Read This: Designer Plant Combinations

Soon enough daffodils, bluebonnets, and columbines will brighten our awakening gardens. Awakened ourselves to the joy of spring, we’ll throng to the nursery and snap up bedding plants and newly introduced perennials willy-nilly, bringing them home and plopping them in wherever we can find an open spot. They’ll add color and texture to the garden, but unless we’re lucky or we plan better than that, come August we’ll wonder why it hasn’t quite come together the way we’d hoped.

©2007 Scott Calhoun, all rights reserved

If you’re tired of this plop-a-plant routine and long to put together interesting, successful combinations, you’ll be inspired by Designer Plant Combinations: 105 Stunning Gardens Using Six Plants or Fewer. Arizona garden designer and author Scott Calhoun visited public and private gardens around the country and photographed small groupings that caught his eye. His images (along with those by Rob Cardillo and Saxon Holt, among others), lavishly illustrate numerous vignettes. You’ll find yourself poring over the photos and marking the combinations that will work for your hardiness zone.

©2007 Scott Calhoun, all rights reserved

Eye candy isn’t all you’ll find though. Calhoun helpfully provides a description of the plants in each vignette and a pithy analysis of what makes it work. His writing is never frou-frou or flowery. Quite the opposite—his tough-guy metaphors will crack you up. Describing spiny sharkskin agave, he declares that “you can plop him down in the middle of perennials and fine-textured grasses and he will be respected instantly, like Tony Soprano walking into an Italian restaurant.”

Plant a pink combo of Joe-pye weed, purple fountain grass, and lantana, he promises, and your garden will “attract butterflies like fraternity brothers to a tapped keg.”

Describing a white border at Longwood Gardens, he dismisses the notion that it’s “as proper as a Victorian wedding dress.” Instead, as if watching a street fight, he calls out the play-by-play: “[A]n angel’s trumpet muscles its way up through the mid-border, sticking up its funnel-shaped flowers here and there, while clumps of Abyssinian sword lilies knife their way up out of a patch of silver spurflower.” (Quotes courtesy Storey Publishing)

This is a breath of fresh air in garden writing, and I lingered over this book for a week. If you want more of Calhoun’s breezy, metaphor-spangled humor, gorgeous photos, and an enthusiastic advocacy for native plants and green gardening, check out his first book, a memoir about creating a home and garden in the Sonoran Desert, Yard Full of Sun: The Story of a Gardener’s Obsession That Got a Little Out of Hand. It’s one of my favorite garden books.

Calhoun blogs at Scout Calhoun’s Desert, and his next book, The Hot Garden, is expected out this spring. Until then, I’ll be adapting a few of his designer plant combinations to my new garden.

All material © 2006-2009 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

posted in Books, Design

28 Responses

  1. Plop and plant is a good description–I am often guilty of this. I do think that photos of good groupings help us train our eyes; I’ll check this book out!

    Dare I suggest that even garden designers who love plants are guilty of plot-and-plant from time to time? OK, I confess to doing it too sometimes. It can lead to serendipitous combinations. But it can also lead to disappointment, can’t it? Luckily we can always transplant. But how nice to try some successful combos and then repeat them through the garden. —Pam

  2. kerri says:

    I’m making a note of this book right now, Pam. It sounds like a wonderful tonic for the long winter days, and those sample photos are so lovely to look at on this frigid morning. Thanks for a great review!

    You’re welcome, Kerri. I’m a big fan of Scott’s design work and his writing. —Pam

  3. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    While I can’t grow a lot of those desert plants I sure love to see them. That photo of the huge succulents with the chair in the background is a stunner. I would love to have that here someplace. This book looks like one I would love to have. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

    Hi, Lisa. I think even Austin is too cold for several of the plants in that photo, which was shot in a California garden. Alas! However, the author does list substitute plants with similar characteristics that can take a colder zone. And while he hails from Arizona and has an affinity for desert plants, the images in this book are as likely to come from Chanticleer and other northern gardens as anywhere else. —Pam

  4. While it’s usually the photos that attract me to a gardening book, I think I might buy this one for the writing . . . sounds very entertaining

    Truly, the writing is half the fun. Scott’s personality shines through on every page. —Pam

  5. Gail says:

    Pam, These combinations are delicious! I just love the second photo..I can see that in your garden, but can also see a variation on that theme in my own. Were I to have all that glorious sunny gardening space…you would find me copying the verbena, grasses and is that amsonia? Just lovely. Btw, how are you? gail

    Hi, Gail. My DH and I installed the trampoline this weekend, so it’s haunting my new garden-to-be again, and all is well. Yes, that is amsonia in the top photo. Lovely, isn’t it? —Pam

  6. Nancy Bond says:

    My planning is more like “plop in a pot”. :-) This book looks wonderful – thanks for the review.

