Read This: Gardening with Foliage First


Today is Foliage Follow-Up, my monthly meme that encourages us to focus on often-underappreciated foliage plants, rather than spotlight-hogging flowers. That means it’s the perfect day to review a new book by two foliage-loving design experts, Karen Chapman and Christina Salwitz.

Gardening with Foliage First: 127 Dazzling Combinations that Pair the Beauty of Leaves with Flowers, Bark, Berries, and More is an excellent follow-up to their award-winning Fine Foliage (click for my review). At 340 pages and much beefier compared to the slim Fine Foliage, Gardening with Foliage First delves more deeply into the art of combining foliage plants for subtle beauty and long-term impact in a garden.


Photo courtesy of Karen Chapman

And an art it is! After all, this is what we pay designers to do for us, when we look up one day and notice our garden is a “disappointing mélange of midsize green leaves” once the flowers have finished blooming, or there’s nothing to look at in winter. Chapman and Salwitz are adept at lifting the veil on design decisions and explaining why certain plants pair well together. With clear explanations enlivened by a cheeky sense of humor, they make garden design more approachable. They show, for example, how you can match the darker color along the edge of a leaf to the berries or leaves of another plant, making both plants shine brighter, or how to play the shaggy shape and texture of one plant against the fine-leaved daintiness of another.


Photo courtesy of Karen Chapman

Generously illustrated with a photo of the whole scene, plus close-ups of each plant, each combo (there are more than 100 altogether) is given a 2-page, sometimes 3-page, spread, and they’re helpfully organized by whether they’re appropriate for sun or shade, as well as by whether peak season occurs in spring/summer or fall/winter.


Photo courtesy of Karen Chapman

Of course, for us Central Texas gardeners, “sun” and “summer” mean something entirely different than in the cool, moist Pacific Northwest, where the authors live, and our gardening conditions differ in other ways too, particularly in the alkalinity of our soil. Put simply, we just can’t grow a lot of the plants featured in the book. So while readers in cooler regions of the country can likely copy featured plant combos “verbatim,” we hot-climate gardeners must get a little more creative, coming up with similar-looking plants that grow well here that can be subbed in for those that don’t. I actually find that to be a fun exercise and marked up my book with notes on possible substitutions.


Photo courtesy of Karen Chapman

Not every plant will have a suitable counterpart for our hot climate, but a surprising number do. For example, in the combo pictured above, I mentally subbed out the ‘Bed Head’ dahlia for pomegranate, the ‘Concorde’ barberry for loropetalum, the pineapple lily (Eucomis) for pineapple sage, and the golden Korean fir for ‘Yukon Gold’ yaupon holly.


Like so! What do you think? Can you come up with other substitutes I didn’t think of?

Wherever you garden, experienced gardeners will have fun using the featured combos as a jumping-off point for their own inventive pairings. And new gardeners will learn how to look at plants more observantly in order to create similar combos (or copy these if they work for your region) that rely largely on foliage, which gives a richer, more durable dimension to a garden than just planting for flower color. After all, you need both to make a stunning garden.

This is my June post for Foliage Follow-Up. Fellow bloggers, what leafy loveliness is happening in your garden this month? Please join me in giving foliage its due on the day after Bloom Day. Leave a link to your post in a comment below. I’d appreciate it if you’ll also link to my post in your own — sharing link love! I look forward to seeing your foliage faves.

Disclosure: Timber Press sent me a copy of Gardening with Foliage First for review. I reviewed it at my own discretion and without any compensation. This post, as with everything at Digging, is my own personal opinion.

I welcome your comments; please scroll to the end of this post to leave one. If you’re reading this in a subscription email, click here to visit Digging and find the comment box at the end of each post.
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Digging Deeper: News and Upcoming Events

Get on the mailing list for Garden Spark Talks. Inspired by the idea of house concerts, I’m hosting a series of garden talks by talented designers and authors out of my home. Talks are limited-attendance events and generally sell out within just a few days, so join the Garden Spark email list for early notifications. Simply click this link and ask to be added.

All material © 2006-2017 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

posted in Books, Design

Read This: 101 Organic Gardening Hacks, The Spirit of Stone, and The Cocktail Hour Garden


A raft of gardening books has piled up on my desk this spring. I’m tempted to lash the whole stack into a raft and paddle to a deserted island, where I’ll have time to read them all (if only that wouldn’t make them soggily unreadable). If you’re looking for some good gardening books to kick back with this summer, here are three I’ve recently enjoyed and recommend.

101 Organic Gardening Hacks: Eco-friendly Solutions to Improve Any Garden, by Shawna Coronado, Cool Springs Press (January 1, 2017)

Shawna Coronado, a Chicago-based speaker and blogger on gardening and wellness, applies the trendy idea of “hacking” — creatively using something in a way it wasn’t necessarily intended — to gardening and outdoor decorating in this appealing, well-illustrated book. From organizing seed packets in a photo album to building a garden tower out of leftover plastic pots to making your own seed-starter soil, Coronado offers up a variety of clever gardening practices that DIYers, thrifters, and eco- and cost-conscious gardeners will especially enjoy. On a visit to Austin, she even spotted a hack in my collection of steel-pipe and tractor-rim planters in my entry garden and included it on page 115.

