Book review: Plant-Driven Design

In a garden-design class I attended not long after moving to Austin, the speaker showed slide after slide of lush English gardens to illustrate design principles. I understood the value of studying these magnificent gardens, but I questioned whether the style could be truly reinterpreted here in the American Southwest, where a drier, harsher climate and thin-leaved, scrubbier plants cry out for a different aesthetic. To create a garden that reflects a sense of place, it seems to me, you can’t just substitute a heat-loving, drought-tolerant plant for an iconic English-garden shrub. Other factors specific to locale matter too: the intensity of light and its effect on color, the look of the surrounding countryside, how wild plant communities in the region tend to form.

The instructor insisted that design concepts are universal. Maybe so. But I knew there was something missing—something that would connect a specific garden to the wider environment around it. Something more than just plopping in a few native plants here and there.

Husband-and-wife design team Scott Ogden and Lauren Springer Ogden tackle this issue head-on in their new book Plant-Driven Design: Creating Gardens that Honor Plants, Place, and Spirit. Illustrated lavishly with photographs taken by Lauren, this meaty book explains how to look at your surrounding woods or prairies or seaside and reinterpret that look in your garden in order to give it a sense of place. While the Ogdens appreciate and use many native plants, they gladly look for exotics that share similar growth habits, leaf shape, heat or cold tolerance, etc., to use in combinations that harmonize with natives and the surrounding landscape. “Plant-driven design,” they insist, “is informed by site and region; ignore this and even the most plant-rich garden will suffer.”

Creating a sense of place is part of the reason I use native plants in my designs, so this theme particularly resonated with me. But the larger theme of the Ogdens’ book is more revolutionary, from a design perspective: Put plants first in garden design.

This is radical, people.

Design schools and garden-design books generally focus first and foremost on hardscaping—the paving, walls, fencing, and seating areas that contribute to the “bones” of a garden—relegating plants to a secondary role of filling in the blanks. The Ogdens flip this notion on its head, proclaiming that plants can create bones as well as any hardscaping, and insisting on the primacy of plants over man-made architecture.

The authors write about plants with both authority and fondness. In their view, plants are not merely “material” used to fill out a design. They are the garden’s raison d’etre, and while hardscaping is important in making a garden, it takes a back seat to the living, mutable organisms that we nurture—and that nurture us—when we garden.

This idea will resonate with many garden bloggers and readers, who often profess a love of plants and of getting one’s hands in the dirt but wish for more knowledge of design. In their preface, the authors explain their purpose:

This book is for lovers of plants, nature, and gardens—in particular those who are inspired by this love to make wonderful gardens. The ideas and opinions filling the pages that follow arise from one premise: gardens exist because of gardeners, not designers. And yet this is a book about garden design. . . . [T]his book is for gardeners who want the confidence to design, and designers who want the confidence to plant.

Poetic in their descriptions of plants and the joy of being in nature, the authors are also hard-hitting about what makes a garden succeed or fail. Occasionally I found them to be intimidatingly critical of other gardens, but there’s much of value for fellow designers as well as fellow gardeners. The Ogdens’ passion for plants and making gardens is contagious.

Plentiful images from their personal gardens in Austin, Texas, and Fort Collins, Colorado, will particularly delight those who garden in the West. (There are also a fair number from Chanticleer in Pennsylvania.) Garden publications so often feature lush, temperate East Coast or West Coast gardens, and those of us in the middle of the country, with harsh summers or winters and a unique palette of native and adapted plants, long for equal time.

The authors also provide numerous lists of plants, and though I often find such lists supremely unhelpful because I garden in an extreme climate, these are more useful in terms of how they’re framed, and include plenty of western-climate plants. For instance, there’s “Very silver plants,” “Rosette-forming plants,” “Companions to bold succulents and fiber plants,” “Designing with light,” and “Veil plants,” among the expected “Plants that thrive in acid soils,” “Flowers for butterflies and hummingbirds,” and “Columnar plants.”

