Read This: The Hot Garden

“Get your desert eyes on,” Scott Calhoun urges in his new book The Hot Garden. In other words, see and appreciate the natural beauty of a country that is not lush, leafy, or green and that relies on rock and open space as much as plants for its sense of place. Ah, but those plants! Hot-garden plants—star-shaped agaves, colorful sedums, rose-like sempervivums, columnar cacti, feathery grasses, spherical yuccas and sotols—are the darlings of contemporary garden designers, xeric gardeners, and collectors alike. Their architectural shapes, evergreen habit, and variously smooth, spiky, or fleshy textures invite use as garden sculpture or as foils for fine-leaved xeric perennials and wildflowers.

A pair of enormous agaves marks the entry to Lotusland‘s Blue Garden.

Ironically, although agaves and other succulents are cultivated in gardens as far removed from the desert as Pennsylvania’s Chanticleer, gardeners living in the dry climates from which those plants originate have gotten short shrift when it comes to literature about garden design. To address this void and share his love of desert gardening, Calhoun, a Tucson designer, fellow blogger, and lifelong “desert rat,” has written The Hot Garden: Landscape Design for the Desert Southwest.

Damianita (Chrysactinia mexicana) and blue nolina (Nolina nelsonii) stand out against a purple wall. Design by David Cristiani.

I’ve been a big fan of Scott’s writing and free-spirited gardening style since reading Yard Full of Sun, his memoir about building a home 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 review copy but would have bought in hardback anyway.

A cylindrical galvanized rainwater-collection cistern becomes part of the circle theme in this dry garden. Design by Scott Calhoun.

Scott writes that his book is for desert gardeners from El Paso, Texas, to Palm Springs, California, to Las Vegas—“the part of the Southwest where creosote bush is the most common shrub, gravel is the most ubiquitous mulch material, rain is scant, and summers are hot.” Except for the part about hot summers, this does not describe central Texas, where we generally rely on organic mulches, creosote is not found, and we get many more inches of rain than the desert.

So why am I interested in this book? Because design-wise Austin straddles the border between the eastern and western U.S.—where leafy, oak-shaded retreats share neighborhood space with open, sunny, gravel-based gardens—and certain desert plants are readily available and reliably hardy. The spare, architectural desert aesthetic also plays well with the contemporary design movement that’s taken hold in Austin. Moreover, desert flora are the ultimate drought-tolerant plants, which makes them invaluable for sustainable gardens in water-challenged regions of the country. Plus I just love the way they look.

But even if I gardened where desert plants wouldn’t grow except in a frost-protected container, I’d enjoy this book. Calhoun is a funny, engaging writer who loves where he lives and wants us to love it too. His design style is appealingly naturalistic, employs modest materials in creative ways, and is rooted in local culture. Also, he’s knowledgeable and passionate about rainwater harvesting and the use of xeric native plants, aspects of desert gardening that I’m particularly interested in.

Silver ponyfoot ‘Silver Falls’ (Dichondra argentea), accented with white rain lilies, makes a striking groundcover. Design by Scott Calhoun.

Calhoun argues for a different aesthetic for desert gardening, one that relies on transparency (the big sky and openness of the desert), minimalism (“negative spaces between the plants are as important as the plants themselves,” he writes), visible geology and borrowed landscape (exposed rock and mountain views), and ecological values (preserving the fragile desert ecosystem and water conservation). He expounds on each of these principles, illustrating them with his own gorgeous photographs of hot gardens, including a few from the local gardens of Austinites Jill Nokes and Selena Souders of Big Red Sun, and Peckerwood in Hempstead, Texas.

In one of my favorite chapters, Scott makes the case for colored walls in the garden. In addition to making your evergreen desert plants “pop” against a brightly painted surface, colored walls also “reduce [the] need for water-wasting annual carpet bedding plants. Because people want year-round garden color they often feel compelled to buy annual bedding plants (that must be replaced at least twice annually in the desert Southwest), which require intensive watering and fertilizing. In harsh climates, colored walls provide a better low-water-use alternative to the sort of throwaway annuals purchased at ‘big box’ stores. It seems needless to say, but paint counts as color in a garden! With year-round strong color provided by paint, gardeners are freed up to play with thrifty and sculptural native plants.”

Scott’s colorful prose and images will make a convert of you too. Putting on your desert eyes is an eye-opening exercise and should prove inspiring to desert gardeners—and wannabes—everywhere.

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

16 Responses

  1. Aiyana says:

    My copy came Monday, finally. I had it on pre-order for close to a year it seems! I’m just getting started reading it–I have to savor every page, and then re-read. I tried not to look too closely at your photos as I want to be surprised as I get into the book. Scott’s books are always wonderful. I have every one, and last month finished Yard Full of Sun for the fourth time.

    Enjoy reading it, Aiyana. I hope you’ll review it too. I’d like to hear your thoughts on it since you live in the region he wrote it for. You’re lucky to live where you have a chance of hearing and meeting Scott at a speaking engagement. How did you like his Wildflower book? I haven’t read that one yet. —Pam

  2. Sue says:

    Oh, those are beautiful photos. The painted walls really get me, I have got to figure out where to put one in my garden one of these days. I am definitely buying this one!

    You’ll love the painted wall chapter—lots of luscious pictures! I’d love to have one too someday, Sue. But the cost is so prohibitive. —Pam

  3. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    I admire this type of gardening but we can’t have a whole lot of those types of plants here. I love reading about them and seeing the photos.

