Dawn in the Zambrano garden, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Dawn in the Zambrano garden, Albuquerque, New Mexico

I try to treat every garden I visit with a sense of wonder, open to what it reveals, always looking for photographs to present themselves.  In this way the garden teaches us what it is all about, but we must listen to what it has to say.  Part of the job being a garden photographer is to lead the conversation with a garden, to say yes! when it speaks to us, and be grateful when we see.

Even the toughest climates can have beautiful gardens where the plants are hale and happy, where the plants speak with confidence of easy living. Let’s celebrate these plants.

And so it was in Albuquerque, New Mexico when I called upon Judith Phillips to show some gardens with sustainable water-wise plants.  I try not to use the term drought tolerant to describe plants that survive dry climates.  All plants are tolerate drought in their native habitat, the trick of sustainable gardening is to chose plants that are climate adapted, climate tolerant.

Judith puts plants first in all her designs.  She has been gardening for a long time in New Mexico and I knew she could show me some success stories.  Indeed, when I was working on The American Meadow Garden, Judith showed me the garden that became the cover of the book.

The American Meadow Garden, Timber Press book cover

Albuquerque is a tough climate and perhaps because so, I want to photograph gardens there.  There was a time when all I wanted to photograph were lush gardens.  More than once I wished I were in those lovely English gardens, where green lawns are as simple as having a few sheep to nibble the weeds, or in those wonderful East Coast gardens with towering deciduous trees.  Taking photos in those gardens is like being a kid in a candy shop, a lot of fun, but ultimately for a West Coast photographer, not very nourishing.

Gardeners in the Southwest simply can’t have those gardens.  Occasionally some delusional wealthy homeowner will try to find a gardener who will force such a garden into the dry arid soils, and occasionally one survives for a short time on unsustainable resources and manpower.  I find much more pleasure finding climate appropriate gardens that encourage a respect for the land and can be maintained by a single gardener with the skill to know what to do.

Enter a garden photographer who’s job is more than entertainment, it is education.  If gardeners are to have success they need inspiration from gardens in their own climate, not some far flung fantasy. The garden photographer needs to tell a story of success.

I always tell my workshop students to tell a story with their work.  The workshops usually have some other main theme for achieving a beautiful, well composed image, but there should also be a purpose – a reason to make the photo.

When I arrived in the Zambrano garden, before dawn in the opening photo, I began the process of looking for photos, listening to the garden, moving carefully, and watching for what the garden revealed.  The wonderful old blue door in the adobe walls was going to appear in several photos.

holt_1111_032.CR2Ahh.  How lovely the Mintbush (Poliomintha incana) blends with the blue door (yes, an enhanced blue).

As a garden photographer who looks to celebrate plants I am very aware I need to find elements of a garden that are not plants so that the viewer can learn something about gardening.  A plant in relation to a walkway or wall, by a fence or focal point, will show us how it has allowed itself to be brought in from the wild.

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Desert Holly, Mahonia haematocarpa and Texas Ranger – Leucophyllum langmaniae in shrub border

Here we see a shrub border that screens the house from the street. The adobe wall protecting a private courtyard of the Zambrano home is a perfect foil to isolate a stronger image.

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Desert Holly, Mahonia haematocarpa, in New Mexico garden.

The photographer will see the potential, then work it, using all the tricks learned in a workshop: fill the frame, balance, compose with shape.

The story of this garden quickly became the range of plants that are perfectly suited to this tough climate.  That unexpected surprise, coupled with the realization I would not have a very long window of good light, made me realize I would need to work quickly.

I didn’t want to leave the front yard though, not until I made a vertical composition.  As a working photographer, I need to anticipate the different needs of different publishers.  Having a vertical photo not only fits well into a column of text, many book covers want vertical images.

holt_1111_020.CR2The tall Hillspire junipers in the side yard offer a dark background for the light colored house and contribute mightily to the “look” of this garden.  Not only do they obscure an otherwise bright sky beyond the house, they offer another subtle clue that this garden is a good one.  The plants are well established and mature, they have achieved enough stature to inform another gardener what to expect and what is successful.

I love these kinds of gardens, knowing the photos will help others know what is possible.  It is especially thrilling to find this in such a tough climate.

Looking around for vertical photos, this Chisos Rosewood (Vauquelinia corymbosa ssp. angustifolia) shouted “Look at me”:  beautifully pruned, healthy in its prime, a specimen set in the heart of the front yard.  Partnered with some well chosen boulders in front that echo the color of the home behind, the Rosewood set itself off as a focal point.

I began making the photo by studying it through the viewfinder, camera on tripod.  By doing so, the photographer can make subtle changes left or right with the tripod, up or down, so that the various elements – the house, boulders, junipers all come into balance.

But keep moving, the light is changing and I have not been into the back yard.

