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.