Monday, April 17, 2017

Book review: Pretty Tough Plants

Even in an average year with regular winter rainfall, our Mediterranean climate has five or six months with no precipitation. Our summers are long, hot, and dry. Even with irrigation it can be difficult to keep your garden look attractive in the dog days of summer. What it takes are plants that thrive under these conditions.

There are plenty of resources out there that help you find these kinds of plants, but the information is scattered all over the place.  That's why I was  excited when Timber Press sent me this book to review:


Pretty Tough Plants: 135 Resilient, Water-Smart Choices for a Beautiful Garden sounds like the perfect kind of book for our climate--heck, for any climate where water is scarce and environmental conditions can be daunting.



What's special about this book is that it was created not by a single author, but by a non-profit organization: Plant Select:
Plant Select® is a nonprofit collaboration of Colorado State University, Denver Botanic Gardens and professional horticulturists. Our mission is to seek out and distribute the very best plants for landscapes and gardens from the intermountain region to the high plains and beyond. (Source: Plant Select web site)
This 4-minute YouTube video gives an excellent introduction who Plant Select is what they do.

Plant Select introduced its first five plants in 1997. Since then, they have released 152 plants under their label. This includes "recommended" plants (plants already availabe in the nursery trade but underpromoted or underused) and their own introductions (often patented or carrying a trademarked name).

Pretty Tough Plants features all 152 plants, broken down into eight categories: "Tender Perennials and Annuals," "Petites," "Groundcovers," "Perennials," "Ornamental Grasses," "Vines," "Shrubs," and "Trees and Conifers."

Each plant has its own page (sometimes two), complete with stats like size, flower color and bloom season, preferred position (sun/shade), water requirements, and the kinds of pollinators it attracts. Subsections on "Culture," "Landscape Use," and "Native Range and Origins" provide a concise description of the plant. One or several beautifully reproduced photos show the plant at its best.

A handy "Plant Reference Guide" following the main section summarizes the main stats for all plants. This makes it easy to compare plants and pick out the ones that might work best in your garden.

While Plant Select is a Colorado-based organization and focuses on plants for the Rocky Mountain Region, the High Plains, and the Intermountain West--areas characterized by cold winters, hot summers, and scarce rainfall (often under 10 inches)--many of Plant Select selections are equally well suited for inland California, including the Sacramento Valley where I live. In fact, I already grow quite a few of the plants described in the book, such as Agastache aurantiaca, Berlandiera lyrata, Bouteloua gracilis, Echium amoenum, Gazania sp., Hesperaloe parviflora, Osteospermum sp., Penstemon pseudospectabilis, Salvia greggii, and Zinnia grandiflora.

However, others were totally new to me and I would love to give them a try. Here are three examples:

Clematis integrifolia 'PSHarlan':



Diascia integerrima 'P009S':



Penstemon 'Coral Baby':



The biggest problem for us gardeners outside of Plant Select's target region is plant availability. Plant Select does work with licensed wholesale growers all over the country (and British Columbia), but I can't simply walk into my local nursery and expect to find a full complement of Plant Select introductions. Fortunately, a number of online retailers carry parts of the Plant Select line, including two I've personally bought from in the past: Bluestone Perennials and High Country Gardens.

While gardeners in Colorado may be quite familiar with the Plant Select brand, it's not a household name in California and the Pacific Northwest. My hope is that Pretty Tough Plants will change that--and that local availability of the Plant Select line will improve along with it.

Note: Timber Press provided me with a complimentary review copy of this book.

21 comments:

  1. This looks like a good book for the PNW too, with our 2 1/2 to 3 months of dry summer. I'm always looking for great drought-tolerant plants. I've bought from both Bluestone and High Country too, both good experiences, although of necessity plants shipped from online are always pretty small.

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    1. I think many, if not most, of the plants featured in the book would grow well in your neck of the woods. After all, the PNW is the northwestern extension of the Southwest!

      I know what you mean about mailorder plants. But it seems like they catch up quickly to locally bought plants.