    My pleasure, Nancy. It’s a fun winter read. —Pam

  7. Randy says:

    Yay! New reading material! Thanks for the insight, Pam. Mmmmmm, I think Jamie and I could benefit from the first of his books for sure.:-)

    Methinks the subtitle on that memoir might describe your and Jamie’s gardening too, huh? :-) Well, keep it up. It makes for great fun to watch what you’re up to next. —Pam

  8. Brenda Kula says:

    Yes, I must raise my hand and say I’m guilty of doing this. Bringing home a smorgasbord of lovely colorful plants without a clear plan in my head. Then I stand and look around me and wonder where my money went!

    I usually go to the nursery with a list, but from time to time I’ve fallen into this plop-a-plant trap as well. It happens to us all, but we can reform! —Pam

  9. Jean says:

    I usually don’t go for the plant combo books (I’m not sure why; maybe I feel I can’t achieve them or else I can never get the same or similar plants). But this one sounds like a delight. I was immediately intrigued by the second photo since I believe that’s amsonia and I was going to order some of that this year. So now I know what plants and/or colors it would look good with. Thanks for the great review! (btw, I’m reading the Ogden’s Plant Driven Design book right now, based on your recommendation. I’m really enjoying it.)

    I don’t usually go for plant-suggestion books either, Jean, because they often feature plants that won’t grow well in Austin. However, Scott’s book features gardens in the midwest and southwest as well as the more typical northeast and northwest, so there’s something for everyone. Plus, he offers alternative choices for different hardiness zones.

    Here’s his plant list for that top photo: Verbena bonariensis (tall verbena), Amsonia hubrechtii (narrow-leaf blue star), Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Avalanche’ (‘Avalanche’ feather reed grass), Miscanthus sinensis ‘Andante’ (‘Andante’ maiden grass), and Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’ (‘Royal Purple’ smoke tree).

    Thanks too for letting me know that you’re enjoying the Ogdens’ book. —Pam

  10. Julie says:

    Thanks for the recommendation, Pam. As a lifelong “plopper” starting over again, this approach — esp. in its comparative simplicity and use of desert-friendly plants — is alluring. Met a new neighbor who, like me, is having a difficult time adjusting to the sorts of plants that do well here in Austin. It’s taken nine years in my case, but reality is starting to sink in, succulents and all. By the way, the succulents here are beautiful! Would you have the name of that purply-red one?


    It took me a few years, but then I fell hard for the spiny plants, and now I’m falling for succulents too. Unfortunately, the purply one you like is only hardy to Zone 10, according to Scott’s book. It is an ‘Afterglow’ echeveria. He suggests using Texas tuberose (Manfreda maculosa) as a substitute for those in colder climates (like us). Texas tuberose is nice, but it’s much smaller. I’d suggest a bigger manfreda instead: ‘Macho Mocha’ manfreda (mangave). —Pam

  11. Jenny says:

    Those books will be on my list of must have garden books. I love the photos. I don’t think I can grow Kangaroo Paw here but I’m sure a substitution could be found. I too love using the agaves. I’m sending D out to do some more rock hounding today!

    Yep, the kangaroo paw in the bottom photo is only hardy to Zone 10, according to Scott. He suggest substituting yellow hesperaloe for those in colder climes. Well, yes, but that wouldn’t be quite as good as that incredible kangaroo paw, would it? I’m tempted to try one someday just to see. —Pam

  12. Great review, Pam. I also reviewed it for Oklahoma Gardening Examiner. Scott knows of what he speaks, and every page in that book is a feast.~~Dee

    I saw your review and enjoyed reading your take on the book, Dee. His book is a feast indeed. —Pam

  13. Diana Kirby says:

    Plop and plant — that is so me! That’s the part of gardening where I let my free spirit flow. But then I wish I hadn’t later! I know that’s not your style at all. But now I have to have that book — did you get yours here in town?

    I am generally more of a list-shopper, but I have made my share of impulse buys, Diana. ;-) I got my copy via —Pam

  14. Kathleen says:

    That looks like another great book Pam. I wish I could come raid your library!! ;-) I received a couple books for Christmas ~ I think they’re the perfect gifts for winter. I may have to check this one out since I respect your opinion. I enjoy some good writing too. I used to read the Heronswood catalog just for that reason! btw, I saw Lauren Springer Ogden & her husband are teaching their annual class at our local greenhouse on Feb 14th. Wouldn’t that be a lovely Valentine present? The topic this year is “Creating Gardens that Honor Plants, Place & Spirit.” Sounds interesting doesn’t it?

