Everybody's a Critic

“Plant Driven Design” Sides with Real Gardeners

Below is my first Kirkus review, and click here to see Amy's Q&A with Andrea Wulf, author of The Founding Gardeners.

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At last, two garden writers who give voice to what real gardeners everywhere have been saying for  years. And it’s no surprise that the voice-givers are Scott and Lauren Ogden because they’re real gardeners, on top of being horticulturists, gardener designers and scholars of geology and paleontology.

So their Plant Driven Design isn’t another iteration of the Six Steps to Designing Your Garden. It’s not a design book at all. It’s writing with opinions, and as a reader who’s dog-tired of conventional gardening books—both the how-to and the coffee book variety—what a relief!

Ready for some ranting?

Design approaches they don’t like Plant-Driven-Design
The “outward-directed, shallow, overdesigned spaces” they see “idolized in the popular horticultural press.”  Also, high-concept or strictly formal designs, and landscape architects as a group, those “well-dressed professionals” who put buildings first and plants last. And, of course, the authors bash TV make-overs with their quick-fix designs created by “pillow pickers.” Love that term! And they’re no fans of the humongous outdoor kitchens and spas so popular in the garden-design press.

Instead, the Ogdens like gardens that arise from a passion for plants and gardening as a way to reconnect with the natural world.

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Plant approaches they don’t like
The approach taken by collectors who, with “horticultural zealotry” and the “absence of common-sense design” create an “assemblage of curios.” Ouch! But coming in for even more bashing are native-plant purists, and their claims that native plants grow better than nonnatives, to which the Ogdens reply simply (and accurately) that “Nature is rarely so simple.” “Native plants cannot be declared inherently better, either practically or aesthetically.”

We’re seeing more pushback against the native plants-only approach these days from various quarters  (especially horticulture professors), and most gardeners agree with the Ogdens that plant purists  can be off-putting with their piety and self-righteousness (like purists of any kind, I suppose).  But these author-scholars enrich the conversation by invoking pre-history—before the last Ice Age and going forward—to put plant evolution into perspective for us, making a compelling case for the inclusive approach to plants that’s used by the vast majority of gardeners.     

Not shying away from the hottest topic of all—invasive plants—the authors note that invasiveness is highly local, and anyway, “Any plant, even an invading one, ought not to be damned simply because of its origins.” In highly disturbed sites, it’s these weeds that act fast to cover soil “thereby initiating the process of biological recovery.” 

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After the ranting

Plant Driven Design won a prestigious horticulture society award and has ruffled a lot of feathers. Most of its photos and the plants presented are Colorado-centric so are less useful to gardeners in other regions.  But new and experienced gardeners will still be inspired by the Ogdens to garden without wasting water—something they’re experts in, with gardens of their own in Colorado and Texas and clients mainly in the West.  And Lauren’s wonderful photos will inspire, turning readers on to new plants and new visions of how their “yards” can look better and create closer connections to nature, too—right outside their door.

Photos by Lauren Springer Ogden.

Posted by on March 31, 2011 at 5:00 am, in the category Everybody's a Critic.
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28 Responses to ““Plant Driven Design” Sides with Real Gardeners”

  1. Tim Wood says:

    A very refreshing post to those of us that appreciate the wonders of plants, and how they can enrich our lives. I am not a gardener, or a landscaper but a person that is in awe of the diversity plants and how they can transform yards and lives. Plant what you love and you will love what you plant, that’s what I say.

  2. sarah says:

    Rick Darke has beautiful “plant driven” designs for the east and mid atlantic.

  3. Susan says:

    another book for my wish list- as a Colorado person, Lauren’s books have been super helpful for me. I’m interested to see that middle ground between “landscape” and “plant museum.”

  4. The Ogden’s case against the use of native plants and for the use of invasives would be more compelling if there were any rational basis for it. There isn’t, and as a consequence the Ogdens come across in the book as petty and self-absorbed.

