Garden Designers Roundtable: Regional Diversity in Design

Gardening With a Sense of Place

Today I join 12 other garden designers across the U.S. in posting on the topic Regional Diversity in Design. The idea of creating gardens with a sense of place is dear to my heart. In A Garden That Says “Howdy” (May 2007), I wrote about falling in love with a more rugged and arid garden aesthetic after moving to central Texas from the Southeast. As I began making my own garden, I was inspired by the local landscape to imbue it with a sense of place.

That’s my former front-yard garden pictured at top. I took out the lawn and replaced it with a mix of native and well-adapted perennials, ornamental grasses, focal-point agaves, and small shrubs and trees. A limestone path invites visitors into the garden, while an open wood-and-wire fence provides an important sense of separation and privacy from the street without blocking views. My front yard went from being a cookie-cutter suburban lawn with sapling shade tree and foundation hedge from Anywhere, USA, to a colorful garden identifiable through plants, stone, and structure as belonging to central Texas.

Climate, geography, the natural lay of the land—if we garden with rather than against these forces, we gain so much: a connection with the natural beauty of our own region; diversity of flora (and fauna that depend on regional plant species); a garden that requires less work because it’s better adapted to local conditions; and less dependence on or, even better, a complete weaning from chemicals designed to sustain plants better suited to other regions.

Using native plants is one way to impart a sense of place to your garden. Natives can handle the vagaries of local weather and rainfall, and they offer an important source of food and shelter for certain species of wildlife. Aesthetically they marry your garden to the natural surroundings of your region.

But designing so that your garden looks like it belongs where you live doesn’t mean planting only native plants. For instance, evergreen azaleas and camellias are, to many, the essence of the South, even though they are well-adapted exotics from Asia. Likewise, in Austin we experiment with subtropicals from South Texas and central Mexico, and with succulents and cacti from the desert Southwest and northern Mexico. Many of these plants contribute to Austin’s unique look, and they add to the richness of our gardens.

Another way to give your garden a sense of place is in the hardscaping you use. In Austin natural limestone outcroppings show us that limestone paths and walls will generally work beautifully in our gardens. Granite is also readily available; hence decomposed-granite paths are a natural look for us too. Happily, local stone is generally less expensive and a “greener” option than stone trucked in from out-of-state.

Look too at the materials builders tend to work with. In Austin, in addition to traditional wood siding, you see a lot of limestone exteriors, cedar posts, and galvanized and corrugated metal, plus an industrial-Texas look characterized by COR-TEN steel and concrete. Using these materials in your garden can tie your landscape to your region’s design vernacular. Even the decor you choose can reflect the local scene, like this galvanized stock tank used as a planter.

Even within Texas, differing climates and local geography make each region quite distinct, from a gardening standpoint. Picture the pineywoods and azaleas of East Texas, the subtropical citrus groves of the Valley in South Texas, the high desert scrub and cacti of El Paso, and Austin’s own combination of rolling Blackland prairie and crumbly limestone hills. With deep clay soils on one side of town and thin caliche hills on the other, what fun Austin gardeners get to have as they mix it up!

How do you translate a regional look into a garden setting? First just pay attention to the landscape when you go for a walk in the woods or along a nature trail. In this wild Hill Country landscape, limestone outcroppings shelter toe-holds for xeric plants like sotols.

Brought into a wildscaped garden setting like this one at the Wildflower Center, the limestone outcroppings are translated into limestone terracing, and yuccas fill the gaps.

In a residential setting (my new back garden), this look is translated into limestone retaining walls and paths, with agave, roses, and yucca sharing space with perennials, grasses, and succulents. Does this look like central Texas to you? It sure does to me.

Every place offers its own unique look. And in a country increasingly populated by homogenized chain stores with nursery aisles offering the same plants everywhere, regional diversity is worth celebrating. Let’s truly bloom where we’re planted by making gardens with a strong sense of place—a sense of belonging to the wider landscape.

