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By Jeannine Romero.

Daniel Nolan is a San Francisco based dry garden designer specialist with a minimalist approach. During the SDHS September meeting, Nolan said he works best “with a short plant list and a lot of repetition" in his design work. He prefers a range between three and five plant varieties. He noted that many of his clients may love gardens, but often they don’t want to come home to one that requires water and a lot of work.

Nolan’s recently published a book, Dry Gardens: High Style For Low Water Gardens (September 2018), shows 25 gardens that he loves and hopes will inspire you to use cactus, agaves, aloes and native plants whether you are starting with a blank canvas and no irrigation, or incorporating them with existing, well-established plants or trees that need sporadic watering (noting that established plants need less watering). Nolan also noted that he does “not favor flowers.” He does, however, recommend incorporating more hardscape in a garden.

His minimalist design aesthetic also eschews combination container plantings; he prefers single plantings and a group of the same style containers, such as terra cotta pots.

Surprisingly, Nolan also encouraged the concept of low water gardening across the country, not just in arid or semi-arid regions like the Southwest where rain is infrequent. The cover of his book, for example, features a photo of a low water garden in Charleston, South Carolina on the banks of the James River. And in New Orleans, another city not associated with dry gardens, Nolan explained that region’s native holly plant (low water) can be trimmed and used just like boxwood plants (high water). Native plants can also be combined with already established plants and trees in a garden and reduce the need for supplemental watering.

The use of grass in a garden remains a contentious issue among homeowners and gardeners. He suggests that his clients consider “removing as much as makes sense,” and plan to make small changes down the road. Families with children often want to retain some lawn for their children to play on, or might have preconceived notions that their future children will want to play on the grass for at least a part of their childhood.

He is not a fan of water loving flowers, Nolan says, but prefers hard working plants like agaves, aloes, cactus, kalanchoe varieties and native plants like salvia, that provide form and texture, grow in poor soil and require little or no irrigation. He loves strong architectural structure (especially self cleaning palm trees) and the combination of tall cactus with spines that are soft looking yet spiky, fuzzy kalanchoe and wide leaved agaves and aloes.

Nolan shared a few photos of his favorite, highly styled dry gardens, including the garden of Yves St. Laurent in Morocco, Oscar de La Renta’s garden in the Dominican Republic and a background set featuring cactus that was used by Valentino in a Paris fashion show. Nolan described it as an extravagant “work of art” that became even more special because it was only used for a 20 minute show.


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