Many of the featured hacks are classic gardening solutions from a time when people were thriftier and more inclined to reuse household scraps — i.e., grandmotherly garden practices like using old pantyhose as plant ties. But that’s not to say they aren’t still clever and thrifty gardening solutions for today. In our age of buy-new, buy-specialized, it’s refreshing to remind ourselves, as this charming book does, that gardening need not be a rarefied, costly endeavor, and that gardening — an inherently creative act — lends itself to creative solutions.

The Spirit of Stone: 101 Practical & Creative Stonescaping Ideas for Your Garden
by Jan Johnson, St. Lynn’s Press (February 15, 2017)

Jan Johnsen, a New York-based designer, instructor at New York Botanical Garden, and blogger at Serenity in the Garden, “has a soft spot for hard rock.” In The Spirit of Stone, her fourth book, she indulges her love for stone with poetic musings about its ageless presence in a garden, its practicality and grace as a building material, and even the cultural lore that has been ascribed to certain kinds of rock, like standing stones, Chinese scholars’ stones, and Native American split rocks. Stone’s “unique appeal,” she writes, “lies in its ability to be many things, from a solitary garden feature to an artful wall or a quiet gravel ‘sea.'”

As Johnsen points out, stone forms the bones of most gardens, from paths and patios to steps and walls, and she shares design and construction tips for using it. Artistic stonework — rock gardens, crevice gardens, Zen gravel gardens, dry streams, pebble mosaics, and stone “waterfalls” — is also described with how-to instruction. Lastly, plants that play especially well with stone by growing in crevices, cascading over walls, or brightening shady rock gardens are suggested with useful design advice. If you weren’t already sold on incorporating stone into your garden, this book’s inspiring images and eloquent descriptions will convince you.

The Cocktail Hour Garden: Creating Evening Landscapes for Relaxation and Entertaining
by C.L. Fornari, St. Lynn’s Press (March 1, 2016)

Radio-show host, speaker, and author C.L. Fornari wants you to put down your cell phone and laptop and go sit outside as the sun sets on the workday. Preferably with a cocktail in hand. Reclaiming the phrase “the green hour” from 19th-century France, an era of absinthe happy hours, Fornari playfully uses it to denote a cocktail hour spent amid natural greenery — our gardens — and makes the case for a return to the quieter pleasures of watching sunsets, inhaling the fragrance of night-blooming flowers, and watching sphinx moths and fireflies.

It’s funny-sad that we need such a reminder to put aside our electronic diversions for a brief hour out-of-doors. But the fact is, we do. A Nielsen Company audience report last summer revealed that Americans spend 10-1/2 hours per day staring at screens. Subtract from a 24-hour day one’s working hours (which may involve a screen), commute time, a few errands, and a decent night’s sleep, and, well, there’s not much left over.

In urging us to set aside at least one green hour per day, Fornari is, of course, preaching to the choir for those most likely to buy her book — we who already enjoy gardening (and cocktails!). But she does so with lighthearted humor and a sense of fun, evoking party imagery while dispensing design advice — What does a particular plant bring to the party? she asks — not to mention a sprinkling of cocktail recipes throughout the book. She walks the reader through the creation of a garden best enjoyed at the end of the day, with flowers that glow at dusk, sweet scents to enjoy at twilight, soft garden lighting, and other sensual aspects of the garden that might be overlooked by those focusing only on daytime visual enjoyment.

If you’re looking for an excuse to slow down and reconnect with nature — whether meditatively solo or socially with friends and family — you’ll find plenty of ideas to incorporate into your garden and your lifestyle. For me, the book served best as a reminder that gardens are meant to be enjoyed, not just worked in, and I resolved to spend more time sitting in mine, and inviting friends to join me in that noble endeavor more often. Cocktails are being shaken. Chair cushions are being fluffed. Here’s to the green hour!

Disclosure: All three books were sent to me for review by their publishers, and I know Shawna Coronado and C.L. Fornari professionally. I reviewed each book at my own discretion and without any compensation. This post, as with everything at Digging, is my own personal opinion.

I welcome your comments; please scroll to the end of this post to leave one. If you’re reading this in a subscription email, click here to visit Digging and find the comment box at the end of each post.
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Digging Deeper: News and Upcoming Events

The Austin Daylily Society will host a free garden tour on Sunday, May 28, from 10 am to 2 pm. Four private gardens featuring lots of daylilies will be open to the public, including Tom Ellison’s lovely Tarrytown garden.

Get on the mailing list for Garden Spark Talks. Inspired by the idea of house concerts — performances in private homes, which support musicians and give a small audience an up-close and personal musical experience — I’m hosting a series of garden talks by design speakers out of my home. Talks are limited-attendance events and generally sell out within just a few days, so join the Garden Spark email list for early notifications. Simply click this link and ask to be added.