I devoured this book, and I’m sure that I will be rereading portions of it again. Aside from its fresh design ideas, well-written text, and eye-candy photos, the book reminds us of the sensuality of plants, the evocative beauty of a garden, and even why we started gardening:

Honoring and delighting in seasonality goes against a commonly expressed desire of gardeners, designers, and plant breeders for year-round performance from a plant. We claim to long for extended bloom, evergreen foliage, and a shapely plant that holds up all year. Were we to fill our gardens exclusively with such creations, we would quickly lose interest, for it is the change and response inherent to plants, and the anticipation, expectation, and hope for surprise we feel as nature’s rhythms affect the garden’s denizens along with those in nature that compel us to go out and look in the first place.

To “go out and look”—so simple and so true a description of what we who love gardens do. With the Ogdens’ ideas and enthusiasm in mind, I’m ready to go out and look again.

All material © 2006-2008 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

18 Responses

  1. arythrina says:

    Ooh! I’m thinking Christmas present!

    It would make a great Xmas present for any gardener, Arythrina. —Pam

  2. Pam, at the Garden Writers Association symposium, they won a bunch of awards for this book. I think it would translate well here too. Great review.~~Dee

    Did they? Well, I can see why. Yes, I think you’d find it worth reading too, Dee. —Pam

  3. Gail says:

    Fantastic review Pam…I love the notion of plant driven gardening and primacy of plant over hardscape! Like you I often feel that garden books are not written for gardens with my growing conditions and what was needed was a different way to frame those essential garden design issues. I am going to head out to take a look at this book….Their philosophy sounds intriguing and may help me feel more confident to design and plant. gail

    Thanks, Gail. I’m actually a big fan of hardscaping, and although I also love plants, this seemed a pretty radical way of approaching garden design for the average client, who may or may not be a gardener. It’s given me plenty to think about, and in regard to my own garden, it’s been inspirational. —Pam

  4. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    You make this sound like a must have Pam.

    It sure is, Lisa. I really enjoyed this book. —Pam

  5. Jenny says:

    Yes, yes, yes! This really strikes a chord with me. I have always felt like I was dyslexic in the way I approached garden design. But, I have always felt it was a very personal choice to decide where and what to plant. I would always glaze over when taking design classes–it left me cold. I decided I was the only one I had to please in my garden and I threw all the rules out the window. I can’t wait to get a copy of this book. Thanks for the recommendation, Pam. I am putting it on my Christmas Wish List.

    I hope you enjoy it too, Jenny. Please let me know what you think once you’ve read it. —Pam

  6. Pam, after struggling 2-3 times to read Scott Ogden’s Bulbs for the Southern Garden (which I know you love, but it just escapes me because of the lack of pictures. I have no idea if I would want that bulb or not), I chose not to purchase this book because I was concerned about the same thing happening. However, you’ve made me want to check it out. I saw the authors interviewed on Central Texas Gardener, and their words intrigued me – putting the plants first. I’ve done that just because of budget – no money for hardscapes right now – and perhaps this book would help me pull things together. thanks!

    Hi, Robin. I’ve never read Bulbs for the Southern Garden or any other Ogden book, so I read this one with no particular expectations beyond interest based on the title. I’ll have to look for their interview on CTG’s website. —Pam

  7. VP says:

    An interesting review Pam :)

    I wrote an article a while ago called Listening to the Natives which picks up on some of your points here. I’m also doing a distance learning course here in England, which is called Designing with Plants. In view of your experience at your early garden-design class, do you think the book would translate well for an English audience, bearing in mind we’re approx. Zone 8 gardeners?

    The ideas they discuss are universal, VP, and would be of interest to any gardener. It is not a regional book. But it does have a lot of regional photos of their two Western gardens, which made me happy. —Pam

  8. Excellent review! I’ve been hearing a bit of a buzz about this book. I like the authors’ philosophy, as it mirrors my own. I think I’m going to have to make sure my library buys this book & that I’m the first person to check it out.