    Whatever you might think of native plant “purists” (who are they, anyway?), the I’d say the Ogdens win the prize for being “off-putting with their piety and self-righteousness.”

  5. I must say, the pictures which are included in this article are very beautiful, and evoke a strong sense of the natural. This is different than many gardens that you see, but I wouldn’t say that makes them better. Each has it’s place in this world, and variety is the spice of life. If all gardens looked like this, no one would think this is special!

    Stan Horst
    Publisher: http://www.betterbenches.com

  6. LindaKGA says:

    I have to say I agree with Stan. I also love the pictures, but in my old in-town eastern side of the country lot (a whopping 50 X 100 feet, with a house in the middle of it and a sidewalk in front), the natural depicted here would be a bit overwhelming I think. Especially if I wanted to be able to use any of the yard. However, I do appreciate their approach and their willingness to consider natives and non-natives and not make me feel guilty if I have “invasives” that weren’t when I planted them still in my yard. Thanks for the review!

  7. SJ says:

    There are two parts to the book. The part I love which is the photos and plant combinations. The gardens are very beautiful and artistic. Now for the part I don’t. They are supposed to be landscape design rock stars. So where is all the other work? It’s primarily of all three of her previous/current homes and his house in Texas and a couple of Botanic Garden jobs. If fact all the books they’ve written are about their personal gardens. I’d like to see other professional work they’ve done outside of their personal comfort zone of the home garden. Maybe if they had some other work profiled I wouldn’t mind their condescending, self-righteous attitude so much. It would have proved their point much more effectively. The book should of been wonderful but it fell short with a bad attitude.

  8. The contraversory about Plant Driven Design that I’m hearing has to do with the question: “Are you a plants person who appreciates good design, or an exterior designer who consider plants props to use in outdoor space?”
    I’ll admit to being the plants person, and must say I do feel a bit snobbish towards exterior designers.

  9. SJ says:

    I was going to add a much better book is Front Yard Gardens by Liz Primeau. She has all kinds of gardens profiled – some of her own and many others throughout Canada and the US that are anything remotely like the usual suburban lawn. She makes her case but in a more gentle and encouraging way.

  10. Tara Dillard says:

    Have gardened this way for decades. It’s historic, matriarchal & a template for the best pollinator habitats.

    Thought it was my job. Next.

    When will expert garden/landscape speakers be expert at putting in gardens/landscapes too? As expectation not exception.

    Is it up to the audience to know to ask for someone expert in plants/design/installation?

    Dirr & Armitage don’t meet this criteria. Though lecturing, as hired to lecture, their audience is no closer to creating a fabulous landscape than before.

    Lecturing about plants-only enables an audience in their meth habit, aka loving plants.

    Been there, done that. Both as member of audience & at the lectern.

    Now, at least a decade, I refuse to talk “only” about perennials, or roses, or conifers & etc. Instead, I talk about them in context of their entire landscape.

    Which of course is BETTER meth !! My audience will buy the ‘peony’ and the evergreen hedge that should be its backdrop & the focal point to make it pretty all year & know where all of the above is sited on axis from THEIR interior home views.

    And the order to install all of the above. It may be a peony lecture but it’s not the peony that’s planted 1st. Buy/plant the hedge first.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  11. I’m seeing a few ruffled feathers here (not to mention some name calling). That is a shame. Lauren Ogden is a genius; her gardens attain a level of beauty achieved by few and are absolutely common sense in relation to the climate where they exist. Her books are not about “how to” as she’s not a landscaper, she’s a botanist and an educator. We are very lucky to have her inspiration and vision.

  12. SJ says:

    Tara,

    Thank you for saying it. Gardeners who talk the talk and walk the walk. That’s what I want to hear. It doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the former. And I do appreciate as a professional the artistry that went into making the Ogden’s gardens. However, I think the best speaker and author I have ever encountered who bridges this divide is Janet Macunovich. She’s published, she does speaking engagements and educational seminars and she installs and maintains the gardens and has done so for about 30 years. She practical and she’s artistic. I wish we saw more like her.

