A friend with a yard and a single plant that launched Jeff Neal into the world of landscape design. “I had moved into a place here in Austin with a large yard,” he said. “Someone brought over a plant and I volunteered to plant it. The next thing you know, I’m using a tiller, then I started going to garden places and hanging out, and neighbors started asking me questions about gardening.” Fast forward more than a decade, and Neal is still enthusiastic about learning and exploring with landscape design. After getting a degree in land- scape architecture, he joined the landscape firm Gardens, where he moved from intern to senior designer over the course of 12 years.
In 2010 he launched his own firm, Jeff Neal De- sign, and has accrued a loyal following. The firm is proficient in just about everything outdoor: design, plant selection and installation, custom outdoor furniture, fountains and pools, fireplaces, hardscapes, and garden structures. Neal described his style as contemporary and comfortable, adding that he tries to create an artistic feel and a connection between indoor and outdoor spaces.
“I like a juxtaposition of styles, like putting an older piece of furniture next to a more modern piece,” he elaborated. “It creates more drama, and I try to do that in landscapes as well. I try to treat plants as sculptural pieces as well, with different textures, colors and types next to each other. I like to think of gardens as something you can be comfortable in, nothing that’s gimmicky.”
Neal added that he’s gained inspiration from gardens in Italy and also from the home of the original Gardens owner, James David. Those gardens have helped him think creatively about plants and their role in creating space.
One of his current clients has a home in Tarrytown that actually spans several properties. Neal is creating a contemporary garden, which transforms into a more open garden space and a wilder setting with space for people to move around.
Over the past several years, he has watched Austinites cultivate a more sophisticated taste when it comes to land- scaping. Whereas an agave or two may have been the extent of a home’s outdoor space in the past, now homeowners are exploring more and becoming more daring when it comes to gardens, he noted.
Climate has an undeniable impact on his work too, especially when intensely hot and dry summers hit. More discerning clients have started paying attention to plants and landscapes that are water friendly and easy to maintain, Neal added.
So, are there trends in the landscaping world that make one plant a must-have and another a has-been?
“I usually stay away from whatever a trendy plant might be,” he said with a laugh, although he concedes that he has noticed Japanese maples are popular lately.
But if Neal were to describe his own dream garden, it probably wouldn’t closely resemble the work he does for others.
“I’d be working constantly; it would be like a test garden with different elements,” he said. “Hopefully, it wouldn’t look like a junkyard—there would be some crazy order. I’d be a little more out there on my own.”