Switch Hit: Substituting local plants to recreate gardens you admire in magazines

Do you ever mentally substitute plants that grow well in your region for non-hardy plants you see in a magazine or blog picture from another region? As a gardener in a part of the country not well represented by national gardening magazines, I often find that the pretty pictures of gardens from the Northeast, the Pacific Northwest, and California feature plants that won’t survive in my Death Star-blasted, water-deprived, alkaline-soil central Texas garden.

Luckily, a garden you admire can often be approximated by substituting hardy plants from your own region that have similar shapes and colors. Take the photo above, for example. I tore out this page from the December 2009 issue of Fine Gardening because I loved the mix of blue, purple, and gold and the contrasting shapes of the plants. Most likely this is a frost-free California garden because of the presence of those clusters of echeverias. And what is that yellow-striped plant with the sword-like leaves? Furcraea? Phormium? Neither is hardy here.

But some of these plants will grow for us, like Jerusalem sage (Phlomis frutescens) and catmint (Nepeta) — at least I think that’s a catmint. You could also use mealy blue sage (Salvia farinacea) in its place. ‘Color Guard’ yucca would substitute nicely for the furcraea/phormium, and Mexican feathergrass (Nassella tenuissima) for the bronze New Zealand sedge or whatever kind of grass that is at the front. The echeverias are harder to replace — their shape is so unique — but for a similar color and groundcovering height you could substitute gopher plant (Euphorbia rigida), ‘Bath’s Pink’ dianthus, or even woolly stemodia (Stemodia lanata).

The next time you feel frustrated by your inability to use the temperate-zone plants we see all the time in magazines, use your imagination — or stroll through a nursery with your photo in hand, looking for similar shapes — to come up with locally adapted plants that can mimic that look. Just make sure all your substitutes can take the same conditions of light, heat/frost, soil type, and water to ensure that they’ll grow well together.

All material © 2006-2013 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

16 Responses

  1. Good advice. And, good plant substitutes.

    My catmint survived the deer…but, our neighbor’s cat, who has adopted us, has kept it ‘trimmed’.

    It’s always something…

    Have a good weekend. Hope we get all the rain they’ve promised.

    It’s pouring as I write this, Linda. I hope you’re getting some too! And yes, if it’s not deer it’s cats or armadillos. —Pam

  2. Alison says:

    Yes, I do that occasionally with YOUR photos! Or with ones from California, like this. I think that grass is Carex testacea, given its orange overtones. Surely that’s hardy there in Texas? Aren’t hens and chicks hardy there? I substitute them for Echeverias.

    I’ve not had any luck with the New Zealand carexes, and I’ve tried quite a few. They just don’t seem to get enough water in my garden and peter out after a year or so. However, Mexican feathergrass is a standout in sun or part shade. As for small succulents like echeverias and hens and chicks, they’re a mixed bag. Neither of those do well for me in the heat of summer; they kind of melt away. Other small succulents like ghost plant (Graptopetalum paraguayense) and some sedums do quite well, but they can’t take our intense summer sunlight and must be planted in dappled shade or light morning sun only. So they wouldn’t be appropriate for this sun-loving planting scheme. —Pam

  3. Agnes Plutino says:

    What a great tip!!! Love your site!

    Thanks for stopping by, Agnes. :-) —Pam

  4. Shirley says:

    No surprise that I love this combination. Your ideas are right on the mark. Santolina is the plant I use to get that low-growing silvery look in the sun. I need to give gopher plant a try soon.

    Good suggestion on the santolina, Shirley. It lacks the blue color I was going for, but silver is a good substitute and super tough. —Pam

  5. Jenny says:

    Great idea Pam. I do need to do some remaking of garden areas and you have given me a plan! By the way I have the pot.

    You’re on your way! I’m trying this idea in miniature in a small bed along the driveway, using the little-leaf Jerusalem sage instead of the frutescens. Just need to add the blue/purple-flowering perennial — and I may go with your old favorite, purple skullcap. —Pam

  6. Ally says:

    I wonder if there is a sedum that would substitute for that echeveria. I was thinking ‘Autumn Joy’, but that might be too tall. This is a fun idea. I can’t wait to try it out.

