Read This: The Undaunted Garden, 2nd edition

In 1994 my husband and I bought our first home in Austin, and I wanted to make a garden. Along the driveway a large, triangular bed, outlined by flat pieces of limestone, had already been carved out of the lawn by the previous owners. By the time we moved in, all that remained in it were thirsty begonias and a few dwarf yaupon hollies.

Having just arrived in Austin from the Carolinas, I made the typical rookie mistakes: I planted what was familiar from my former home, and I impulsively bought plants that looked pretty at the big-box store with no knowledge of whether they would perform well in Austin’s hot, humid summers and our alkaline soil. Azaleas and Crayola-colorful Gerbera daisies, I remember, were two of my first casualties.

There were many more before I discovered the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, whose native-plant gardens gave me a crash course on the beauty and hardiness of plants that are from here and thus—duh!—want to grow here. I visited often and studied the plant combinations in various seasons and made notes of the ones I liked. I took a course on creating a native-plant garden. I pored over books about gardening in Texas and growing native plants. I talked with neighbors who liked to garden and learned about exotic but well-adapted plants that perform well in our climate. And I learned which independent nurseries in town carry a good selection of Texas-happy plants. Lo and behold, the native and adapted perennials, ornamental grasses, vines, and small trees that I planted thrived, and I soon expanded my garden to include the strip along the curb and new gardens in the back yard. Success breeds confidence and enthusiasm, and I was hooked.

I’m thankful for the resources on local gardening that were available to me as a newbie gardener in a difficult climate, with weeks (if not months) of 100+ F temperatures every summer followed by winters that dip below freezing often enough to preclude Southern California or Arizona-style gardens; with long periods of drought followed by flooding rains; with alkaline soil that turns a sickly yellow those beautiful plants featured in the New England and Pacific Northwest gardens that dominate the pages of national gardening magazines.

In 1994, the same year I moved to Austin and started learning to garden here, Lauren Springer Ogden published her groundbreaking book about gardening in the equally harsh climate of the interior West: The Undaunted Garden: Planting for Weather-Resilient Beauty. Like me, she was a transplanted East Coaster (though an experienced gardener) who’d moved to a challenging region—northern Colorado—where she learned through trial and error how to create a garden with the chutzpah to survive dry, alkaline soil, regular hailstorms, gully-washer rainstorms, and other weather extremes. She recognized that gardeners in the interior U.S., as opposed to those blessed with mild maritime climates, face unique challenges and needed a new model of gardening than what was widely available at the time. She wrote:

In North America, vast regions of great climatic diversity all share one attribute: they discourage many a gardener with their extremes….[T]he interior continental regions suffer from excessive heat, cold, wind, and drought, and outrageous weather phenomena, namely torrential rainstorms, tornadoes, and hail. Out in these wild, unrestrained…landscapes, the gardener needs to approach both design and plants in new ways. Light, color, space—all are experienced differently here….What continental North American gardeners need out here are different plants, inspired combinations, and new ideas that help gardens face the severity of our climates with beauty and diversity.

Writing about her own Colorado gardens in intimate, season-long detail, she provided a model of the undaunted garden: a garden with a sense of place, filled with plants both native and exotic that are well-suited to their locale, which thrives and brings joy, rather than frustration, to the gardener who tends it (and tending is required, she reminds us, expressing dissatisfaction with the concept of the low-maintenance garden).

With The Undaunted Garden, Springer Ogden helped introduce gardeners to a new palette of plants, many of which were not widely available at the time but which today are staples in the Western garden. In 2010, she revised and updated what is now considered by many gardeners to be a classic and published a 2nd edition of The Undaunted Garden, which I recently purchased on a whim, drawn in by the beautiful new cover photo. The new edition contains portraits of 100 new “indispensably undaunted” plants that have thrived in her Colorado gardens; color photos and descriptions of her third personal garden, in addition to her first two; and additional information on deer-resistant, drought-tolerant, and hail-resistant plants.

Springer Ogden is a vividly descriptive writer. Reading her book is akin to being led through a jam-packed garden, blindfolded, by the poetic owner who is deeply in love with her plants and their seasonal changes. In the chapter “Through the Seasons in the Shaded Garden,” she describes autumn’s approach: “Pink or white, musk mallow blooms in great masses in spite of a lack of water. As cooler, longer shadows encase more of the garden, lulling it into early slumber, patches of pink cyclamen rise like tiny naked fairies at the base of tree trunks.” Far from being strictly descriptive, however, The Undaunted Garden is almost picture-book-worthy thanks to the author’s colorful, beautifully composed photographs of her various gardens.