    Kathleen, I am so envious that you can go to talks by the Ogdens. Please go and let us know all about it! —Pam

  15. Pam — Scot’s been on my list of folks to write about for a while, so glad to see him get some nice publicity. The shot at the top of your post is from Madison — from Olbrich Botanical Garden. You can see we have lots of local inspiration! For anyone driving to the Spring Fling in Chicago, think about stopping in Madison to visit Olbrich, the UW-Arboretum and Allen Centennial Garden on campus.

    Ooh, great garden side trips! Good idea for those folks who are driving to the Spring Fling. —Pam

  16. Shirl says:

    Hi there Pam :-)

    Thanks so much for reviewing this book. Living in the UK I probably would never have seen this in bookshops or come across it in online book stores. This definitely looks like my kind of book :-D

    Six plants or fewer? Mm… I wonder if you’d be interested in my Desert Island Plant Challenge see I would love if you had the time to join me :-D

    Your Desert Island Plant Challenge looks like good winter fun, Shirl. I’ll have to give it some thought. —Pam

  17. jodi says:

    Sounds like my kind of book, definitely. I’ll have to hunt this author down; his attitude is just wonderful!

    It sure is, Jodi. And his brightly colored pics will warm up your cold winter days. —Pam

  18. Layanee says:

    Pam: Wouldn’t it be fun if some of the bloggers actually implemented some of these combinations? I have this book also and find it refreshingly doable! Is that a word, doable? Great photos and great combos. Nice review, Pam. If I didn’t already have it, I would go out and buy it or get it from the library.

    That would be fun, Layanee. I’m planning on using a few of them myself, with maybe a few substitutions to accomodate Austin’s climate. But I’ll have to wait on new beds and the funds to make them. How about you? Are you going to try any this spring? —Pam

  19. Genevieve says:

    Sounds awesome. As a designer I’m always looking for simple, lovely combinations to try.

    Me too, Genevieve. It’s always great to get new ideas and fresh inspiration. —Pam

  20. Philip says:

    Hi Pam,
    I am excited about this book. I am getting this now. Thanks for the heads up to what looks to be very inspiring. I like that he selects combinations with just a few plants for maximum effect. Also, it says that there areas for small beds, too. After this arrives, I will let you know if we implement any of these combinations. Also, it could be a creative jumping off point.
    Thanks for the review.

    You’re welcome, Philip. I hope you enjoy it also. I look forward to seeing whether you try out any of the combinations featured here. —Pam

  21. Monica says:

    Thanks for the review–I will definitely get it from the library (I’m cheap, me!). I would think the photos alone are worth looking through the book.

    The photos are welcome winter eye candy, but it is Scott’s writing and insights that really grab me. —Pam

  22. Cheryl says:

    Thanks for the info Pam…I’m checking out this book pronto!

    You are welcome, Cheryl. Hope you enjoy it too. —Pam

  23. Frances says:

    Hi Pam, That photo is fantastic and the writing sounds very readable. I too am currently reading the Odgen book, and of course there are a stack of Piet books too. I see a theme here, all seem to value the prairie mix with lots of drifts and grasses. No more plant collecting and plopping, well that will be a hard habit to drop, but it can be done. I am in the process of digging stuff out and starting over with more of a plan like these authors suggest. Substitutions can be made, it does seem like the grasses and tall perennials are key. In addition I want that dying well thing too that Piet espouses. Determination is needed and self restraint when that new plant catches our eye at the nursery.

    Determination and self-restraint—it sounds like a New Year’s resolution. Well, we won’t promise to end all the fun of a spontaneous purchase here and there, but planning leads to the pleasure of a well-designed bed, doesn’t it? —Pam

  24. Layanee says:

    Pam: I’m going to look through again and give one of the appropriate combos a go! Stay tuned.

    I will, Layanee! Can’t wait to see what you choose and how it works for you. —Pam

  25. This one sounds really good, as does Yard Full of Sun. Some of my favorite gardening books are those that are personal. I’ll have to check it out!

    Mine too, Kylee. I hope you enjoy them both. —Pam

  26. chuck b. says:

    So, I looked through this book at my bookstore. Not one combination of red and yellow.

    Then it’s a keeper for you, Chuck! ;-) —Pam

  27. […] and garden in harmony with the harsh but beautiful conditions of the Sonoran Desert. Recently I reviewed his Designer Plant Combinations also. His follow-up, The Hot Garden, is one of those rare garden books for which I requested a […]

  28. […] general outlook on life. I’ve reviewed some of his other books, including The Hot Garden and Designer Plant Combinations, here at Digging. I’m currently reading Chasing Wildflowers and hope that Texas’ spring […]