Plant Driven Design: Creating Garden That Honor Plants, Place, and Spirit

Early in the wet spring of 1997, I attended my first workshop with Lauren Springer, one entitled “The Beauty of the High and Dry.” Recently, I browsed through the handout for that class. My notes were strewn with underlines, stars, and exclamation points. How she combined plants, in such unexpected ways, captured my attention.

Lauren’s passion and daring inform both her gardens and her talks. Now with husband Scott Ogden, their familiarity with natural processes and relationships, coupled with a cosmopolitan plant palette, is conveyed through fresh interpretations and expressed in artistic, sustainable gardens in their new book, Plant Driven Design: Creating Gardens That Honor Plants, Place, and Spirit.

The subtitle expresses just what this book is about. It is a tribute to the power of plants in our lives. The authors remind us that,

The opportunity for a personal relationship with the natural world is essential to a garden, but may be lost simply by failing to include plants in a way that celebrates their inherent character and natural power. Gardens are certainly for people, but to actually be gardens, they must be created with plants first in mind.

This shift in values is highlighted in another statement: “This book approaches garden design from a perspective that places plants, nature, and horticulture on equal footing with art and architecture.”

With insights garnered from years of garden-making in Colorado and Texas, the Ogdens describe and share tips and techniques for cultivating this approach. The process has taught them that “careful plant selection and placement is their essential design consideration.”

They invite us to heed the call of the wild and visit natural places. Notice plants in situ—their textures, forms, fragrances, and colors. Plants tend to favor groupings or guilds that form patterns and display varying densities. Often these elements are repeated with an artful randomness, creating a rhythm while maintaining a sense of spontaneity. Take a look at the larger scene around you and at the variety of signature plants that express the spirit of the region’s identity. They suggest looking at the “natural geometries” of a site: its existing large trees, boulders, distant views, and grade changes. Explore a site from several perspectives—vignette to vista. Emulating the natural dynamics will bring an emotive and visual cohesiveness, reflected in a garden at ease with its surroundings.

Among the forty-four Features and Plant Lists that complement the lucid text, I was most intrigued by the lists of Companions to Bold Succulents and Fiber Plants; Shrubs for Chaparral Gardens; Plants with Flowers That Attract Butterflies and Humming-birds; and Bulbs, Grasses, and Sedges for the Steppe Garden. Under a section entitled First Steppe, they describe a “lawn” of cool- and warm-season, tuft-forming, fine-textured grasses—all under twelve inches high—that replaced a “thirsty sheet of Kentucky blue grass” at their northern Colorado home. The several photographs that accompany each list illustrate the innovative vitality of plant driven design. The lists give clues for gaining familiarity with the cultural needs of plants, a prerequisite for their successful use in gardens.

Our long-standing focus on flowers and colorful foliage may not be the best scheme around which to base the placement and composition of a garden. The authors point out that the “physical texture [of a plant] determines much of [its] visual power,” which can, in turn, be further illuminated by placement to catch the light during the day and through the seasons.

A garden or habitat rich in mutually beneficial species fosters a diversity that supports the vital ecological processes of nature—pollination among them. By offering a wide selection of flower sizes, shapes, and colors displayed over long seasons, we can attract a variety of pollinators. A plant driven garden design can easily provide a protective refuge, including shelter, feeders, and shallow bowls of water, where pollinators and smaller forms of local wildlife may prosper.

Plant Driven Design introduces us to exemplary models of emotionally resonant, cohesive, and water-wise gardens. As a former gardener in coastal Southern California, I know that, while the specific plants may vary, the principles presented in Plant Driven Design are just as relevant for gardeners throughout the West Coast. Lauren’s photography, alone, will inspire readers to a healthier and more stimulating approach to garden-making, where plants and nature take the lead.

Maggie Lee, garden designer
Santa Fe, New Mexico