Hot Color, Dry Garden

Dry garden: Many of us have that. Hot color: That's something everybody needs.

Garden writer, landscape designer and TV host Nan Sterman clearly thought so, too. Her new book Hot Color, Dry Garden (Timber Press 2018) puts an end, once and for all, to the misconception that water-wise gardens are a dull wasteland.

In fact, she busts three popular myths right out of the gate: that "low-water landscapes are brown, lifeless, and colorless," that "low-water gardens are scrubby and scrappy rather than lush and plant-filled," and that "low-water gardens are rocks and desert."

The first two sections of the book introduce strategies and techniques that ensure your garden explodes with color and life. All the concepts are illustrated with photos that show real-life examples.

"Using Color in the Garden" covers the basics of color: creating or using a backdrop (most likely your house), picking a color scheme (tone-on-tone, contrasting colors, warm colors, cool colors, primary colors, etc.), and adding complementary or contrasting pops of color through things like pottery, furniture and accessories. 

"Designing for Plant Structure and Texture" explains the importance of finding a pleasing balance between hardscape (the built elements in your garden, like walkways, decks, walls, pool, etc.) and softscape (plants). It's not a primer on how to build things but rather how to work with what you already have—for most of the us the likeliest scenario. Nan talks about broad-leaved plants vs. plants with small or finely textured leaves, repetition and variation, horizontal (groundcover) vs. vertical plants (trees), borrowed views, and one aspect often ignored but so important: negative space. It can't be overstated how important it is to have place where your eyes can rest. Experienced gardens are familiar with these concepts and follow many of them instinctively. Still, it's nice to get a quick refresher (or, for novices, a crash course) on what makes for good design.

The next section—essentially half the book—is where Hot Color, Dry Garden really shines. The lavishly illustrated "Garden Gallery" shows that the concepts summarized above work in virtually any garden, no matter what its size or style. Nan profiles 15 gardens in different areas of the dry West (Southern California, Northern California, Arizona, New Mexico) and explains how color, structure and texture are combined to create spaces that are as beautiful as they water-wise. Each garden profile is between 8 and 10 pages so there is plenty of information to explain the choices made by the homeowner or designer. I've been wishing for this kind of book for a long time—a smart combination of inspiring photos and nuts-and-bolts details—and here it finally is.

Another 100 pages are dedicated to a "Plant Directory" that features 150 plants used in the showcase gardens. Nan's stated goal is "to expand your plant horizons and steer you toward some lesser-known plants" as well as "to encourage you to experiment with news plants and embrace failure." The palette ranges from groundcovers and perennials to shrubs and trees. Succulents, including aloes, agaves, yuccas and even dyckias, are well represented.

The final section, "Dry Gardening How-To," is exactly what the title suggests: hands-on advice on everything from removing your lawn to planting, mulching, pruning, and managing water.

Clocking in at 320 pages, Hot Color, Dry Garden presents a well-rounded mix of information and inspiration. While primarily appealing to gardeners in zones 9 and 10, the book has plenty to recommend it for folks in colder climates. And if you live somewhere else entirely, you'll still be able to put the design concepts into practice since they are universal.

Nan Sterman lives and gardens in Encinitas, California (northern San Diego county). Her Emmy award-winning TV show A Growing Passion can be seen on PBS in San Diego and other cities. The show's website contains a large selection of articles by Nan.

© Gerhard Bock, 2018. No part of the materials available through may be copied, photocopied, reproduced, translated or reduced to any electronic medium or machine-readable form, in whole or in part, without prior written consent of Gerhard Bock. Any other reproduction in any form without the permission of Gerhard Bock is prohibited. All materials contained on this site are protected by  United States and international copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast without the prior written permission of Gerhard Bock. If you are reading this post on a website other than, please be advised that that site is using my content without my permission. Any unauthorized use will be reported.


  1. It does sound really good. I checked, the Davis library is in the process of ordering it, so it will be available here soon. Considering how many yards in town are nothing but mulch, I hope the book inspires more than using bark for landscaping.

  2. I was inspired to do my dry garden conversion after watching episodes of Nan Sterman’s PBS show ‘A Growing Passion’ and this book is great and reinforces that I made a good decision. Thanks for the great review, I’m still reading my copy.

  3. I'm going to need a larger bookcase soon...

  4. I think that I would enjoy this book because I would love the challenge of designing a desert garden. I wasted my chance when we lived in Southern California although it wasn't popular back then. There are many ways to work with color as shown in some of the illustrations you shared.

  5. Not only gardening but your photography skills are also commendable.


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