Thursday, April 23, 2009

Plant-Driven Design: Creating Gardens that Honor Plants, Place and Spirit

Plant-Driven Design by Scott and Lauren Springer Ogden is a beautifully produced book about using plants in creative combinations, and in communities, to create gardens sublimely suited to their environments. The attention-grabbing name, the high production value with loads of photographs mostly by Lauren Springer Ogden, and the sophisticated “how to” approach, profuse with anecdotes and examples from the Ogden's own experience, may gain this book a significant readership.

The Ogdens wrote Plant-Driven Design to get your attention. The book clothes an old idea—plant the right plant in the right place—in western (that's the North American west) drag, and serves it up as a new way to make gardens. The Ogdens are opposed to all the commercial and cultural influences that keep people from actually coming into contact with their gardens and experiencing plants first hand—the design/build landscapers who install the hardscape and garden (mostly high-profit hardscape) as a package deal, the legitimate landscape architects who know garden planning as a profession but know little of plants, garden designers who design beautiful gardens but leave their clients ignorant owners of gardens they don't love and can't properly care for. They are, in fact, stating their opposition to all the forces that make people indifferent to plants and keep them from learning about plants, or even wanting to.

Fighting ignorance is a difficult thing when the ignorant don't know they are ignorant. Perhaps this is one reason the authors adopted such a self-consciously provocative title. They repeat “plant-driven design” like a mantra throughout the book; it has a false ring, but it's a memorable rallying cry, certainly, and it will be interesting to see if it works.

The Ogdens appear intent on creating a new American garden for the wide open, mostly treeless, big sky landscape of the American west. Plant-Driven Design is a polemic—one intended to demonstrate a superior approach to gardening far more suited to the American landscape than, say, a British-influenced approach. Its focus on plants and their creative use appropriate to specific regions and microclimates still hasn't penetrated to the general gardening population in the U.S., and perhaps the Ogden's book will help spread the word.

Oddly, the Ogdens take some unusual stands, and this seems to be a direct result of their “plant-driven design” message which, in brief, suggests that if you love and understand your plants’ needs and how they grow under natural conditions, your garden’s design will emerge from closely observing plants and matching them to their environment. They recommend against designing a garden, then selecting the plants to go into it – not a bad recommendation in itself – but they go further – in fact, too far. In some passages, they appear to attack the very concept of garden design. In the opening chapter “Putting Plants First—a different approach to designing gardens” they quickly move to a discussion of “how structure-driven gardens fall short,” in which they dismiss the work of Thomas Church and Roberto Burle Marx—Church because he subjugated plants to design and Burle Marx because he turned plants into abstract art. They never talk of gardens as art, or directly discuss design. Such a narrow view of gardening does them no credit, and it relegates some great garden designers to the compost heap.

This is also a book about love of plants, and it seeks to imbue some of that feeling for plants and the generous acts of gardening in the reader. The Ogden's write powerfully about the emotional connection between gardener and garden, and about the importance of plants to making this connection. This is the heart of their book. The Ogden’s approach represents a regional offshoot of the naturalistic gardening movement begun in the 19th century by William Robinson, his followers in the UK, and the German ecological planting movement. The Ogden’s even use photos of the garden at the Weihenstephaner Institute in Bavaria, where the great grand-daddies of ecologically appropriate gardening, Karl Hansen and Friedrich Stahl, did the years of research that resulted in the classic Perennials and their Garden Habitats, though they make no mention of this seminal book. They place value not on flowers or color, but on the whole organism—structure, shape, texture, appearance through all seasons, appropriateness to environment, importance of sense of place, and plant communities that naturally evolve over time, with minimal involvement from the gardener. Where they take the book in this direction, writing about the connection between plants and their natural habitats, between garden and gardener, it is at its best.

One word of warning. Readers on the east or northwest coasts of the U.S. and in other more temperate climates will be hard pressed to find practical examples for their gardens, though underlying concepts (dare I say 'design concepts'?) are the same. There are some references to gardens in more temperate climates, but the focus is clearly on drier habitats of the west. I recommend the book primarily for residents of arid areas of North America, and gardeners in areas with Mediterranean, steppe, and alpine habitats in other parts of the world. The Ogden's dry climate approach and popularization of a broad range of plants unknown to most North American gardeners points the way to a viable future for gardening in a large part of the continent where rapidly growing population, a changing climate, and increasing scarcity of water make the Ogden's kind of gardening—they live in Colorado in the summer and Texas in the winter—a model for the water-scarce future.

I often read gardening books from cover to cover, but I had a hard time with this one; it is simply too long and in need of more rigorous editing. The writing is uneven—smooth sailing at times, at times irritating, occasionally inspiring. Nevertheless, this is an important book that may have a significant role to play in American gardening. The Ogdens should be congratulated for writing a gardening book with serious intent—something much too rare in the American garden publishing world. I'll certainly keep it on my bookshelf; it's likely to become a well worn reference over the years.


  1. A very concise review of a book that also caught my eye. Unfortunately I didn't last to the end, and returned it, opting instead for my dog eared copy of Piet Oudolf's 'Designing with Plants.' We gardeners are a fincle bunch are we not?