While the gardens described here are all in northern Colorado and her plant selections are particularly suited to that region, the book has resonance for gardeners anywhere who enjoy reading an intimate account of another’s garden and who want to create undaunted gardens of their own.

All material © 2006-2012 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

10 Responses

  1. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    This sounds like a great read. I get the feeling my garden is headed for a major climate change. I will have to rebuild after this summer. Even trees are beginning to succumb to this drought. I need some inspiration. This book might be the answer.

    I’m sorry to hear that your garden is so stressed by drought, Lisa. I feel your pain here in Austin. There’s a lot of revision going on in central Texas gardens these days, which of course is an opportunity as well. —Pam

  2. Mary gray says:

    Thanks for this review! Plant Driven Design is my all time favorite garden book. I had not heard of this book but will seek it out! And I keep hoping a Lauren Springer Ogden of the East will emerge one day!

    Maybe it needs to be YOU, Mary. :-) —Pam

  3. Jean says:

    She always has beautiful photos in her books. I will definitely seek this book out. Btw, I like how you write about those plants of New England and the Pacific Northwest that dominate the national gardening magazines. I’m getting tired of those and the Southern California ones.

    I know, right? Of course they’re stunning and envy-inducing, but that doesn’t help much in making gardens of our own in less blessed climates, does it? —Pam

  4. Having lived in many locations, gardening by experience from the previous location isn’t always the best. Your gardens are superb, love all the drought tolerant plants. This book sounds like a great read.

    It’s a good book both for perusing, Janet, or for reading in detail if you like getting the “gardener’s tour.” —Pam

  5. This is a beautiful review, Pam. I especially like her reference to gardens that have a sense of place. So many people approach gardening as if their yards were blank canvases, totally ignoring the context of where they live. This myopic lens has horrible impact on the ecosystem (including the creatures who habitate that land, and have for centuries), as the continuity is disrupted. As you know there is thankfully a trend emerging toward creating corridors of familiarity for those about us, restoring what was there before we showed up! In our wildly mobile society this book sounds like a good guidebook for how to approach where we find ourselves. Thank you.

    Yes, indeed, Kathryn. You make a good point. Have you read the Ogdens’ book Plant-Driven Design? There’s even more in there about creating a garden with a sense of place. —Pam

  6. ricki says:

    The Hardy Plant Society of Oregon has had many guest speakers of gardening renown (Christopher Lloyd and Mirabel Osler, for example). Lauren was the best of the lot (with apologies to Osler, who exuded oodles of charm). I just ordered this book from the library, but suspect it will need to become a more permanent resident of my bookshelf. After reading your review, I can hardly wait for it to arrive.

    Lauren is an excellent speaker, Ricki, as is her husband. I had the pleasure, a couple of years ago, of hearing them both speak at a Garden Conservancy-sponsored lecture at the Wildflower Center, as well as the honor of being given a personal tour of their Austin garden. —Pam

  7. greg says:

    Couldn’t put it down when I first bought. Love her index of plants.

    Her plants are probably better suited to your Kansas garden than to mine, yes? It’s a great resource for gardeners in that region, for sure. —Pam

  8. Denise says:

    Beautiful new cover! Wonderful review, Pam. I love how Lauren scours the alpine seed lists and is a total plant geek. She really brings home that there are great plants for every climate.

    Reading a book by a plant geek is endlessly satisfying, isn’t it, even if the plants are for other parts of the country. The enthusiasm always comes through. —Pam

  9. Jeanette says:

    Pam, I finally read your article in Garden Design. Your writing is a joy to read. My spouse is a Duke/Wake person and he buys the azaleas so….. I understand your transplant comment. Your book review is beautiful. Thanks for the suggestion.

    Thanks for your kind comment about my article in GD, Jeanette! I do understand the drive to have a few plants from one’s original home. And why not, if you’re willing to do what’s necessary to keep them happy. For lazier gardeners like me, it’s all about finding those plants that require as little pampering as possible. (Although I do admit to a weakness for tender agaves from regions farther south—ha!) —Pam

  10. katina says:

    Yeah – I can foresee wanting to buy that book solely for the photos…yep…

    My MIL got me a subscription to Better Homes and Gardens, and it drives me nuts that most of the plants are plants that don’t grow here.

    Yes, it’s frustrating. I still love to look at those leafy, lush northern gardens, but I would love to see southern and southwestern gardens given equal time. —Pam