Shocking Beauty

Public libraries seemed like relics of the past. I’ve downloaded books, bought books online, and even picked up old books from the local thrift shop, but I have failed to go to the library for longer than I can remember. Finally, I went to the library last week.

On the first of the massive bookcases were two shelves of gardening books, which is where I spent most of my time. There were books on every gardening subject imaginable, but ultimately I settled on just one large, colorful book – Shocking Beauty by Thomas Hobbs. The author explains on the first page that this book is about what it takes to stop people in their tracks. “Breaking stride is the goal of great planting. We want to be humbled and thrilled,” Hobbs explains. I was immediately smitten.

I’ve read that the best way to remember a book is to write a book summary, and I wanted to remember this book both for my garden and for my soul. So, I’ve written this post to summarize this inspiring book about creating shocking beauty in your garden (or your soul).

Note: Amazing photographs illustrate each of Hobbs’ principles, so I’ve searched my own photographs of the beautiful gardens of my neighborhood to provide examples of plantings that are comparable to those in the book.


“The fuel of the creative is inspiration,” Hobbs begins. Inspiration is the invisible force that allows us to make things more beautiful than before. Making inspired choices is what good gardening boils down to. Every decision contributes – or takes away.

Appreciating beautiful things is not a given. It is a gift. If we make an effort to see beauty in things large and small, we nurture this gift, and the more we use it, the more we get from it. Be curious. Step into a garden and observe, admire, and appreciate.


Like an impressionist painting, planting in soft focus using see-through plants makes the whole picture much more beautiful. “One of the mind’s favorite things is to escape reality.”

Hobbs describes how purple verbena bonariensis (above) is one of the best ways to achieve this effect. “Rigid stems over three feet tall rise up in multi-branched thickets topped with purple bits of flowers that blend and blur anything.” Other good blurring plants are Dill (Anethum graveolens), Nicotiana sylvestris, and N. Langsdorffii.

Zonal Denial

Gardening without fear means taking risks that saner heads would never contemplate. Using unexpected, zone-denying plants in your garden will never fail to get a reaction. Hobbs suggests Brugmansia (pictured left); Musa basjoo hardy banana; Colocasia esculenta’ Black Magic,’ an inspiring container choice; black mondo grass; Colocasia esculenta; and Scrophularia auriculata’ Variegata,’ an easy-to-grow pseudo-exotic that seems tropical, yet very hardy.

Good Neighbors

“Because it is instant glamor, instant beauty that we want, it is very tempting to crowd too tightly.” But Hobbs insists plants are accustomed to competition, and the strong really do survive. He writes, “Plant a little tighter. Feel a bit guilty.” His thinking in this cover-the-earth strategy is that by the time anything goes terribly wrong it is probably season’s end and time to re-think things anyway. After all, planting heavy always looks better than trying to explain what your vision was meant to be.

Tips: to avoid flatness vary heights and colors. Use taller plants in the front sometimes. Plants can be transformed by their neighbors, and good gardens are composites of good plant associates. A good ‘neighbor’ often provides contrast – a shade lighter or darker. These harmonies depend on repetition and contrast to be memorable. “By repeating a plant periodically, a confidence comes through, as if you are saying to the observer, ‘I know.’

High Tension

“Feeling comfortable in a garden, or with your garden, is not always a good thing.” Using colors and leaf shapes as electric design elements keeps you on your toes. Lime green, for example, is high tension, and its electric effect on neighbors can be jolting, shocking, as Hobbs would say. ‘No risk’ means ‘No art.’

Effective shocking beauty planting only works when the plants involved are contributing equally. For example, an orange daylily pairs well with a powerful lime-green-colored plant, where anything weaker would disappear or look anemic instead of stunningly clever. Jagged, saw-toothed, furry, white-leaved, and highly variegated foliage are all excellent ‘trouble-makers.’ Too many flamboyantly variegated patterns, however, can become chaotic; balanced contrast is vital.

Color: cause & effect

“Tossing color about recklessly can result in a nauseating chaos.” Color surprises in the garden are rarely pleasant. Sometimes we tend to overdo the variety of colors and underappreciate subtle variations. Think how a plant’s autumn shade will change the landscape or how a tree will provide the color focal point. Consider the color of inanimate objects as well, such as the house, doors, fences, benches, and containers. Controlling color makes your garden tick.

Staging incidents

This is all about adding elements to increase enjoyment. We can think of an incident as theatre – it should stop you in your tracks. These ‘spark plugs’ ignite our combustible sensory receptors and keep us amused, entertained, and ready to laugh at ourselves.

Brightly painted birdhouses stand atop tall poles along the perimeter of the elementary school garden where I volunteered last year. They set the tone for the garden as a fun and adventurous place to be, which it is. Hobbs also suggests carved wooden chickens, clustering small pots around larger pots, perfectly placed garden dwarfs, garden topiaries, benches, statues, or staging a vignette using an old chair.

Portable Drama

“Placing pots is an art form.” Use unexpected plants in containers: succulents, something ‘black,’ or houseplants. Think of your favorite paintings and use those colors to create your own Monet. The container itself should inspire us, even empty. Pots are the jewelry of the garden. Understated elegance works well in some situations, while others require a knock-out punch. The jewelry makes the outfit.


“The architectural style of the house and garden should match. A sense of honesty should come through, not a pretense of affection.” If the home’s architecture does not scream cottage garden, do not create a cottage garden, no matter how much you may love cottage gardens.

Use colors that compliment the color of your home. Design paths around the house to navigate around and through the garden. Create privacy, a refuge.


“The appreciative lover of beauty gets so much more out of life and gives more back through our gardening efforts. Never be afraid to receive from Nature what Nature wants to give back to you – your sense of wonder.”

Hobbs reminds us that we, as gardeners, are really only a willing slave of Mother Nature. “Suddenly (typically, I have noticed, around year eight), a botanical knitting happens, and the entire garden comes together on its own. An amazing amount of happy coincidence and unexpected successes appear deliberate when in actuality the plants did it themselves.”

Squint your eyes and envision what you are contemplating. The resulting benefits are directly proportional to the effort you make.