A Q&A with Saxon Holt

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Join us for an online event with Nora Harlow and Saxon Holt, introducing Gardening in Summer-Dry Climates!

Thursday, January 28 at 5 pm

Fans of outdoor photography are likely already familiar with Saxon Holt: his work has been featured in a wide range of publications, from Architectural Digest and Pacific Horticulture Magazine, to Smithsonian and MoneyMagazine. His Instagram feed is a showcase for the beauty of Marin’s open spaces, as well as a beautiful dog! Saxon has been a frequent visitor to Marin Art and Garden Center, both in his work as a photojournalist and as a photography instructor. He has generously granted permission for us to use his photography of Marin Art and Garden Center over the years for us to use on this website and in our publications. 

We’re delighted to welcome him (virtually) on January 28, when he and author Nora Harlow will present their latest work, Gardening in Summer-Dry Climates. If gardening in our region with its rainless summers has felt like a limitation, this book presents a way of choosing plants for our many micro-climates through the lens of climate tolerance, rather than drought tolerance.  Nora and Saxon will explain more about their approach, and of course you’ll get a look at some of the gorgeous photography of the plants and gardens featured in the book.

We asked Saxon to  share a few thoughts about this latest project, and his work process with us here.

What inspired you to take on this project?
This is really part of a lifelong work, or more precisely, once I realized how distinctive our climate is, as opposed to Virginia where I grew up, I felt it was vital for me as a photographer to show a different type of aesthetic so the gardeners understood summer-dry plants and especially natives can actually look quite good in a healthy garden. After we published the book Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry Climates for the East Bay MUD in 2005, both Nora and I realized we should expand the geographic coverage and update the plant listings. We felt that using the term summer-dry was much more applicable to the entire West Coast as opposed to the term Mediterranean, which is applied much too loosely and is not really well defined.

How did you find and photograph all the plants in the book?

I have been photographing gardens for more than 30 years and have a good group of experts who have helped me understand what to look for. I particularly was keen to find mature plants so that gardeners could see the actual scale as it would apply to a garden. In many cases I worked in some of the larger botanic gardens across the West Coast that often have large specimens in their gardens and I can always count on them being labeled correctly.

Do you have any favorite plants that people might not be familiar with?

That is certainly a loaded question as there are so many wonderful plants in the book that are underutilized, and it really depends on each garden and situation as to what ones would have success. I will talk about my own garden in Novato which is fairly large with a number of different zones.

I was quite pleasantly surprised, even stunned that my hedge of Camellia sasanqua tolerates the hot sun and is not nearly as thirsty as many people think. It is a truism that not too many people seem to incorporate, but good mulching allows tree and shrubs to get deeply rooted in our clay soil and thrive in dry summers. This is one plant that we added to the book because of my own garden. I don’t think it is a unusual plant, but was unexpected to be in this type of book.

I suspect some of the readers will know my other books about grasses and Meadows and I have lots of favorites there but there is a spectacular new plant, or Lomandra ‘Platinum Beauty’ that is quite tolerant of heat and dry and its beautiful, beautiful variegated foliage is just stunning. I have about five of them now in my garden.

I have a new garden area in my own garden where I took out some Bay tree because of concern about sudden oak death disease. And I’m delighted that I now have room for a Hybrid Monkey Hand Tree (x Chiranthofremontia lenzii) which is the logo of my @summerdry.gardens Instagram account and I’ve added a couple of other plants I just learned about but can’t yet vouch for—such as Dicliptera suberecta (Uraguayan Firecracker Plant)

What are the top 3 take-aways from the book?
One message—in the midst of tumultuous climate change, we realize it’s all the more important the gardeners be stewards of the land, attuned to the local environment on behalf of all creatures. Every small act we do adds resiliency.

This book is not a roadmap, it is a tool to be used with more expansive encyclopedias and local nurseries to find plants that are not drought tolerant, but climate tolerant.

Finally, this is not a no-summer-water list of plants. We assume gardeners will use some supplemental irrigation to keep their gardens lush looking, and we hope the right choice of plants for any given location will allow gardeners to use their water wisely. It is very important that we have gardens, especially in our urban and suburban areas that have been so impacted by development and growth, thus diminishing the native habitats that garden earth needs. Our constructed landscapes and gardens deserve some water. It is an ongoing question about how much water but we hope this book allows well-considered choices.

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