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

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.

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.” 

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.