Book Review: The Well-Designed Mixed Garden, by Tracy DiSabato-Aust

The Well-Designed Mixed Garden, by Traci DiSabato-Aust, Timber Press, 2003.

The Well-Designed Mixed Garden, by Tracy DiSabato-Aust

A beautiful garden is in the eye of the gardener, or in the case of garden designers, the eye of the client. That’s what makes the subject of Tracy DiSabato-Aust’s very valuable book, The Well-Designed Mixed Garden, so challenging. She meets the challenge ably, I think. DiSabato-Aust shows us what goes into the making of gardens most people would consider very beautiful, including why certain combinations of structures, colors, and textures tend to be seen as having the quality of beauty.

However, she repeatedly and rightly returns to the point that she can only provide guidelines that a gardener has every right to change or ignore: “Your style should be reflected in your garden. Do whatever makes you happy.” This is a book that gives gardeners the tools to design gardens that are beautiful for them, even if their ideas of beauty diverge from DiSabato-Aust’s at times.

The Well-Designed Mixed Garden is divided into three parts. The first lays out the basics of garden design. The second provides designs of actual gardens, along with explanatory text. And the third includes a number of the author’s favorite plant combinations.

The first part begins with the benefits of a mixed garden, containing both woody and herbaceous plants. Unlike Piet Oudolf (who prefers herbaceous-only beds), DiSabato-Aust believes mixed gardens have many advantages: a more diverse plant palette, more layering and verticality, more winter interest, and a stronger underlying structure. For myself, I would endorse her argument and add that woody plants are generally lower maintenance.

There is a useful discussion of the complexities of color. The author helps us understand that blue is not always “cool” and red “hot”, there can also be warm blues and cool reds depending on the mix, tint, and hue. She explains various color schemes in terms of finding the right balance of harmony and contrast – which ultimately, like so much else, is a matter of personal taste. The importance of plant shapes and textures also gets substantial attention.

I especially appreciated her explanation of the design principles of order, unity, and rhythm. I had heard these phrases before, but in my mind they were quite vague and I suspected that they all meant the same thing. They are in fact all related concepts, but not really the same thing. Order refers to a garden’s underlying structure or organizing principle. Unity is a common theme that pulls the garden together. And rhythm is what gives gardens a sense of movement. The author explains all in some depth, then uses the section on specific garden designs to provide examples.

Tracy DiSabato-Aust
Tracy DiSabato-Aust

The section including various garden designs is inspiring, but also a little frustrating for a gardener on a small urban lot. I suspect that big gardens are the author’s true love, because she devotes about twice as much space to them as she does to small and medium-sized gardens. In fact, more than half of this section is devoted to a single massive garden the author designed for a client in Ohio, a garden containing 425 kinds of plants. I have  no doubt that this garden is a real accomplishment and a thing of beauty.

However, it has limited value as an example for the small-scale gardener. Further, it’s a little on the overwhelming side for the amateur designer even as an object of study. Similarly, I was surprised by the large number of plants present in the author’s designs as only a single specimen. The author, I infer, is a person who loves plants and places a premium on using many species and varieties.

In addition to the encyclopedia of plant combinations, there are roughly two hundred pages worth of information on plants the author likes to use in her designs. The plants are organized into two charts, one for cultural characteristics and one for design characteristics.

Overall, The Well-Designed Mixed Garden is a book that gardeners should read through once, then keep on hand as a reference they are likely to consult frequently.

Please check out Roses and Other Gardening Joys for more reviews of great books.

26 Comments on “Book Review: The Well-Designed Mixed Garden, by Tracy DiSabato-Aust”

  1. I ordered this book by mistake, meaning to purchase, The Well-Tended Perennial garden. Now I have both, but seem to refer to the latter more often, which says more about my gardening than her book! This is a first rate review of a first rate book!

  2. Great review Jason. Her design information is really complex. Listening to her talk about it and then reading your review, I know what you mean. She really brings a lot into each design, thinking about more than I do….but then she is the one who is making money with the book! She does know her plant material.

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