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  2. I love the Plant Select program and people! They're featured on plant lust too:
    http://plantlust.com/search/#/nurseries=Plant%20Select%26%23174%3B

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    1. Do you see the Plant Select label much in Portland area nurseries?

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  3. What a useful book. Way back in the '80s Western Hills Nursery in Occidental was bringing in many of these plants, including that diascia, in fact every diascia they could get their hands on. I trialed a lot of them back then but haven't grown them much lately. Lauren Springer Ogden popularized a lot of these plants too. And of course Annie's carries some of these, so she's always a potential source on our coast.

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    1. I've never had a diascia. Now I want some, of course.

      As for Annie's, I'm overdue for a spring run. Maybe on Saturday, on my way home from the Garden Conservancy's East Bay Open Day.

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  4. Warmer winter places may not get to enjoy some of those plants. I got some of that Delosperma 'Fire Spinner' on the back of the book. It had a flower or two when I bought it. It spread wonderfully and looked great, but it never put out another flower. I did some online research and read that it needs a cold winter to bloom. I'm in Los Angeles, so I guess I will have to be content with a really nice plain green carpet (it is lovely, thick and low-growing).

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    1. Rachel, that's very interesting to know about Delosperma. I guess our winters in Davis are just cold enough to induce flowering. Having said that, I'd rather have your frost-free winters any day :-).

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    2. Yes, I would say it's worth it :)

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    3. I had the same experience with 'Fire Spinner'. No flowers, although mine subsequently died of thirst.

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    4. I just planted a 'Fire Wonder' Delosperma, and it's covered in flowers, it should do well here, since it gets cold enough part of the winter.

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    5. Brian, mine has been blooming for weeks now.

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  5. Very interesting book, as I said in a previous message I've always dreamed of an english cottage garden but here in this part of Argentina with in its subtropical humid climate it has been an uphill battle that I feel has defeated me. I started to garden in a more realistic way, I've planted agaves, euphorbias, aloes and other succulents in the last years and they look so healthy so luscious the opposite to my sickly roses always defoliared by diseases and ants... It's interesting that cacti and succulents grow so nicely here where average annual rainfall is never less than 52 inches evenly distributed throughout the year, they never experience acute drought here, it rains considerably but the evaporation rate because of hea and sun is very high and soil drains very well so they never get their "feet" too wet but they seem to appreciate humid soil, a walk around my town would show you giant agaves and tree sized cacti everywhere and often totally neglected but nevertheless healthy and vigorous. Thanks for sharing all these pictures and precious information, it helped me to find beauty in plants other than peonies and helebores!

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    1. I'm amazed your cacti and succulents do so well with so much precipitation. But as you said, it's the well-draining soils and the rapid evaporation.

      Where in Argentina do you live? I know it's a large country with many different climates...

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    2. Yes the country has several climate zones, I live in the North of the Buenos Aires province, a subtropical humid zone where verage minimum temperature in the winter months of July through to August hovers around 59 °F dropping below 26 °F on some nights with occasional mild frosts,the average temperature in the summer ranges from 77 °F to 95 °F sometimes reaching 104 °F. Some days ago someone brutally pruned a giant cereus repandus and discarded the leftovers in the street! unfortunately I had no way to handle the huge thorny branches and by the time I returned some days later with gloves and newspapers they were no longer there, this kind of discovery are common here, people prune their cacti when they become too big and leave the branches in the street, many of my cacti were found like that. This clearly tells about how these plants thrive here. Kind regards from the south!

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    3. There's a house with a large Cereus hildmannianus a few blocks away. Every now and then they do some pruning on it and leave the discarded arms in the street for yard waste pickup. I've picked up several (and have given them away since then).

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  6. My first thought on reading this, was it was a re-hash of Lauren Springer's 'The Undaunted Garden'. But a quick google shows that Plant Select has a garden plan designed by her, so I guess it's more of an update of her book, rather than a repeat. I'll have to see if our library carries it. Sue

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    1. I don't think this book has anything to do with Lauren Ogden Springer's books, but she has been a long-time proponent of this kind of plant palette.

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