Book review: Striking Succulent Gardens by Gabriel Frank

Gabriel Frank is a landscape designer based in Morro Bay on the Central Coast of California. His company, Gardens by Gabriel, has created a number of spectacular gardens where succulents are front and center. I visited one of them on a 2016 trip to Morro Bay. 

Gabriel's reputation as a succulent master extends well beyond the Morro Bay area; I've heard his name mentioned up and down California. I'd secretly been hoping to see a coffee-table book of Gabriel's gardens one day, and while I will have to wait a little longer for that, here is the next best thing: a how-to guide on creating your own succulent garden.

Striking Succulent Gardens: Plants and Plans for Designing Your Low-Maintenance Landscape is Gabriel Frank's first book. It was published in January 2021 by Ten Speed Press and sells for an affordable $19.99.

When I receive a new book, I thumb through it quickly to get an overall impression. The first thing that jumped out at me here was the large number of photos. Yes, there's plenty of text as well, but this is not a book that keeps you thirsting for the next illustration. Many of the photos by Dan Kuras are truly spectacular:

The table of contents gives you a good idea of what the book is about. The topics covered range from designs for small spaces, outdoor container gardens and fusion gardens, to descriptions of distinct groups of succulents, to tips on plant care and propagation.

Often the preface to a book reads like a mandatory writing exercise. Not so here. The preface to Striking Succulent Gardens may be short, but in these two pages Gabriel shares his personal evolution as a landscape professional. 

After graduating from the New York Botanical Garden School of Professional Horticulture, he moved to California, trading the East Coast's humid summers for a summer-dry climate where the needs of plants and homeowners are completely different. He describes experimenting with succulents to see what their hydration limits were. After not watering them for six months, he was stunned to see how well they rebounded when the rain returned in the fall. As a result, he began to base his garden designs on succulents in conjunction with plants from the Mediterranean-climate regions around the world. “Succulents,” he says, “use resources wisely, celebrate when abundance is present, and keep packing the root cellar for the future.”

Striking Succulent Gardens introduces the full spectrum of succulents, including, in Gabriel's words, “the friendly rosette forms, striking aloes, sculptural agaves, and misunderstood cacti.” 

Basic design principles such as scale and rhythm help readers understand how to maximize the potential of succulents in residential landscapes.

Throughout the book, you'll find a number of step-by-step projects, each one consisting of a full-page photo and a “recipe” on how to recreate the design. It's a little bit like paint-by-number, except plant-by-number. Veteran gardeners may find this fairly basic, but I think it's a very accessible and non-threatening approach for less experienced gardeners.

Succulents and containers are a natural match. Entire books have been written on this subject, and Gabriel gives us his own spin in Chapter 2. He provides plant recommendations based on the “thriller,” “chiller,” “spiller” principle (“fillers” are replaced here with “chillers:” plants that add volume and interest “without stealing the show”). Two hands-on project focus on containers (one is “Discography” above). Another ingeniously simple project involves cladding containers with corrugated or sheet metal for an industrial look.

Chapters 3 to 5 are dedicated to specific succulent families: the stonecrops (including aeoniums, echeverias, and dudleyas); aloes, small and large; and the often feared spiky succulents (including agaves, yuccas, and cacti).

Chapter 6 is on fusion gardens: blending succulents with unthirsty shrubs and perennials for a rich layered look.

Chapter 7 goes into tools, techniques, and plant care, and chapter 8 shows how easy it is to propagate succulents.

A list of cold-hardy succulents and a compilation of nurseries specializing in succulents complete the book.

If you're a veteran succulent gardener, you may already be familiar with much of the information in Striking Succulent Gardens, but the book is worth the $20 for the inspiring photos alone.

If you're new to succulents or are looking for a gift to give a succulent-loving friend, then Striking Succulent Gardens is perfect.

Gabriel Frank (photo courtesy of Penguin Random House)

As luck would have it, Gabriel Frank will give a Zoom presentation for the Sacramento Cactus and Succulent Society on Monday, March 22, 2021 at 7:00 pm Pacific Time. His presentation is open to the public so please join if you have time! Here is the Zoom link: 

All photos courtesy of Penguin Random House. © by the respective copyright owners.

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  1. Thanks for the rundown on the book and the Zoom link, Gerhard. I've "pinned" Gardens by Gabriel photos on Pinterest on a number of occasions so the book is of interest. My garden book shelves seem to be getting more and more crowded of late ;)

    1. "Crowded garden book shelves," that sounds like a good thing to me. That way you'll have enough reading material if you ever get snowed in, ha ha.

      I hope you'll be able to join Gabriel's Zoom presentation on Monday.

  2. Awesome photos.
    The dish planters looks so familiar... implemented with great success by a blogger with both follow :-D

  3. I loved his dish planter design, but wonder where he found such deep plough discs! Thanks for the Zoom link, I hope to tune in.

    1. Check an ag supply store for plough discs. I found one with a 3¼ inch concavity HERE. That seems to be the deepest.

  4. Dish planters! Now where have I seen those before? Great garden minds in different states think alike, apparently. :)

  5. I signed up for Gabriels RGB presentation Apr3. Looking forward, though I know it will increase my desire for a trip to the Central Cost !


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