest faux-bois bench I have ever seen.”

The bench, of course, has a story.

Both Pender and Debbie Kalas are faux-bois aficionados, and it was their mutual love for this traditional European art of using cement to create the look of wood that led to a trip that cemented their friendship. In search of the perfect faux-bois piece, the two took a trip to a celebrated Mount Kisco, N.Y., garden and antique ornament store, Fleur Garden. There was the bench, of Belgian origin, a delicate piece made by highly skilled artisans.

Climb some stairs, and the mood of the garden changes. In this space, which leads directly out of the home’s formal living areas, Kalas wanted a more formal garden. A rectangular pool in one corner features a wall fountain flanked by Sago palms.

Boxwoods line the edge of the patio, which is home to a beautiful marble table that looks like it was transported directly from Gatsby’s back yard.