Special thanks to Scott Hokunson, who coordinated this post as part of an ongoing conversation about garden design at Garden Designers Roundtable. For more designers’ perspectives on regional diversity in design, visit the following blogs:

Jocelyn Chilvers (Wheat Ridge, CO)
The Art Garden

Susan Cohan/Susan Cohan Gardens (Chatham, NJ)
Miss Rumphius’ Rules

Michelle Derviss/Michelle Derviss Landscape Design (Novato, CA)
Garden Porn

Tara Dillard (Stone Mountain, GA)
Landscape Design Decorating Styling

Dan Eskelson/Clearwater Landscapes (Priest River, ID)
Clearwater Landscapes Garden Journal

Scott Hokunson/Blue Heron Landscape Design (Granby, CT)
Blue Heron Landscapes

Susan Morrison/Creative Exteriors Landscape Design (East Bay, CA)
Blue Planet Garden Blog

Laura Schaub/Schaub Designs (San Jose, CA)

Susan Schlenger/Susan Schlenger Landscape Design (Charlottesville, VA)
Landscape Design Advice

Genevieve Schmidt (Arcata, CA)
North Coast Gardening

Ivette Soler (Los Angeles, CA)
The Germinatrix

Rebecca Sweet/Harmony in the Garden (Los Altos, CA)
Gossip in the Garden

All material © 2006-2010 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

39 Responses

  1. Pam–How I envy–yes I have Zonal Envy Syndrome–your ability to use plants that I can only put in pots and hope nature doesn’t overwater them. Even in pots here, Agaves and other large scale succulents look like aliens from outer space. Regional diversity is indeed something to be celebrated and you did it up just right for yours! Thank you.

    Susan, I saw agaves at Chanticleer in Pennsylvania a year ago and marveled over their surprising setting; they are brought indoors for winter, I understand. Zone envy afflicts me too. I get a bad case of it every summer while you northern gardeners are enjoying mild gardening days and lush summer scenes. It’s good that we really love where we live, right? —Pam

  2. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    Gosh, this just makes me want to start ripping and tearing to do something different in my front garden. Maybe this is the spark needed to get me going there.

    Once that first rip happens, I’ll bet there’ll be no stopping you, Lisa. Whatever you do, I look forward to reading about it at Greenbow. —Pam

  3. Beautiful photos! I love the corrugated steel containers for your plantings, too. I hope you take your clients to your garden to inspire them! Just gorgeous!

    Thanks, Rebecca. I’m just crazy for stock tanks in the garden. I’m glad to know you’re a kindred spirit! —Pam

  4. Pam, I think your gardens celebrate all the best of the rustic beauty of central Texas.

    Thanks, Susan. —Pam

  5. Germi says:

    Hi 5 for regional diversity! Pam, your gardens have SUCH a wonderful sense of place, and you celebrate South Central Texas every time you point that magic camera at a garden/landscape/plant. I think yours is one of the most challenging climates – the intense summer heat combined with winter freezes makes you Austin gardeners a tough bunch – but by doing what you’ve described in the post (working with your zone), you create the most spectacular results! I am being very honest when I say that reading your blog often makes me want to move back to Texas!
    Fantastic post (but when are they not?)

    I’m blushing, Germi. Thanks, as always, for your generous encouragement. As we stare down an impending couple of days in the low 20s (what?!), I fear that my zone-pushing plants may be lost. But the natives and adapteds will see me through, and thank goodness for that. —Pam

  6. Seeing that picture of your old front garden surrounded by traditional lawns is an interesting juxtaposition, because your garden actually seems to be the greener and lusher landscape.

    Wonderful post on this topic – and lovely photos as always.

    Blank lawns seem so sterile to me when there are so many beautiful plants to choose from out there. I’m not anti-lawn by any means, but keeping it sized appropriately is the key. Thanks for suggesting my name to Scott for the bloglink. It’s been such fun to participate! —Pam

  7. Well, congrats on this event. Way cool. Yes, our landscape, weather, soil, etc. do make all the difference as I learned with my foray into agaves last summer. Our weird winter weather has taken a toll, and I may need to rethink my beautiful agave dreams. I have plenty to love in Oklahoma anyway. Good job.~~Dee

    Boo hoo! I so want your agave experimentation to work out for you, Dee. I am losing a few tender agaves in this surprisingly cold winter, so I feel your pain. I do still think you can indulge your new-found passion with the right species though. Try a Harvard agave next time—very cold hardy, just give it good drainage in a pot. And try a few yuccas. They tend to be much more hardy and can give you that spiky, architectural look. We can love our regional look while still doting on a few exotics; it’s allowed! ;-) —Pam

  8. Your 1st garden was/is great. And, your new garden is well on it’s way.
    This freezing weather we’ve had…with more and colder coming….has taken a big toll on my garden. It’s been two steps forward, one step back. But, what would gardening be, without challenges?
    Great post.

