Now Playing

Novelist Sandra Brown with golden retriever, Chase.

Nature, She Wrote

by Rebecca Sherman | Photos by Dan Piassick | Modern Luxury Interiors Texas magazine | April 12, 2012

In early evenings when the temperature allows and there’s still enough sunlight filtering through the leafy canopy overhead, novelist Sandra Brown wanders into her garden with legal tablet and pen. “In the stages when I’m plotting out a story and playing ‘what if,’ I’ll sit out there for inspiration,” says Brown, whose gardens and home comprise 4 woodland acres in north central Arlington. Behind large gates and shrouded from the street by a thicket of elms and oaks, the property is both manicured and wild, a hidden oasis in an area best known for strip malls, Rangers Ballpark and Cowboys Stadium. “It’s such a shock to people who’ve never been here before,” she says.

A creek cuts through the back property, and in spring, the landscape is peppered with white-flowering dogwood, purple-hued eastern redbud trees, pink ruffle and snowball azaleas. The flora is reminiscent of the damp Piney Woods near Tyler, where Brown and husband Michael, a video producer, lived for five years. In summer, the magnolias bloom and the beds sprout with shade-loving caladiums, hostas and lush tassel and holly ferns. “I grew to love that East Texas look, so I have tried to replicate it here,” says Brown, who grew up in Fort Worth.

Texas and the South are frequent settings for the more than 70 books she’s written (60 have made it onto The New York Times Best Sellers List). She’s in the midst of finishing Low Pressure, a thriller due out in September about a tornado that hits Austin on Memorial Day, covering up a murder that took place only minutes earlier. While most of her work is done at an office she keeps in Arlington, Brown often writes at home on the weekends inside a study that affords views of the creek and a small bridge below. “One day I saw a ‘swoosh’ out the window, and it was a huge heron perched by the creek. He stayed for a few days,” she remembers. Water and the woodsy terrain are an alluring habitat for armadillos, raccoons, opossum, rabbits, owls and red-tailed hawks that have been seen on the property. Michael once came face-to-face with a bobcat in the driveway.

The Browns bought the house in 2004 and spent a year renovating it, including maximizing the view from massive windows overlooking the Pennsylvania bluestone terraces. “When you walk in the front door, you can see straight out to the back. It’s like walking into the garden the minute you come inside,” Brown says.

The already extensive terrace was expanded, and they added a stone fireplace so they can entertain outside year-round. “On New Year’s Day, we had a family gathering by the fireplace. It was just perfect,” she says. A seating area perched high on the upper terrace is ideal for informal lunches when her son and daughter visit with their children. “We can watch the kids play on the other side of the bridge from there.”

The gardens, which had already been established by renowned Dallas landscapers Naud Burnett & Partners when the Browns purchased the house, only needed a little sprucing up. Ornamental trees were added, including Japanese yews, pistachios and Japanese maples—one of Brown’s favorites. A profuse understory of flowering shrubs, such as sweetly scented cheesewood, Chinese fringe flower with its deep pink petals and white-blooming wax leaf ligustrum, help give the gardens density. But the vast emerald carpet of ground covers is the real star, providing manicured elegance and texture, including English ivy, dwarf and standard mondo grasses, creeping variegated vinca with its tiny blue flowers and hardy monkey grass that produces purple blooms.

Harsh summers, ongoing drought and periodic ice storms are a challenge for sustaining the garden. A new water system recycles water from the creek into a small koi pond and helps with circulation and conservation. “Maintenance is a huge issue that takes a lot of effort,” says Brown. Unlike the books she pens where the action is entirely under her control, gardens are dynamic and unpredictable. “You can do your best, but at the end of the day, Mother Nature is in charge.”