Austin-based design firm and shop Big Red Sun created outdoor spaces for the city's wildly hip Hotel San José and for singer Shawn Colvin's house, and will soon open a store in L.A. Founders Selena Souders and Dylan Robertson explain their signature style.
Why did you decide to name your company Big Red Sun?
The name is inspired by Lucinda Williams's song "Big Red Sun Blues." We like it because we do everything under the sun—not just landscaping but also designing custom pools and ponds, making floral arrangements and selling house and garden furnishings. We have a store and studio in Austin and a new studio in Venice Beach.
What are your best-known projects?
In Austin, we designed the public spaces and gardens at the Hotel San José. To give guests extra privacy, some rooms have a covered porch hidden behind blossoming plants, such as jasmine and wisteria. In Los Angeles, we created window displays for shops like Heist. For Heist, we used sand-blasted manzanita (a native California wood), and curly and peeled willow.
What are some of your favorite plants to work with?
In Austin we focus on cacti and agave that tolerate severe heat and icy winters. We like pedilanthus, an upright, pencil-like plant with an amazing orange-red bloom. Pink chintz thyme is low and carpety and provides excellent ground cover. We also love a type of dwarf olive called little ollie—a small evergreen with pretty leaves that are silver on the back.
Besides plants, what other materials do you prefer?
We like to use industrial elements like steel to organize space; we'll use metal planes to form different levels for planting. Our six-year-old daughter, Ruby, inspires us by what she finds fascinating, so we also use natural elements like turtle shells (Selena found one while jogging along Town Lake in Austin), and antlers and skulls left behind on ranches. Ostrich eggshells are also great [ostrich.com].
What kind of things do you carry in your store?
Our round, steel dish planters were one of the first items we made, and they continue to evolve; people use them as fire pits, water fountains, birdbaths. We also sell cypress "knees"—tree roots that pop above ground—that were scavenged in Louisiana. They're gorgeous once they're polished. We also carry teak tables and chairs from Indonesia.
Do you have any tips on how to conserve water in a garden?
Hand-watering plants in containers is very effective. You can also "hydrozone," or group plants together that need the same amount of water, to avoid overwatering.
Any other eco-friendly tips?
We like using organic fertilizers, like molasses, seaweed and Superthrive.
Are cacti gardens and kids a dangerous combination?
We're sensitive about that because of our daughter. We'll typically plant soft grasses in front of cactus.
What suggestions do you have for the lazy gardener?
If you don't want to do anything in terms of maintenance, consider covering the ground with gravel instead of plants! We suggest gravel in jest but actually love it. Plus, it's rich in minerals.
What other design elements do you install in outside spaces?
Small Japanese soaking tubs from SeaOtter WoodWorks in Haines, Alaska, are excellent alternatives to cheesy 10-person hot tubs [woodentubs.com].
What do you collect? Everything! We collect shells (from seashells to tortoise shells), Italian ceramics, taxidermy and succulents, of course.
Are there any gardens you especially admire?
We love Ganna Walska Lotusland, a 37-acre estate and garden in the foothills of Montecito, just outside Santa Barbara, created by the wonderfully eccentric Madame Ganna Walska [lotusland.org]. It's very Dr. Seuss. We're also huge fans of the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California [huntington.org], and Peckerwood Garden, an amazing collection of unusual plants in Hempstead, Texas [peckerwoodgarden.com].
Can you tell me about your own gardens in Austin?
There used to be a pecan grove on one of our lots, and the trees are still there. We've also planted as many edible things as possible, such as dwarf pomegranates, eggplant and cherry tomatoes, plus wintergreens that reseed and take care of themselves. We buy our seeds from Botanical Interests [botanicalinterests.com] and Native American Seed [seedsource.com].