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'The Dry Gardening Handbook: Plants and Practices for a Changing Climate' by Olivier Filippi

September 05, 2009|Emily Green

Coffee table books on gardening are generally useless, but here's a beauty queen with brains. "The Dry Gardening Handbook: Plants and Practices for a Changing Climate" by a Frenchman, Olivier Filippi, betrays an understandable fondness for the dry plants of his native garrigue, the French version of our chaparral.

Yet as he pushes out beyond the south of France to places with similar climate zones, Filippi argues that drought is not a limitation but the source of untold diversity from regions in the Mediterranean, South Africa, South America, Australia and California. The only way to enjoy plants that are adapted to dry climates, he argues, is to withhold water.

"Many dry-climate plants are in fact easy to grow if we respect the conditions of their native habitat, but become extremely capricious as soon as we try to water them in summer," he writes. "The cistuses of the garrigue, the ceanothuses that cover the hillsides of California or the capers that billow down Sicilian cliffs quite simply cannot tolerate the combination of heat and moisture."

Filippi advises earth-moving to create raised beds and berms that can emulate the free drainage common in the natural settings of many of the best-loved Mediterranean climate zone plants.

Don't put in irrigation, Filippi says, put in plants that don't need it. Instead of splurging on big, luscious specimens at nurseries, he says, buy small, "hardened" plants that haven't become root-bound or addicted to water.

His most controversial point is advice not to use sprinklers or drip irrigation. Rather, he would have us sink the plants in holes and give them long slow waterings when we water (not in summer).

For readers who doubt Filippi's third way, he provides a graphic of what he thinks happens to root systems under the three types of watering: shallow root development with sprinklers, unbalanced growth with drip irrigation, and strong, deep root systems with occasional deep soakings.

And what of the coffee table book's garden porn element? Picture drifts of lavender without telephone poles, the neighbor's fence and parked cars.

It is this combination of hands-on gardening tips and fantasy splendor that makes this book so special. That and a certain cunning. Filippi seems to be reaching for the elite who can most afford to waste water.

-- Emily Green

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