Read This: Under Western Skies


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September 16, 2021

Texas straddles the climatic line between the Southeast and the Southwest — Austin even more so, sitting smack-dab in the middle of the state. We’re not part of the Old South, except perhaps East Texas. But we’re not part of the vast West either, aside from Marfa, El Paso, and other high-desert locales.

Here in Austin and across Central Texas, we have hot, humid summers like the Southeast. And we get a decent amount of rain — 34 to 36 inches a year. However, it tends to fall in flooding bursts, leaving us high and dry for long periods and prone to drought, like the arid Southwest. This split personality manifests in our gardens, where you’ll see magnolias and Japanese maples in close proximity with agaves, sotols, and hesperaloes.

Central Texas gardeners might, therefore, lean either way — east or west — in shaping their gardens and deciding what to plant. But in Austin, and perhaps for many of us along the I-35 corridor from San Antonio up to Dallas, we gardeners look to the West as climate change bears down on us, bringing hotter summers and potentially longer, more frequent droughts, not to mention an increased danger of wildfire. As the West goes, Central Texas expects to follow.

Barry Friesen’s garden in Northern California. Photograph by Caitlin Atkinson in Under Western Skies

With predictions for Texas’s climate always at the back of my mind, I dived into new book Under Western Skies: Visionary Gardens from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Coast by photographer Caitlin Atkinson and author Jennifer Jewell. I hoped to glean insights into how gardeners across the West — a vast range from far West Texas to California, and from Arizona to Washington — are adapting their mindsets and their gardens to increasing drought, heat waves, and wildfires.

Virginia Cave’s garden in Phoenix, Arizona. Photograph by Caitlin Atkinson in Under Western Skies

Under Western Skies is an exploration of 36 Western gardens in diverse regions, some harsh and some softer, all rooted in their own unique place. Through photographer Caitlin Atkinson‘s luminous images, gardens in locations as varied as Marfa and Seattle, Boise and Los Angeles, Santa Fe and Carmel, illustrate the rugged beauty of the West. Their creators aren’t striving to imitate European-influenced gardens back East. They embrace native Western plants, a drier and/or wilder aesthetic, and the unpredictability of nature. “Our gardens are crucibles for lessons on adaptation,” reads one passage late in the book. “Western gardeners have always lived with big scale, wind, fire, and drought, but there are ways to garden respectfully and beautifully with these elements.”

David Godshall’s garden in Los Angeles. Photograph by Caitlin Atkinson in Under Western Skies

Writer Jennifer Jewell, host of the acclaimed Cultivating Place radio program and podcast, systematically deep-dives into each garden through interviews with their creators or caretakers. Jewell places each garden in the context of its regional history, including the native peoples who historically made their homes there, and the particulars of climate and geology. From this wide-angle perspective, she then zooms in on the gardener’s background and what draws them to the region they call home. She gives equal time to the plants: specific types but also why the gardener chose them, how they reflect the region, and how they make each garden feel. Combined with a generous assemblage of around 10 to 12 photographs per garden, including many full-page spreads, you really get a sense of each garden.

Barry Friesen’s garden in Northern California. Photograph by Caitlin Atkinson in Under Western Skies

As Jewell remarks in the preface, “The West and its climatic realities, its rich and complex cultural history, and its unparalleled — its truly magnificent — natural beauty, have raised, tested, and transformed many a would-be gardener into a more astute, resilient, resourceful, respectful, and collaborative one out of sheer necessity.” Much the same can be said of gardeners here in Central Texas, which in its own way is a pretty wild and woolly place to garden. Likewise, we have our own transcendent natural landscapes to inspire us: our rugged canyons and hills, moist ferny caverns, cathedral-like creeks lined with bald cypress, and wildflowers-for-miles views in spring.

Under Western Skies will delight any gardener who enjoys seeing how others respond to challenges to create transcendent gardens rooted in place.

And by the way, if you’d like to see her in person, author Jennifer Jewell will be speaking here in Austin next May for my Garden Spark series, sharing photos from this book. Join my email list to make sure you receive all the details.

Disclosure: Timber Press sent me a copy of Under Western Skies for review. I reviewed the book at my own discretion and without any compensation. This post, as with everything at Digging, is my own personal opinion.

I welcome your comments; please scroll to the end of this post to leave one. If you’re reading this in a subscription email, click here to visit Digging and find the comment box at the end of each post.

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All material © 2021 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

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