    Thanks, Linda. I sure did love that first garden. But I’m loving the challenges of starting a new garden too. —Pam

  9. Hey, look at all those agaves, yuccas…and isn’t that a dasylirion? They sure do shine in your photos, Pam. Very cool.

    Yep! The sotol pictured is Dasylirion texanum, and it’s a stunning plant. Thanks for stopping by, Debra. —Pam

  10. Dan Eskelson says:

    Great post, Pam.

    Though we are many zones apart, our approach is similar…working *with* nature instead of against her has always helped me proceed along the right path.

    Your photos are inspiring…thank you!


    Thanks so much, Dan. I enjoyed learning about garden design in Idaho too. One day I will get up there to see your beautiful state. A local friend of mine visits often and sings its praises. —Pam

  11. Scott Hokunson says:

    Pam, Beautiful! First let me echo Susan C’s comments. I am fully envious of your ability to use Agave and grasses together. What a wonderful textural combination for the senses. Great points on regional design, we should make ‘garden with rather than against” a mantra for all design. Great Job! Scott

    Thanks for inviting me to play along on this blogfest, Scott. I’ve learned so much from everyone’s posts. —Pam

  12. Brenda Kula says:

    Pam, thanks for this. I live in East Texas, and I’ve learned the hard way to apply your rules of blooming where you’re planted!

    Hi, Brenda. I haven’t heard from you in a while, and your new blog looks great. Thanks for commenting. —Pam

  13. Great post, Pam! As a Texan by birth (if not by residence) your pictures resonate with me. I particularly love the way you use stock tanks to bring water into the garden (will never forget your cool photo of bees drinking from it) Thanks for sharing!

    Once a Texan, always a Texan, Laura! I’m a late-comer to Austin myself but do really love it here. Thanks for commenting. —Pam

  14. Great post Pam! You’ve got me wondering about my garden now. I’ve never really thought about whether or not I fulfill my regional sense of place, I am afraid I don’t. But do I care? I’m not sure. Something to think on!

    Loree, the great thing about creating a garden is that everyone gets to pursue their own vision. I do tend to think of you as a misplaced Arizonan or, more likely, Southern Californian, but I bet you have hints of a local aesthetic in your materials and plant choices. And after all, Portland is one of those inventive, hip cities, and you have that style in spades. —Pam

  15. nancy says:

    I don’t think it can be stressed enough how much easier it is to garden with natives and well adapted plants. Rather than fight,pamper and despair over trying to grow things in our challenging conditions, it is so much easier and rewarding to grow things that are suited to our region. Does that mean I won’t try something exotic, no… but I won’t plan my entire landscape around it.When people see even my small garden they exclaim it must be so much work.. No, mostly just cutting back in late winter and spreading mulch a couple times a year is about it.

    You’ve reached an enviable, low-maintenance stage in your garden, Nancy, which comes from smart plant choices and a garden reaching a certain age (I’m guessing?). Thanks so much for your comment. —Pam

  16. Wow, Pam, a masterclass in design condensed into one post. Brilliant! I’m glad that you, too, think “only natives” is not the way to go…

    High praise coming from you, Jocelyn. I really enjoyed your post as well—and the picture of your beautiful garden. —Pam

  17. Susan says:

    Very enjoyable post. I don’t know how long you’ve been in Texas, but it seems like you really have captured its sense of place. Your garden looks like it belongs! Love your advice about noticing what’s around you to keep with a region’s personality.

    Thanks, Susan. I’ve been in Austin for almost 16 years. I get so much pleasure out of exploring the regional differences among gardens, as was brought home to me at Spring Fling Chicago last year. It can bring on zone envy though! —Pam

  18. Hello Pam,

    Your designs are beautiful and well thought out. Like you, I like to use plants that are adapted to our climate and borrow from other similar climates such as Australia, South America, Central America and for America’s deserts. Great post!

    Thanks, Noelle. Australian plants are my new fascination. Many of them work so well with our own dryland natives. —Pam

  19. Helen says:

    I enjoyed this post as I believe in gardening with a sense of place here in the UK. If you work with the environment and surrounding landscape the garden will look like it belongs

    And you have such a beautiful region and strong gardening tradition to draw on in the UK, Helen. Lucky, lucky you! Thanks for your comment. —Pam

  20. Debbie says:


    Thanks so much for sharing your lovely photos. As someone not familiar with Texas gardens, I must admit you’ve opened my eyes to the depth, and beauty, of your native plants.

