Switch Hit: Substituting local plants to recreate gardens you admire in magazines


Do you ever mentally substitute plants that grow well in your region for non-hardy plants you see in a magazine or blog picture from another region? As a gardener in a part of the country not well represented by national gardening magazines, I often find that the pretty pictures of gardens from the Northeast, the Pacific Northwest, and California feature plants that won’t survive in my Death Star-blasted, water-deprived, alkaline-soil central Texas garden.

Luckily, a garden you admire can often be approximated by substituting hardy plants from your own region that have similar shapes and colors. Take the photo above, for example. I tore out this page from the December 2009 issue of Fine Gardening because I loved the mix of blue, purple, and gold and the contrasting shapes of the plants. Most likely this is a frost-free California garden because of the presence of those clusters of echeverias. And what is that yellow-striped plant with the sword-like leaves? Furcraea? Phormium? Neither is hardy here.


But some of these plants will grow for us, like Jerusalem sage (Phlomis frutescens) and catmint (Nepeta) — at least I think that’s a catmint. You could also use mealy blue sage (Salvia farinacea) in its place. ‘Color Guard’ yucca would substitute nicely for the furcraea/phormium, and Mexican feathergrass (Nassella tenuissima) for the bronze New Zealand sedge or whatever kind of grass that is at the front. The echeverias are harder to replace — their shape is so unique — but for a similar color and groundcovering height you could substitute gopher plant (Euphorbia rigida), ‘Bath’s Pink’ dianthus, or even wooly stemodia (Stemodia lanata).

The next time you feel frustrated by your inability to use the temperate-zone plants we see all the time in magazines, use your imagination — or stroll through a nursery with your photo in hand, looking for similar shapes — to come up with locally adapted plants that can mimic that look. Just make sure all your substitutes can take the same conditions of light, heat/frost, soil type, and water to ensure that they’ll grow well together.

All material © 2006-2013 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Sometimes you win


They might have heard me whooping all the way up in Quebec City last Monday when I learned that I’d won the 2013 Gold Award from Garden Writers Association for Best Magazine Writing. I couldn’t make it to the GWA symposium, held in Canada this year, but my friend and fellow writer Mary Ann Newcomer kindly kept me updated by text message during the awards banquet and celebrated with me long-distance when they called my name. She even packed up and mailed the heavy, glass award to me once she got home. (Thanks, Mary Ann!)


The winning article, titled “The Plant Man,” is about Texas plantsman John Fairey and the design of his renowned Peckerwood Garden in Hempstead. It was published in Garden Design magazine in June 2012. While Garden Design has folded, its website is still operating, and you can read “The Plant Man” there.


Thank you, GWA! And thank you, John Fairey, for the interview and the inspiration.

All material © 2006-2013 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Display gardens at Sunset Publishing headquarters: San Francisco Garden Bloggers Fling


Our 2nd stop on the 2nd day of the San Francisco Garden Bloggers Fling was the low-slung headquarters of Sunset Publishing Corp. in Menlo Park, where we toured Sunset’s display gardens.

While central Texas is just east of the western U.S. region covered by Sunset magazine, the monthly publication is widely available on newsstands here, and I pick up a copy from time to time to admire the stylish gardens it features. So I was interested to see what the gardens at its headquarters would be like. I was not disappointed. A 3,000-square-foot test area with edible beds, colorful seating areas, and trial plants from their Western Garden Collection greets you.


I loved this orange, metal arbor — a contemporary moon gate! — from TerraTrellis, which serves as entry to a colorful flower garden. But at $840, this garden structure is, ahem, just beyond my reach.


This wooden arbor with an orange fabric shade, recycled windows, and comfortable, cushioned benches is also fabulous, and I like how the arbor is partially enclosed by a low stone wall that supports a raised bed.


Under the arbor, a charming, orange-flowered bouquet in an orange watering can on an orange side table — orange, it seems, is the hot garden color these days.


Around the corner, a sunny, patchwork patio constructed of various materials provides space for a mod, white plastic chair and table surrounded by red- and orange-flowering perennials and bronze phormium. While I like the zigzag design of the patio, I’m not a fan of the mixed materials in this case; they make the small space seem even smaller, and the white glares in the sunlight.


I do like those potted carex though.


Its sunny foliage looks great paired with orange helenium…


…which looks fine paired with ‘Blonde Ambition’ grama.


I lusted after this pistachio-colored, woven-metal side table.


It matches this green patio set and umbrella.


A sweet bouquet of nasturtiums, a little wilted in the unseasonable heat that San Francisco was experiencing while we were there


Hollyhocks and blue sky — a gorgeous combo


And who could resist colorful nasturtiums tumbling along a low, split-rail fence? Not me.


Following a path around the corner of a building, you leave the test plot and enter a more-expansive display garden, with beds representing various regions of the U.S. West surrounding a central lawn studded with a few majestic live oaks. For the most part, these gardens are more rugged and drier, more shrubby and less colorful, than the intensively cultivated test plot. A small rock placed on a boulder caressed by golden grasses caught my eye.


As did a swath of pincushiony Agave stricta in the desert garden.


Appealingly shady on this hot day, a path running through a planting of tall cactus and tree yuccas — part of the Southwest Desert and Southern California section — beckoned for cool exploration.


In the Northwest section, with Japanese maples, ferns, and other woodland plants, a trickling fountain constructed of stacked concrete troughs was attracting thirsty birds. I love the look of this fountain.


Circling back to the entry patio, I found several of my friends enjoying a shady rest: Dee of Red Dirt Ramblings in Oklahoma; Andrea (one of the Fling planners) of Grow Where You’re Planted in College Station, Texas; Susan of The Bicycle Garden in Lubbock, Texas; and Layanee of Ledge and Gardens in Rhode Island. I feel so privileged to know these wonderful women and all the other garden bloggers I’ve met thanks to the annual Fling.


Just a couple more images from the test garden — vertical frames from Plantasy – to close…


…and then it was time to jump back on the buses and head to grand Filoli.

Up next: The formal estate gardens of Filoli. For a look back at the photo workshop with Saxon Holt at San Francisco Botanical Garden, click here.

All material © 2006-2013 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.