Yardsmart: Create a colorful dry garden

March 24, 2018 GMT

Big flower action may not appeal to nitzy perfect designers with their squares and straight lines and monocultures and perfectly raked gravel. These designs offer little in terms of color, life and animation. While modern architecture is coveted for magazine spreads, their landscapes are still devoid of the things that touch women on a primal level.

Southwestern painter Georgia O’Keeffe knew we need flowers for the sake of pure beauty. “When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else. Most people in the city rush around so, they have no time to look at a flower. I want them to see it whether they want to or not.” Sadly, the “nots” have dominated over the last decade when the feminine feel vanished, leaving a discordance in our gardens.


The masculine design styles today with stone, poured concrete and the emphasis on new and unusual plants has left the older proven species behind. This is driven by newly introduced varieties promoted though chain store marketing. Perhaps all of this makes gardening new, when it’s really our most ancient activity. We are met with a web of rules, environmental issues, science, advertising and conservation, rather than simplified gardening as the primal human act of creating beauty.

Before modern design took over, many women made flower gardens. Dating back to pioneers, it was the wives and mothers who grew flowers from mail order seed catalogs. She may have also transplanted amenable native perennials into her dooryard. It’s been like that ever since in every American town. Each shared its locally successful flowers in cultivation; the act passed down to daughters and granddaughters.

What we design today is not floral, nor is it traditional. If you doubt, just peruse gardening magazines. The more sophisticated contemporary gardens share an absence of big, bright flowers. It’s subliminal, since style makers decide how gardens should conform to the current trends, even though they may not understand you or your personal preferences at all. What’s concerning is that these designers are not necessarily trained in plants, but in spatial design, interiors and environmental mitigation. The result is an over-emphasis on hardscape leaving flowers, the most powerful tools for enhancing lives, low on the priority list.

Flowers embody the very essence of life as pure reproductive structures. This lends a hint of sexuality to flowers that so inspired O’Keeffe to paint them so close up. She understood these links of flowers to females, the age-old eye candy we all know and love.


I wrote the “Colorful Dry Garden: Over 100 Flowers and Vibrant Plants for Drought, Desert and Dry Times” ($22.95, Sasquatch Books) so everyone can enjoy flowers whether it rains or not. It’s a celebration of blossoms in the droughty arid garden. It’s my own designer’s palette of the plants I know, love and depend on over 40 years in horticulture. I demand the best and toughest bloomers for your garden so you don’t have to sift through unsuitable candidates to find big flower color.

This palette includes both desert species for hot inland zones and some old favorites that have always been used in dry gardens. Many of them are little known outside the desert, but growers are making them common everywhere now. This is the ultimate floral palette of western natives, Mediterraneans, South Africans and Mexican plants, all no-brainers in hot dry climates.

Let’s rediscover the cottage garden, flower border and island plantings sacrificed to drought. There’s a place for whimsy, lots of pink and fresh cut flowers. It’s all just the same gardening we did before except for the plants and irrigation change. Forget global issues and concentrate on what you can control like your own yard, your space, your life and your idea of beauty. Just beware of copying contemporary style mavens in love with minimalism, as it soon may become dated.

Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Learn more at www.MoPlants.com. Contact her at mogilmer@yahoo.com or P.O. Box 891, Morongo Valley, CA 92256.

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