Book Review – High and Dry: Gardening with Cold Hardy Dryland Plants by Robert Nold

high and dry cover

If you are gardening in the high desert, I have three words for you:  Buy.  This. Book.  Robert Nold is a Denver based gardener and columnist for the “Colorado Gardener” and North American Rock Garden Society who, after many years of fighting his high desert  conditions of crazy weather and poor soil, had an epiphany about native plants.  Instead of trying to coax rhododendrons out of rock hard, alkaline soil, low humidity, and high city water bills, he started looking at penstemons, purshias, and piñon pines.

Mr. Nold gives his garden no supplemental water and relies solely on the 15 inches of precipitation that Denver receives annually.  He admits that this gives his garden a slightly neglected look but he has blooms from the last frost to the first.

The first chapter of the book covers his journey from conventional, midwestern/east coast gardening to Dry Garden guru including his battle with caliche soil, plants that inexplicably died, and his neighbors’ confusion about the “weeds” growing in his front yard.

The rest of the book is divided into flowers, rock gardens, bulbs, cacti and shrubs which are best for irrigation free landscaping.  Each group is further divided into plant families and have some nice color photos of specimens.  His descriptions are honest and often humorous.

Besides the books of Judith Phillips, the New Mexico native plant expert, this is the first book I have read that specifically addresses the issues facing gardeners living at altitudes over 3000 ft:  hot, dry summers, freezing winters, high winds that desiccate delicate annuals, and our monsoon rains.

While he scoffs at formal garden design, he does give some practical advice for setting up a space.  Put in the pathways first, though these will probably change over time, and don’t put cactus next to pathways.  This is more for safety’s sake than aesthetics.

After reading High and Dry, I felt like my options completely opened up to a whole new world of colors and plant shapes that I had never explored.  This week, I planted 4 varieties of penstemon and some chocolate flowers.  When these little plants mature in a year or two, I’ll have flowers in reds, blues, and yellows that will attract all types of pollinators, from moths to hummingbirds.  While these plants will  need to be watered while they get established this summer, they should be pretty carefree next year.

I don’t know how these got in my car.

I picked up my copy on  It was a little pricey for a used book but totally worth it.  Robert Nold has also written books on Penstemons and Columbines. His articles can be found in “American Gardening” and “Horticulture” magazines. Below is my affiliate link to Amazon (I get a commission on the sale of the book).


What are your favorite gardening books?  Post them in the comments, please!

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