  2. The Oudolf, particularly the Piet Oudolf-Noel Kingsbury, books are a real treasure. Those I can read almost like novels, from front to back without a stop, and they continue to offer more as you go back to them. Noel Kingsbury's academic influence is especially valuable and of interest to me personally.

  3. I'm very glad I read your review (and have now seen the lovely cover) of this book, even if I live in the wrong climate (Coastal Dorset in England) for the book.

    However . . . about loving plants . . . and designers . . . I have seen an awful lot of horrible gardens created by 'landscape designers' or 'landscape gardeners' (don't know why this name because the landscape seems to be irrelevent to them in the designs I've noticed. These gardens are easy-care and, as far as I can see, pretty pointless. Few of us are able to create truly wonderful gardens (as you have) but I would rather see a muddled little garden where the owner has randomly planted plants that they enjoy and care for than a garden that is nothing but mown grass, a few little bright green conifers and some rocks that someone else put there.

    And, the funny thing is, although the plants on the cover of the book may be apppropriate to the more arid areas of North America . . . that garden is, none the less, reminiscent of an English cottage garden in the way everything is packed together tightly and arranged colourfully along little paths.

    Sometimes, I reasd an obituary of someone I have never heard of, yet find it gripping. I don't suppose this book will even be on sale in the UK - but I have very much enjoyed reading your review of it.


  4. Lucy,
    I think you're right about similarities in appearance to the cottage garden, though I'm sure the Ogden's would say their plant list is much more closely attuned to the local climate and ecology than typical in the cottage garden. The really important thing is that they show a way for the millions in the dry west to have beautiful gardens, using appropriate plants, and respecting sense of place, without depleting their extremely limited water resources.

  5. James,
    I've notice the book on lists, but haven't yet handled it. The book's title is compelling to me, and your review has motivated me to at least give it a look.

    Here in San Diego, where much of the landscape has been suburbanized in only the last quarter century, there's been a lot of the high-profit/low-interest "landscaping" that you allude to. These gardens are full of inert plantings that function like botanical extensions of the hardscape. I think we can do better.

    Even if this is an imperfect book, it could still be a necessary one.

  6. James,
    The Ogden's book is probably very appropriate for your climate. I agree completely with their message of right plant, right place, but was annoyed by the highly critical dismissal of such great designers as Thomas Church and Roberto Burle Marx, and the rather sentimental view of plants. Overall, this is a good, serious book that is trying to change things for the good. I think you'll find it interesting and useful.

  7. James,
    Your review is wonderfully written, insightful and to the point.
    I had a copy of the Ogden's book, but it did not 'stay' with me. The Oudolf/Kingsbury books, I agree, have a more lasting effect, more potency, if you will.
    On another note, I read your comment on LostintheLandscape, and felt a kinship with your response & recognition of the Islamic garden connection. I consistently revel in the observations and aesthetic sensibility of Lostlandscape.
    And also greatly enjoy your blog.Have you decided against utilizing the google 'followers' gadget, (to follow in a google reader)?

  8. Alice Joyce,
    I really had a hard time with Plant-Driven Design. I'm very sympathetic with its message, but I found it a hard read, and it doesn't offer the kind of science-based knowledge you find in Noel Kingsbury's writing. I agree, it doesn't "stay" like Kingsbuy's books, which I go back to a lot.
    As do you, I like the lostinthelandscape sensibility a lot. I found it through a stray comment James left on one of my blog posts.
    I'm planning on getting Penelope Hobhouse's book on Islamic and pre-Islamic gardens. I listened to her Vista talk on podcast, and I'm fascinated with her fascination with the landscape of Iran.
    I don't use Google's followers gadget because I find I prefer Google reader. I have a hard time keeping up with the garden blog world.

  9. Thanks for a very thoughtful post, including some influential garden design movements and names from the past that I will now seek out. I truly hope this method of planting and gardening takes hold. After living so many years in the West and seeing so many lawns and gardens working so hard against the climate, it would be a joy to see people embrace everything about where they live, including native and other plants that want to grow there! I am loving the Kingsbury-Oudulf books (borrowed from Craig, and after 6 months, I really should return them).

  10. Lynn, I think the book has an important message, especially for gardeners in arid climates, and I hope it makes a difference. I have to say I enjoy reading Noel Kingsbury much more. His style is crystal clear, he's learned in his area of expertise, and he tells a good "story."

  11. Crikey I had to look thrice at the cover photo of the book as it could easily be my garden. I almost never buy garden related books but this might just be the next one!
    Thanks for that James.

    Wm Martin

  12. Or perhaps 'just might'!

  13. Having faced nothing but a sea of books on gardens that are wholly unsuited for the American West, it was a breath of fresh air to find this one. We need a different archetype for the West and the Ogdens are of the few trying to find it. That being said, my personal objection to their design philosophy is contradictory at times. And the book drags towards the end; can't blame you for struggling. Regardless, its value for gardeners like me in the Western U.S. cannot go underestimated.

  14. I think this is a very important book, particularly for gardeners in more arid climates than mine. The fact that I found parts of it disturbing or annoying actually makes it a richer reading experience for me. These are serious people, and they have strong views. It's good to have one's predispositions challenged.



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