Back yards are always more intimate, designed for the privacy of the owners. This small garden is designed for strolling with pathways running away from the covered patio.  Many homes in the Southwest have covered areas to enjoy the outdoors  protected from the blistering sun.

holt_1111_058 2.jpgThe Zambrano’s have brought the garden right up to the patio, using the supports to frame the views.  To tell this part of the story and photographer needs to decide where to set up the camera and which elements to bring into the composition.  It is certainly  important to see how the garden integrates with the home, but that can be told in several ways, there are different stories.

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Here the story is not so much how the garden looks as seen from the patio, we now see how the garden captures rain from the patio roof. A dry stream of rocks line the edge of the patio helping precious water percolate into the ground when gutters directs occasional rains off the roof.

Let’s go into the garden, see where the paths explore, see what the garden wants to tell us.

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I am immediately struck at how the diagonal angle makes the garden seem larger and that the dry stack walls add both character and support for the garden soil.  Turning around, the crushed rock path that leads to the house also leads to a wisteria covered pergola in the corner of the garden.

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Using the structure as framing a device we are able to accent the shelter and intimacy of the pergola while using the line of the path to lead the eye toward the house.  The two photos are very similar in that way but they tell two very different stories. Note the clever use of the silver foliage ephedra (Ephedra equisetina), a really tough plant that can anchor a border when grown well. We will see more of this plant later.

Silver foliage plants are my favorites and I really notice them in gardens.  Many gray foliage plants are native to dry climates where they are able to reduce evapotranspiration.  Thus they serve double duty in xeric gardens, beauty and utility.  I draw your attention to the silver plant in the center of the photos above, close to the house, Parthenium incanum.


Parthenium incanum, Mariola or New Mexico rubber plant, gray foliage perennial

Good designers know the importance of foliage in a garden. Flowers are so ephemeral.  A silver plant placed among green foliage brings interest to both and breaks up any border.

The same plant is important in each of these next photos.  Each is composed to connect the garden to the patio:

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On the one hand the gray Parthenium provides contrast with the Mahonia repens and Oregano ‘Kent Beauty’ above.

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And here the silver provides great transition between the dark, creeping Winter Jasmine and the well pruned Scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius).

Photos come easily at this point.  I am beginning to understand the garden and see so many stories, each can be made with a subtle change of perspective.  I am realizing how lush this garden really is for using so little water.  I can emphasize this by using a telephoto lens and stacking layers of vegetation.


As I am standing in the garden, enraptured by these tough plants in this tough climate I begin to hear a hissing.  It’s too early in the morning to be worried about snakes. Then I realized this is, after all, Albuquerque the hot air balloon capital of the world.

holt_1111_083.CR2The balloons were taking off in the still morning air, so of course I needed to take a photo.  What better proof of place.  I set up a composition and hoped one of them would drift in.

As I stood there waiting for just the right shot, I realized the sun would soon be entering the garden to create the one thing a garden photographer can not overcome – tough light.  Bright sun, particularly in the low humidity of the West, creates a range of light the camera can not handle.  Hot, contrasty sunlight creates impenetrable shadows and burned out highlights.

I had planned my shoot starting in the front before dawn, knowing the trees in the back would give me some shade and soft light until mid morning, but soon my time would run out.  I often find myself retreating into shadows, into the corners of a garden as the sun chases me back, taking away photos as it rises.

I have learned though, that the sun kissing the edges of plants give special opportunities.  I recently wrote about making hard light work while photographing succulents in the Huntington Botanical Garden, and eagerly looked for an opportunity here to bring the sun into the story.

The light hitting the Arborvitae hedge was not so bright to blow out the highlights, and would provide a warm glow next to any exposure for the interior of the garden.  I quickly forgot the hot air balloon and framed up the flowering Elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulea).

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I can do better.  Moving around to the left I find the big tree in the neighbor’s yard is glowing too.

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Soon the sun was going to be shining right into the garden though, and I still had not worked that area around the pergola.  Remember the earlier scene with the silver foliage Ephedra ? It would be the last place I could work.

A garden can be full of surprises, and tucked deep into this corner of the garden I found a Sacred Datura, (Datura wrightii).  It’s white flower with dark leaves against an even darker background became a study of negative space.  I see a print in the future of this composition.


What really struck me though, was the silver foliage of the Ephedra, that so struck me when I first saw it, became the backdrop for a portrait of the Lamb’s Ear (Stachys byzantina).  Did you notice it earlier, just inside the pergola ?holt_1111_045 2.jpg

Once I moved inside the pergola and got down low to get a good angle on the Stachys I realized the Ephedra was dominating the view.  And I realized further, that in order to make a proper exposure for the Lamb’s Ear, I would have to overexpose the background.

These silver plants were talking to each other from their own spots in this garden.  I listened to what they said and lead the conversation a bit.

Before and After Slider

Even tough climates have beautiful gardens.

Gallery of Photos – Zambrano Garden