All material © 2006-2017 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Read This: Hummingbird Plants of the Southwest


After screech owls, hummingbirds are my favorite garden visitors. Zipping around in jewel-toned splendor, these tiny birds with pugnacious personalities are a joy to watch. One of my favorite gardening moments occurred when I was watering some new salvias I’d planted, and suddenly heard a deep thrumming sound, almost a growl. With a jolt, I wondered if an unfriendly dog was coming toward me, and I looked up. A thrill of delight! A hummingbird was hovering just a couple of feet in front of me, face-to-face, its wings fluttering so fast they were only a blur. Apparently deciding I was safe, it darted to a flower and took a quick sip. The salvias were barely in the ground and already they’d attracted a beautiful hummer. It was a magical moment.

If you live in the southwestern U.S. and want to attract hummingbirds to your own yard — or amp up the number of visitors — you’ll be interested in a book I just read. Hummingbird Plants of the Southwest by Marcy Scott (Rio Nuevo Publishers, 2015) appealingly and practically explains how to entice these delightful birds with nectar-filled plants that thrive in the arid Southwest and with design tips for creating appropriate habitat.


Black-chinned hummingbird. Photograph by Dale and Marian Zimmerman.

Scott, a botanist, former wildlife rehabilitator, and garden consultant in Las Cruces, New Mexico, opens with profiles of nine hummingbird species that frequent the U.S. Southwest, an enormous region ranging from Southern California, through Arizona and New Mexico, to the Texas Hill Country and Austin (just barely). Northern Mexico and the southern edges of Utah and Colorado are included too. Beautiful photos of the birds at rest are accompanied by Scott’s engaging descriptions of each bird’s nectaring and nesting plant preferences, feeding and courtship behavior, and migratory range.

Thoughtfully, Scott also covers the dangers posed by proximity to humans, which we need to be cognizant of when we’re enticing them into our yards: domestic cats, windows, improperly maintained feeders, and insect sprays on our plants. I learned that some hummingbird species prefer to nectar on plants at ground level, making them more vulnerable to cat predation.


Desert willow (Chilopsis linearis). Photograph by Lisa Mandelkern.

The meat of the book, in Chapter 5, is a detailed plant guide for attracting hummingbirds to your garden. Scott descriptively profiles 120 plants, including each plant’s significance to hummingbirds; its native range, habitat, and appearance; and how to grow it. A full-page color photo (close-ups, for the most part) accompanies each plant profile.

Desert gardeners from West Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona will, I think, find this book most useful. Those in Central Texas, like me, will learn that a number of the featured birds don’t typically travel this far east, and many of the recommended desert plant aren’t suitable for our steamy summer climate. That said, I counted at least 27 plants that work very well for us here and will certainly make your garden more appealing to hummingbirds.


Batface cuphea (Cuphea llavea). Photography by Wynn Anderson.

Whether you’re primarily a birder or a gardener, the book is guaranteed to make you more appreciative of hummingbirds and aware of how our gardening practices (or lack thereof) impact these vulnerable little travelers. As Scott eloquently reminds us:

“[E]ven a tiny oasis of habitat offering flowering plants that provide nectar can mean the difference between life and death to a migrating hummingbird — particularly when crossing broad expanses of mostly barren desert….To spiritual people through the ages, the hummingbird has signified joy, and indeed that is what they bring us. We can make an effort to encourage their favored plants in our gardens so that they might continue to grace us with their magic…”

Disclosure: Rio Nuevo Publishers sent me a copy of Hummingbird Plants of the Southwest for review. I reviewed it at my own discretion and without any compensation. This post, as with everything at Digging, is my own personal opinion.

I welcome your comments; please scroll to the end of this post to leave one. If you’re reading this in a subscription email, click here to visit Digging and find the comment box at the end of each post.
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Digging Deeper: News and Upcoming Events

2/25/17: Come to my talk at the Wildflower Center. I’ll be speaking at the day-long Native Plant Society of Texas Spring Symposium at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin. My talk is called “Local Heroes: Designing with Native Plants for Water-Saving Gardens,” and it’s about creating water-wise home gardens that don’t sacrifice beauty. The symposium is open to the public. Click here for registration. I’ll be offering signed copies of my books, The Water-Saving Garden and Lawn Gone!, after my talk ($20 each; tax is included). I hope to see you there!

Get on the mailing list for Garden Spark Talks. Inspired by the idea of house concerts — performances in private homes, which support musicians and give a small audience an up-close and personal musical experience — I’m hosting a series of garden talks by design speakers out of my home. The upcoming talk with James deGrey David has sold out, but join the Garden Spark email list for speaker announcements delivered to your inbox; simply click this link and ask to be added. Subscribers get advance notification when tickets go on sale for these limited-attendance events.

All material © 2006-2017 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

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