  13. Hands down best book on plants and gardening I have ever read. It helps that I fall within the region they specialize in, the true West, but their principles can be applied anywhere and there are photo examples of that in the book. And to those too quick to criticize the book here, go read it first!

  14. nice review – makes me want to buy the book

  15. Aggie says:

    Hmm. . . I don’t know. Purists are annoying, I agree, but as I walk through my local woods on a hike and bike trail, I don’t enjoy seeing English ivy choking trees and sweeping across the forest floor, or porcelain berry vine, which rises up like some kind of monster, wrapping itself around shrubs and strangling the life out of them.

    Why so much “pushback” against the native plants folks? I don’t know anyone personally who advocates only natives plants in the garden, just that we make an effort to include them in our yards to help replace habitat for birds, animals and bugs whose homes we have erased.

    We have to recognize that we humans are part of a larger ecosystem, and that gardening is a wonderful hobby but we also have a responsibility to the creatures who were here before us to help sustain them.

    If we all planted Nandinas and Okame cherries (both beautiful) instead of spicebushes and sassafrass, what would happen to the spicebush swallowtail?

  16. Michelle D says:

    I’ve flipped through this book on several occasions. I found it underwhelming and somewhat myopic in its points of perspective.
    Kind of a yawner.

  17. Laura Thomas says:

    A great review and Ogden’s emphasis on plant driven design is refreshing to read especially when the way of the garden seems at times to be replaced with uninspiring ‘outdoor living space’. Her emphasis on plant driven design brings me back to my infactuation with Piet Oudolf. Although I may not agree with all her points, particularly regarding invasive plants I do applaud her for initiating the conversation and for gardeners to question why and what they plant.

  18. Jeff Ball says:

    I backed off looking into the “serious” native plant groups when after reading Doug Tallamey’s Bringing Nature Home I discovered that very few nurseries carry any kind of extensive slection of native trees and shrubs. Most of the native plant nurseries in Michigan deal in wild flowers and water plants. I’m interested in the total ecosystem we call a yard and trees and shrubs are critical. So I look for the best plant that is available and it usually is not native.

  19. UrsulaV says:

    As I am currently in the middle of my annual grim battle against Japanese honeysuckle, autumn olive, wisteria and Himalayan blackberry, you’ll forgive me if I’m not terribly sanguine about the so-called “process of biological recovery.”

    Funny, but I have yet to meet anybody pooh-poohing the invasives who has actually had to fight pitched battles with them.

  20. Genevieve says:

    I’m with Aggie. The only shrill voices I’ve been hearing on the native debate have been on the side of folks who for some reason object to those people who do enjoy incorporating natives or who make a case for their importance.

    I have not personally met a single native plant enthusiast who believes that no gardener should plant a non-native plant. Yet a lot of ornamental gardeners seem to feel that anyone who discusses the wildlife value of natives is being militant in some way. I don’t get it.

    I enjoyed this book’s enthusiasm for gardeners and gardening, and loved the in-depth plant lists for unusual circumstances. I’m not sure that their comments about natives and invasives were exactly as portrayed in this post – the context and conclusions seem different than what I gathered in my reading.

    I wonder if the Ogdens really want to be portrayed as anti-native and pro-invasive? Is this really the most interesting part of their book? I certainly didn’t feel so.

  21. Tami says:

    Has it really ‘ruffled a lot of feathers?’ Yours is the only review I’ve seen that says that . . . and the book’s been out for years. Maybe you should fill us in on who is saying what about it instead of setting up this ‘Mr. Nobody with ruffled feathers.’

    Perhaps the perceived ruffliness comes from the book’s distinctly negative tone which seems to dip into personal attack from time to time (yes, I own it and have read it cover-to-cover). It’s surprising to me since I’ve been reading and enjoying Lauren Ogden’s writing for years and consider myself a hardcore fan.

