Q&A with Maureen Gilmer, author of The Colorful Dry Garden

By Shelley Pierce | May 13, 2018
Image by Sasquatch Books
by Shelley Pierce
May 13, 2018

Maureen Gilmer has forty years’ experience in California horticulture and landscape design. She has authored 20 books on gardening and ecology. She has practiced in northern and southern California, at the peak of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and Newport Beach for exposure to a wide range of climates. She writes a weekly column for The Desert Sun newspaper in Palm Springs. She currently resides in the high desert.  In her latest book, The Colorful Dry Garden, Gilmer shows readers that they can achieve colorful, eye-catching foliage and flowers in their yard, even in drought, desert & dry times. Read on to learn more and enter to win one of five copies from Sasquatch Books!

1. Tell us about your journey as a dry gardening pioneer. Where did it all begin?

Just out of college I split for Lake Tahoe. After working a winter on a ski hill, I transferred to the resort golf course crew for the summer. I mowed all the greens on those dewy early mornings in God’s country. We built 9 new holes.  It all came so easily to me that I realized that working with plants was my destiny. In short, I got hooked on grass! Then on to horticulture and jobs with companies all over the state. Such a lifetime in so many different habitats and plant communities as well as an appreciation for hydraulics and soils have left me much knowledge gained from accumulated real world experience.

2. If I didn’t know that this book was about dry gardening, I never would have guessed looking at the photos. So much color, vibrancy and textures that you would never expect to see in a dry garden. Do you find that that is a common misconception – that dry gardens are bland and boring?

The limited palette of the 1970s drought was little more than junipers, grevillea and gazanias due to the infancy of drip irrigation. Over the past thirty years, irrigation has been transformed to better suit the entire dry residential garden. Also the availability of plants has changed.  Tissue culture (cloning) has made many species possible to buy now that were impossible to find before. This opened the door for widespread availability in the inland west through specialty growers such as Mountain States Wholesale Nursery which features rugged species for dry, cold and infertile Great Basin and desert gardens.

With such diversity I narrowed these choices to plants I know personally, have grown and lived among for four decades in vastly different climates. Some date back to the ’70s because they’re important. Others are desert adapted species not yet discovered elsewhere. Still more are newer improved introductions. Above all they must be proven to bloom reliably with exciting colorful flowers. I believe it’s time to go back to our original reason for a garden. My selection criteria priority is thus 1. Drought resistant  2. Great flowers  3. Everything else.

3. How does your book help us to create a dry but dazzling garden? What are some features that readers will find particularly useful and helpful?

You don’t have to tear everything out to increase water conservation. This is a transitional process not a replacement I detailed in the book. I wanted readers to understand their options of replacing a few water guzzlers with drier choices that don’t scrimp on color. Maybe just one part of the garden must be changed, and this becomes an exercise in composition.  It can occur as slowly or as quickly as your time and budget allows. Best of all you’ll come to appreciate all these plants that have worked so hard for me over the years.

4. What are 3-5 plants that, in your opinion, every gardener should have in their dry garden and why?

Top 5 Drought Tolerant Perennials and Why

Name Botanical Name Purpose Flowers
Autumn Sage Salvia greggii hybrids For hummingbirds Many colors
Spanish Lavender Lavandula stoechas For aroma Blue
Gaura Gaura lindheimeri For animation White/pink
Yarrow Achillea hybrids For drying Many colors
Artichoke Cynara scolymus For eating Purple

Indoors we arrange flowers, outside we compose them. We visualize how they look beside one another. Above all they must share the same water demands.

5. While the assumption could be made that the intended audience of this book is western US states, that wouldn’t necessarily be accurate because couldn’t the argument be made that everyone should “go dry”?

This palette is one with little summer rainfall since it rarely rains in the summer west of the Rockies. That makes some of these plants unsuitable for the east and south. Too much moisture out of season can be difficult for western natives to abide in the heat. However, due to the breadth of my experience from high altitude to sea level, there is remarkable adaptability, particularly among the exotics.

6. What’s in your garden?

I am rehabilitating a large old garden on a south facing slope at 2000′ above Palm Springs, California. With barely a few inches of rain per year I observe the many natives on this land and learn from them. This is ideal habitat for the huge old specimens. Right now I’m infatuated with pink flowering prickly pear cactus. I’m also testing my favorite perennial, Cleveland sage for this brutally dry setting.

Win one of five copies of “The Colorful Dry Garden“!

To enter, simply leave a comment on this blog post by midnight on Sunday, May 20, 2018 (be sure to provide a valid e-mail address) in answer to the following question:

Do you struggle with a dry garden?

Be sure to include a valid e-mail address. The winner will be drawn at random from all qualified entrants, and notified via e-mail. (See rules for more information.)

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  • marilyn chadwick
    Comment added September 19, 2018Reply

    I represent the Laguna Woods Garden Club. I would like to contact Ms. Gilmer regarding a presentation for our club. Her book is so interesting and the topic of a colorful dry garden would be perfect for this community. I hope you can send this email to her or give me an address.
    Thank you.

  • Carol Yemola
    Comment added May 14, 2018Reply

    I have a prickly pear cactus that has gorgeous yellow flowers. I don't remember where I got it and I live in zone 6 so I am very surprised that it survives the wicked winters.

  • Vickie Ann McCoy
    Comment added May 13, 2018Reply

    I don’t struggle, but the water bill is so high. I’d like to create beds that require less water.

  • Sheryle G
    Comment added May 13, 2018Reply

    I do struggle with a dry garden. Wanting to learn more though.

    Comment added May 13, 2018Reply

    We all have dry areas where this book would come in handy

  • Melinda Holcomb
    Comment added May 13, 2018Reply

    This book would be wonderful to have. Our area hasn't received any hardly any rain for over six months.

  • Kim Piland
    Comment added May 13, 2018Reply

    I need color in my life... I need this book ?

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