Extreme gardening

Gardening in the desert, where extreme conditions are the norm, is a challenge made simpler by this wise and beautiful book. Don't be misled by the title or the fact that these plants were tested in Flagstaff, Ariz. Many plants from mountainous Western states also thrive in Palm Springs and on nearby hills and peaks.

What distinguishes this 2-year-old resource from others is its less-than-common subject, 250 brilliant images (by photographer Eugene Balzer) and languid evocative prose.

For example, "home" is a place "where the water flows, where the soils are heavy, where the wind and sun conspire to parch the land, where we have disturbed the earth, where cows and sheep have fed, where elk have stood." (Substitute bighorn sheep for the elk, and they could be describing the California desert.)

The authors (Busco is a native San Diegan and former co-manager of the Theodore Payne Foundation in Sun Valley) detail more than 150 well-known and unusual flowering perennials — penstemon, columbine, prickly poppy, showy milkweed — and a few woody plants.

It's important to note that in their natural habitats, these rugged plants are doused by summer rain. Thus, they may not be good companions for summer-dormant California natives.

Also in this outstanding reference: planting and seeding techniques, cultural information, plant combinations (with possible substitutions for designers and gardeners in less-grueling climates) and an excellent source list.

— Lili Singer