    But maybe for me, aside from its tone, is that I just don’t really get what it is they’re trying to say. In other words, they don’t set out a clear cut definition of what ‘plant-driven design’ is and how it’s different from anything which came before. Several other comments here indicate that I’m not alone in this opinion. So while I think it’s nice that you are promoting the book (is it because a new edition coming out or something?) and that you find it impressive that it’s won an award, its reach may be limited by its muddied message.

  22. susan harris says:

    Tami, I’m not surprised that reviews that came out when the book was first published didn’t mention ruffling feathers. Fortunately, Kirkus doesn’t require us to review only new publications, and we can comment on reactions to books that have been out a while. It was the Ogdens themselves who tipped me off to all the feathers being ruffled – I met them recently in Baltimore.
    More evidence of the book pissing people off can be found in some of the earlier comments here.

    And Gen, the Ogdens are neither “anti-native” nor “pro-invasive” and the quotes I cited don’t, I think, indicate that they are. And if you’ve never met a native-plant purist, I sure have and so have the Ogdens and other speakers who recommend nonnative, well-adapted plants. A few of them attack speakers publicly when we recommend a nonnative plant for any purpose – even on green roofs! It gets ridiculous but it’s kinda chilling.

  23. Dean says:

    I once heard Lauren Springer Odgen speak at the North Hill Symposium, in Vermont. At one point, she showed an image of a suburban yard she (obviously) didn’t like, and shouted, “Yuck! Gross! Bad! Hate it!” All I could think was, Boy, I sure hope that gardener isn’t in the room! The garden was unsophisticated in every way, but it was fastidiously tended and obviously well-loved — edged and trimmed to a fare-thee-well. I found myself liking it, if for no other reason than to silently stand up for the poor, anonymous soul who was taking such a beating from a professional.

  24. So, it is somehow okay to hate on all “native purists” because some of them have behaved badly? Is that really where we are?

    It would seem to me the objection should be to the bad behavior of the individuals rather than a generic derision of an entire approach to gardening.

  25. Pat says:

    I bought the book because I loved the pictures. That was enough for me. I started reading it, but I’m never pleased to be exposed to anyone’s narcissism, in a blog or a book.

    I admire their skill and talent, but I’m interested in science, not superstars.

    I also think that maybe it is their dry climate which has saved them from some of the worst invasives. The Lovecraftian nightmare that is Oriental Bittersweet may be here to stay, the birds may love it, but it is heartbreaking to see it everywhere you go.

  26. Ian Barclay says:

    I want to like this book, but no one has given me a free copy of it yet so I can read it. My impression from skimming through it briefly is that the authors’ idea of Plant Driven Design is quite different from what I would call Plant Driven Design. For West Coast dryland gardening it’s hard for me to imagine a better book than Olivier Filippi’s _The Dry Gardening Handbook_, despite the plant selection being skewed towards Mediterranean-region natives.

  27. commonweeder says:

    Being a native purist, or any kind of purist, is too stress inducing for me, but I do love native plants – and Rick Darke because I live in Massachusetts.

  28. David C. says:

    I found my read of the Springer-Ogden book good (had it for over 2 years), but too bent on the dated cottage-garden and naturalistic thing, and such, but that is their style. As it often is with all the desert-phobes in Abq, who follow the native phobes dominating horticulture to my north in Santa Fe, Denver, etc. Instead of looking to Abq and like places for inspiration…that is weak.

    Oh well, normal and record weather, as well as alternative media / blogging, will gradually show something far better…

    As to the native plant basher/dismisser (I know many), the native plant only purist (I have *not* met one), and the balanced native plant user, I did not gather Springer/Ogden were discussing that topic much. But it deserves coverage.

    BTW, I like a past balanced and thorough coverage of native plants by a great blog from the DC area, “Grounded Design”.

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