Reflections on Scott Calhoun’s The Hot Garden (Part 1)


Will this book, by Scott Calhoun, feed my maverickiness?


We’re halfway through our fifth year at this house. Tater Tot is big enough to help out in the yard–or at least occupy himself while I work outside. See where I’m going? I’m  rethinking our overall landscape vision.

For some context for those of you unfamiliar with our yard, we live in South Central Texas, up in the top Northwest Bexar County. Our house is situated on part of what’s called the “Edwards Plateau,” and like a lot of suburban homes out here has the one-two punch of caliche clay compacted by the developer’s crew. To make this more, er, challenging, we live at the bottom of a low hill on land where a horse farm once stood.

Finally, to top it all off, I live in Sunset‘s Climate Zone 30. This means that while I get more rain than residents on San Antonio’s South side, I also get more cold, wintry weather–on top of a hotter-than-hell summer. This information more or less explains why early German settlers, deadset on sticking to their traditional ways of planting crops, wound up… dead. From starvation. It also explains why people in these parts eat so much meat. Cows, after all, can eat the low grass that grows here.

Given these particulars, you may understand why I’ve come to roll my eyes at the advice cavalierly dispensed by most mainstream gardening publications. This wasn’t always the case. In Austin and Baton Rouge, I had landscapes that blossomed with minimal work. It was easy to create shady pockets in corners, to experiment with sunny beds. In fact, in Baton Rouge, most of my labor was dedicated to keeping plants from taking over, particularly a wisteria that would grow over  night. (You think I’m kidding?) In our current yard, mind you, all the beds get lots of sun.

Back to my thinking that it’s high time to build upon what I’ve learned about our peculiar micro-climate, last week I fell into the rabbit hole known as the Igo Library stacks. There I turned up a recent book by Scott Calhoun, The Hot Garden: Landscape Design for the Desert Southwest (Rio Nuevo, 2009). When I opened it up to a random page, a box marked “Eat Your Garden: Chuperosa” stood out. Thumbing through the text, I found more good information on water-thrifty gardens and a variety of trees that love hot days. And then there was a photo of an awesome rusty metal ramada. I want a ramada. (A cedar one, though, like the one outside Scenic Loop Cafe.) 

Once I brought Calhoun’s book home for closer inspection, I was tickled to read these lines in the preface:

“Perhaps it takes someone with a warped imagination to see the hot regions of the Southwest as the most beautiful gardens on the planet, but–blessing or curse–that is how I see them… Experienced designers and plantsmen and -women in the Southwest deserts practice a sort of renegade gardening done outside the view and commentary of mainstream horticulture. Southwestern horticulture and garden design is so different that newcomers may feel as if they’ve arrived on another planet–someplace like Tatooine…”

Granted, I’m not a huge Star Wars fan, but I instantly “got” where Calhoun was headed. And I also felt like I’d just been validated to continue to buck the traditional suburban conventions (perfect lawn and hedge) in favor of creating something original, authentic and rooted in this place. Dammit, I live not far from where the word “maverick” was coined.

Can I become a better maverick-y home gardener? Could Calhoun’s book help me do that?

Stay tuned for Part 2…

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  1. It’s wonderful that you’re making the most of where you live — with whatever grows best there. I guess the lawn fanatics near you don’t have to learn a lesson as hard as the German settlers did… but it still sounds silly and unrewarding. Congratulations on the new book!

  2. Thanks, Eliza. We only have a couple of true fanatics in this part of town. Most of us are just trying to accept that here is different and let go of our “shoulds,” I think. =)

  3. Gardening in Austin can be tricky too, especially lately with record highs in summer and record lows in winter. And then there’s that drought that will rear its ugly head again in the not-too-distant future. I loved The Hot Garden (in fact, I adore all of Scott’s books) and reviewed it at Digging almost a year ago: It’s full of inspiration for those of us gardening under the Death Star.

  4. See? It’s because of books like this I actually envy y’all the climate to grow this stuff IN this book. I know, I know, the lawn alternative is always greener on the other side, but I’d jump at the chance to give hot gardening a shot. I’m always so behind on gardening books — I know of the author, but the book itself was new to me. Thanks for the heads-up! It’s going on my wishful thinking wishlist.

  5. […] This particular yard has always veered toward a certain Texas Hill Country-esque vibe, but as the gardens age, I’m feeling more inclined to embrace that authentic spirit.  The return thus far has been a greater awareness of place, an increased sensitivity to seasonal changes particular to here. […]

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