    I haven’t had any luck with ‘Autumn Joy’ sedum in Austin, have you, Ally? Also, it’s not blue, but the form is nice. —Pam

  7. commonweeder says:

    This is really brilliant advice. As I was preparing a new dish for our supper today I kept saying to myself – a recipe is merely a guide – our Gourmet Club motto – as I made substitutions. Taking the picture to the nursery when trying to find a substitute is a great a idea.

    I like your cooking analogy, Commonweeder. —Pam

  8. That is a great little combo – thanks for sharing. I like the way you think… :)

    Just riffing on a nice design. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Heather! —Pam

  9. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    I do try to do this from time to time. It is really a stretch from there to here.

    It doesn’t always work so well, of course. I have trouble translating very leafy, lush gardens to my own, more-arid region. The whole look must change in those cases, not just a few plants. But it can still be fun to give it a try! —Pam

  10. Jeanette says:

    I love what you have done here. The sedums have so many variations in colors. I planted some from a blue-green to crimson for my Mom but whether they will survive here is a big question. I want to try the gopher plant to add more blue! Have you any experience using tulle or netting fabric to discourage the deer?

    No, I haven’t bothered with that, Jeanette, except for a short period when I planted my sedge lawn and worried the deer would pull out the plugs of sedge. Generally I rely on non-tasty plants and a temporary application of deer repellent right after planting. —Pam

  11. sandy lawrence says:

    I actually planted a swath of catmint for my cats to try to keep them from lounging on the Veronica ‘Georgia Blue’ groundcover. It worked, as evidenced by an hilarious series of photos showing one of the cats going from sniffing stage to wall-eyed wallowing drunk munching on that stuff. I was surprised it rebounded from the abuse.
    I like your substitution ideas, and you are right; some things you just have to get over – like my love of ferns and mosses and those wonderful nurse logs they have in the PNW! If you’ve never lived/gardened here, it’s hard for people to understand that it’s not just the ‘hardiness’ factor – it’s the unrelenting heat, especially at night, when the plants get no chance to recover. Two months or so of 80 degrees at 10:30pm before triple digits the next day is a killer, even in the shade!

    You are so right, Sandy. The unrelenting heat from June through September, especially at night, takes a toll on plants — and that’s not reflected in the hardiness zone measurements in common use, resulting in confusion and disappointment for the less-experienced gardener. —Pam

  12. Marilyn Rodriguez says:

    I love this. I am getting ready to plant a new garden in my front yard. I am taking this picture with me and following your recommendations.

    Marilyn Rodriguez

    Have fun with your substitutions, Marilyn! —Pam

  13. Blackswampgirl Kim says:

    I saw what you said about the brown carexes above…but have you tried c. Buchanii or c. Flagilifera? (Note: I may have misspelled the second one.) Both are growing with no extra water in my hot and dry, well-draining front yard garden. And in fact, I would be happy to send you a chunk of both/either if you want to give one a try!

    You are generous to offer, Kim. I actually gave Carex buchanii ‘Red Rooster’ a whirl over the past year, after I found five plants at a dollar each. But no, they never thrived, were spindly and sad, and I finally pulled them out last week. And I tried C. flagellifera ‘Toffee Twist’ a few years ago with the same result. I don’t know if it’s our summer dryness or our extreme heat (esp. the unrelenting heat even at night; see comment above) that makes them underperform, but something here conspires against them. —Pam

  14. peter schaar says:

    For Ally, I think Sedum palmeri would work. It’s not blue, but absolute color matching isn’t really necessary to capture the spirit of a garden like that. And S. palmeri is a showstopper in March, when it’s covered in bright yellow flowers. BTW, did you know that S. spectacle and its hybrid ‘Autumn Joy’ make excellent salad greens? Crunchy texture, bright, citrusy flavor.

    Nope, I did not know you could eat sedum, Peter! —Pam

  15. I love that you showed this….it is something that we need more often to help us accomplish more in our own personal gardens with something works! I found the yuccas at Lowe’s in the mark down area for $2 each. I am on my way back to buy the rest of them! Thanks, Pam!!

    That’s a steal, Pamela. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do those in my garden. —Pam

  16. I was just thinking about this! I garden in the subtropical outskirts of Houston yet I’m drawn to the severe lines of an Arizona cactus garden or the strict architecture of those northern conifers. I’ll be thinking how to recreate the self-contained look of those gardens here in the wild jungly zone!

    Have fun with your switcheroos, Elizabeth. :-) —Pam