    Good plan, MMD. It’s worth poring over for as long as you can check it out. —Pam

  9. Cindy, MCOK says:

    Pam, thanks for an insightful and inspiring review! Since you liked the lists aspect, you might want to take a look at THE LONE STAR GARDENER’S BOOK OF LISTS and THE SOUTHERN GARDENER’S BOOK OF LISTS.

    I’m always happy to check out a list recommendation from a fellow Texas gardener. Thanks, Cindy. —Pam

  10. I’ve been meaning to check this book out for some time now…thanks for reminding me! Right now I’m re-reading New Gardens of Provence and Gardens in the Spirit of Place for a review, Plant-Driven Design sounds like it would fit right in with the idea of vernacular gardens. I love the sense of belonging in places that express culture and region.

    I’ve been meaning to read Gardens in the Spirit of Place, and the other one sounds intriguing too. Will your reviews be on your blog? —Pam

  11. Lori says:

    I’ve had this book on my Amazon wish list for a while. It’s good to know that it’s going to be worth the wait when I can finally get it. :)

    Sounds like a nice Christmas present for yourself, Lori. ;-) —Pam

  12. katherine says:

    Thanks for the review! I saw the Ogdens on CTG and the book piqued my interest. Now I am sold.

    I hope you enjoy it as I did, Katherine. Thanks for your comment. —Pam

  13. Ooops, I wonder if I bought the wrong book? What “bulb” book is it that you like so much? You’ve mentioned one before that has helped you a lot (I think??) Maybe too much turkey has taken my brain away….

    Robin, I can’t remember mentioning any bulb book to you. I actually wouldn’t mind knowing a lot more about bulbs, and I don’t have any books on them. Sorry—maybe it was one of the other garden bloggers who mentioned it? —Pam

  14. Kathleen says:

    Great review Pam. I am lucky enough to almost be the Ogdens’ neighbor and get to sit in on their classes every spring at our local nursery. I never fail to be inspired. I’ve been a fan of Lauren’s since meeting her & reading her first book (The Undaunted Garden) in the early 90’s. I think she has been revolutionary in the field from day one.

    Ooh, you ARE lucky, Kathleen. I would be quite jealous if the Ogdens didn’t also live part-time in Austin. I hope to be able to visit their garden here one day. I met Scott once, briefly, at a tour of one of his client’s gardens. I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Lauren. But thanks to your recommendation, I’ll be sure to check out her Undaunted Garden book. Thanks for your comment! —Pam

  15. Jean says:

    Pam, thanks for the review. I’ve been wondering about this book since I first saw it in a magazine. Sounds like it’s worth the money. I would have to agree that you should check out the book Gardens in the Spirit of Place as well. In fact, I just finished blogging about a garden that I think embodies vernacular gardening very well (and it happens to be my brother’s!). Thanks again.

    I just popped over and saw your post. Your brother’s garden is a great example of gardening in the spirit of place. Thanks for letting me know about it. —Pam

  16. Kylee says:

    I think I saw this book mentioned in a magazine publication recently. I can tell you really enjoyed it and I think it would be a book that would resonate with every gardener in some way.

    I did enjoy it, Kylee. The Ogdens are a talented couple. —Pam

  17. That is so funny! I JUST got that book for myself, and stayed up most of the night reading it. It’s a gorgeous, lyrical book – and completely inspiring.

    Her two earlier books are just as lovely.

    Chloe M.

    I was wondering whether one of them was the primary author. I guess I’d have to read their other, solo books to find out whose style dominated this collaboration. Thanks for letting me know that Lauren’s other books are worth reading. —Pam

  18. Layanee says:

    Sounds like a winner to me! I remember in my design classes the professor saying plants come last and I really was bothered by that statement. The difference between architecture and a garden involves plants for sure. Great review. p.s. I have always really disliked Opuntia cactus in New England gardens and even though they are hardy here, they really look like they don’t belong!

    I hear what you’re saying about Opuntia, Layanee. But aren’t they actually native to New England? Wikipedia says that they’ve been found growing wild all the way up in British Columbia. So, not to be contrary, but they DO belong. ;-) (Don’t fling one at me–ouch!) —Pam