    It was my pleasure, Debbie. I must point out that not all of the plants in these images are native to central Texas, but many are. I like to pair natives with tough, drought-tolerant adapted plants for a more interesting mix. —Pam

  21. Michelle D. says:

    As usual brilliant photography and stylish writing.
    I’m honored to be in the company of you and the other designers who participated in this blog a rama.

    I’ve never been to Texas ( It has always frightened me as being a Republican stronghold with a stringent conservative flavor ) but your essay has me thinking that it is a place I should explore, at least for the gardens, and Austin seems like the best place to start.

    Thanks for the change in perspective.

    Thanks for your kind words, Michelle. You know what they say about making assumptions though! ;-) Austin’s a wonderful gardening city with a lot of innovative, creative design talent, not to mention a rugged natural beauty and friendly vibe. I think you’d like it here. —Pam

  22. Having an indigenous stone is such a great thing. I envy that in your garden. There just isn’t much stone in the Midwestern prairie. I’m laughing at Michelle’s comment about being afraid of Texas because of the conservatives. I thought the same thing until I went to Austin, the tiny dot of liberal in a sea of conservatism.

    And see? We weren’t scary at all, were we? No matter their politics, I find Texans to be very friendly and welcoming. If only we could ditch the cowboy stereotype. Though I find cowboys to be kind of sexy actually. ;-) —Pam

  23. Frances says:

    How wonderful Pam! Your garden has always seemed so well planned for your region, it has come to define Austin for me. This is a great resource. I will check out the others to see what is our there, especially Tara Dillard which might be the closest to where I live.

    Frances, I think you’ll find much to enjoy and learn from Tara’s blog. I spent Xmas break reading it from start to finish. She is pithy and in love with gardening, and I like her perspective on the “vanishing threshold.” —Pam

  24. Tara Dillard says:

    This post is better than reading a garden magazine. Photography is outstanding & the content even better.

    A class on design for creating unique spaces with regional plants. Your combinations of foliage with color/texture are amazing. Painterly.

    Many homeowner associations that require grass in the front yard should see what you have done.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

    Wow, thanks so much, Tara. It’s wonderful to have “met” you via the bloglink. I hope we all get to do it again sometime. —Pam

  25. Hi Pam,
    I’ve always admired your work and it was great to see you be a part of this landscape design caravan.

    Shirley Bovshow
    Garden World Report

    The feeling is mutual, Shirley. Thanks for stopping by. —Pam

  26. Jean says:

    Very well written post Pam. This topic is also dear to my heart and I agree wholeheartedly that one of the best things you can do is trek through nature to see how she does it and get ideas for your own garden. (I remember hiking in Big Bend and seeing a hillside covered in Mexican Feather Grass – wow, it was something!) I like one of those photos of your old garden where you can see the bland lawns of your neighbors’ in the background. :-)

    Thanks, Jean. I remember your photos of Big Bend and the feathergrass. Inspirational images! —Pam

  27. Jenny says:

    This post is a real winner, Pam. I have a little bit of a guilty conscience about not growing only natives. Mrs Johnson was always adamant about areas of our country maintaining their regional identity. I may learn a hard lesson this week as I am unable to protect plants in my garden, which will surely die with the freezing temperatures expected this week.
    It will be a time to re think my garden.

    There has been a lot of scrambling for plant covers and heat lamps this week, Jenny. We’re all holding our breath that our tender plants will somehow pull through the expected low temps. From what I remember of your garden, though, you’ll have as good a spring show as ever thanks to all those native wildflowers you use. —Pam

  28. Pam, okay I’ll admit I’m biased, but your blogpost today had the best photos by far! Thanks for alerting us to this event today; I’ve enjoyed reading all of them. And as always, yours has inspired me with even more ideas. Thanks for all the good work over the past – is it almost two? – years.

    Thanks for your admittedly biased kind words, Robin. :-) I’m so glad you enjoyed it. Actually, I’m coming up on my 4th blogiversary next month. —Pam

  29. Genevieve says:

    I just love your photos and great advice, Pam. The time for a regional sensibility has come and I loved the “before and after” photos of nature and how it’s translated into a home garden. I think gardens are by nature a more orderly place, but nature offers wonderful inspiration for what works and what just seems to “fit” a place. Very nice post.