    I know you like cacti, Lisa, since you paint so many of them. Even a few in pots can make an impact, don’t you think? —Pam

  4. Jenny says:

    I’m beginning to think this might be the garden for me. Hot and dry. There is just no substitute for rain. Watering by drip just doesn’t cut it. Gosh! there is nothing prettier than damianita in full flower. Even a small plant in the landscape lights up the space.

    Yes, it really does. Damianita is shining its school-bus yellow in my old garden right now. —Pam

  5. chuck b. says:

    Wow! That path between the two agaves sure looks enticing! Reminds me a bit of Lotusland, actually.

    Is there room in the Circle Garden for a painted wall..?

    That *is* Lotusland, Chuck. I’ve never forgotten your pics of it.

    And since you mention it, yes, there *is* room in the circle garden for a painted wall, but not masonry (too expensive). I’m toying with the idea of painted galvanized metal where the pool pump shed is. Too junkyard-chic? What do you think? —Pam

  6. Great job on the review; definitely a book for you. Those Agaves at Lotusland almost look fake! I pretty much like every image you showed. Now I have to think how they translate into my climate.

    The images I chose (and Scott gave me permission to use) were of plants that will grow well in Austin and/or designs that would look at home here. While the full-out desert aesthetic might look a little spare here, many elements work beautifully.

    In your temperate climate, Linda, I wonder how you could translate that look into something that would seem at home in your lush, green Wisconsin garden? I’m sure it could be done with modifications. I’m just not sure how it would look. That would be a great post idea, if it interests you. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. —Pam

  7. Loree says:

    Well guess I have another book to put on my Amazon wishlist. This looks fabulous! If things stay as they are (meaning we both keep our jobs) then our vacation this year will be to Cali to visit family and the Huntington Gardens and Lotusland…I can’t wait!

    Oh yeah, Loree, this book is right up your alley. Anyone with the blog title Danger Garden needs a book all about spiky, thorny gardens. And I am green with envy knowing you will see Lotusland this summer. Take lots of pictures! —Pam

  8. Very nice review of what looks like a great book, Pam! My last trip to Austin, 10ish years ago, gave me a sense that your open spaces feel like some of our dry chaparral, which isn’t crazy-lush, but is still pretty dense with plants. I can see this book giving you some good garden ideas. So many people think of dry gardens as empty and full of spiny things, but the photos show that you can watch your water use and still have a surprisingly lush and comfortable garden.

    You can also have a colorful one. Scott uses not only painted walls but seasonal wildflowers to amp up the color in his desert garden. —Pam

  9. Chookie says:

    Love the look of the book! I do wonder, though — can you actually USE a hot garden when it’s, well, hot? You can’t really sit in the shade of a cactus…

    Only in the early morning or evening, I would guess. But that’s when many people would be home from work anyway. Also, the desert cools off fast—faster than humid Austin, which remains hot and sticky during summer nights. —Pam

  10. Frances says:

    Hi Pam, there are many fabulous ideas here for any location, the walls, and geometry just jump off the photos. The colored wall is something that really struck me at Peckerwood, the first time I had ever seen such a thing. Are you planning on something like that possibly at your new baby garden?

    Perhaps, but I can’t afford masonry. I’m thinking about trying a painted metal “wall” as an experiment. —Pam

  11. I simply love desert plants, but admit that, before I visited Las Vegas some years ago, I too thought the desert would be bland and boring. I’ll check whether my library has this book!

    I hope you can locate a copy, Monica. It’s a visual treat. —Pam

  12. Gail says:

    Pam, It’s books like this that drive home how important it is to go with good universal design principles that make sense for the kind of garden we might have! That aside! I love this book and all the photos you’ve shown…The galvanized cistern is fantastic and very clever use of materials….ah, I am so drawn to galvanized steel! gail

    Me too, Gail, as you know. Have you added a stock tank to your garden yet? —Pam

  13. Becky Lane says:

    I adore colored walls! In fact, I’m halfway through painting a big cinderblock wall on our property a beautiful terracotta color. Unfortunately, I’ve been halfway through painting it for about a year now!

    Ooh, that sounds lovely. I hope you’ll let me know if you post pics of it when you’re done. —Pam

  14. Kerole says:

    Yep, you’re right. Mr Mangave has straightened right out.
    Your trial cleome is interesting. I grew pure white cleomes from seed this year – I hadn’t heard of them ’til recently. They have flowered relentlessly all summer and are still in full bloom (it’s Autumn here now). Each plant would be 3′ x 3′. They fill a space well and seem at ease next to roses, etc. Mine do have horrendous prickly stems and a funky smell in the late afternoon – but I will definitely be sowing more for next year. Are your trial cleomes this anti-social?
    Nice book review – love the entrance to Lotusland’s blue garden.

    Hi, Kerole. ‘Senorita Rosalita’ (from my Bloom Day post) seems to be a civilized cleome: no thorns and no funky smell. I’m glad you enjoyed the book review. —Pam

  15. […] gardening, and 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 […]

  16. […] designer Scott Calhoun (2007). Having enjoyed Yard Full of Sun, Designer Plant Combinations, and The Hot Garden, I thought I knew what to expect with Chasing Wildflowers. But this one’s different from […]