    Thank you, Genevieve! I really loved your post on this subject too, and it’s been great to “meet” you via this bloglink. —Pam

  30. Chookie says:

    What a fantastic idea for a blog carnival! All your reasons for gardening with a sense of place are as applicable here, though our local geology and flora are completely different.

    I’m glad you agree, Chookie. But you know, certain Australian plants are becoming quite popular in Austin because of their tolerance for drought and heat, which we have plenty of. —Pam

  31. Dawn says:

    You’ve shared such beautiful photos and written so well once again, Pam. I always enjoy visiting your blog and this time was a double treat as we got a chance to see your other garden once again. And yes, I share everyone’s concern about the weather today and wonder what will live and what will die. Thinking warm thoughts for all of us in the Hill Country and throughout Austin this week.
    Happy New Year! :-)

    It’s getting mighty chilly here, Dawn. I’m crossing my fingers for my ‘Macho Mocha’ mangave, squid agaves, aloes, and newly planted Barbardo cherries. But I think most plants will be fine. They’re Texas tough. Thanks for your kind words about the post, and stay warm! —Pam

  32. What a great article! You captured the layers of our Hill Country feel from the stone to the textures. Beautiful photos, as always.

    Wore my down jacket tonight for the first time in years. Will be something to see how the landscape responds to the cold.

    Yes, it will. Thanks for dropping by, Kathleen. —Pam

  33. Town Mouse says:

    What a fun post! Ever think I’ve started reading your blog, stock tanks say central texas to me ;->

    I’m addicted to them, TM. But I do think they work in other regions too. ;-) —Pam

  34. Susie says:

    Great photos, your garden is exactly what I think of when I think of Texas!

    I’m flattered, Susie. And I’m glad you don’t think of tumbleweeds and tall cacti, as so many people do! —Pam

  35. TexasDeb says:

    Well if anybody was going to represent our zone to the blogosphere – I am certainly glad it was you, Pam! Great tutorial, already has me thinking about “next steps” in our de-grassed front areas. I am now looking forward to turning away from my windows (is it true a watched plant will never freeze?) and towards my monitor to take a garden tour of the other zones in your links. Great idea and thanks so much for sharing your cumulative wisdom!

    Thanks so much for the kind words, TexasDeb. I’m glad you enjoyed my Texas celebration. —Pam

  36. Gail says:

    Pam, This was a great read…all of the blogs included! Thanks for continuing to inspire! gail

    Thanks, Gail! —Pam

  37. What a thoughtful post, Pam – four years of your shared photos and ideas have shown both your Austin readers and your faraway fans how vibrant a regional Austin garden can be. Your old front garden was a very cool place, and it’s been fun watching you add your signature touches, especially the raised beds and stone edging, native trees, tough Texas plants and stock tanks that make the new place look right for you and your family.

    I walk a different path, but admire and respect yours.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    And I yours, Annie. While writing this post, with my bias toward more xeric, Hill Country plants, I felt that equal time should be given to the Old South look that many pull off here in Austin. You’d be a good person to write that post. —Pam

  38. David says:

    Very impressive…your own garden and the other examples, too. Nice to see the use of native plants is not minimized, as is the *bad* habit of too many here, and that you include other adapted plants where natives do not fill a particular role. And that you experiment within reason, while creating a sense-of-place using plants and hardscape.

    Thanks, David. I like gardening to be easy, so I do like to plant my garden primarily with tough native and adapted plants. The, for the icing on the cake, I love to experiment with less hardy plants that still fit in with the mix. —Pam

  39. Tom Coats says:

    Greetings from San Antonio,

    As a 2 year Texan from Virginia, I remain in a state of shock when it comes to gardening in San Antonio. I am more confused as NONE of my inquiries to local garden designers have been answered! Are you familiar with any garden designers/installers in San Antonio, that MIGHT actually respond to an email, or request for assistance?

    Thank you,

    Tom Coats
    San Antonio, TX

    Hi, Tom. I wish I did know of a good contact for you in San Antonio, but I’m afraid I don’t. I suggest you try your favorite independent nursery for a recommendation, letting them know what you need. If you have a small job or just want a design plan drawn up but want to do the work yourself, let them know in advance so you can find someone who specializes in that. The folks at Antique Rose Emporium in north San Antonio might be a good resource to check with. Ask for Cindy, who blogs for the Emporium at A Daily View, and tell her I sent you. Good luck! —Pam