Two Great Guides to Sustainable Gardening

“Sustainable” is a word we’re seeing everywhere but when it comes to gardening, what the heck does it mean?  After all, our gardens aren’t totally self-sustaining; they require at least some help from us even for the most “low-maintenance” garden imaginable.  So in the world of gardening, definitions like “resource-saving,” “low-input” and “nearly self-sustaining” seem to make the most sense.  And because the gardener’s labor is one of the resources that sustainable gardening is designed to conserve, there’s a huge overlap with the aforementioned low-maintenance gardening.   It turns out that what’s easiest for the gardener is almost always what’s easiest on the environment – a win-win!

Sustainable gardening is also the type of gardening I’ve been writing about and teaching for years, so there isn’t a single book on the subject that I haven’t devoured.   Here are just two that I’ve enjoyed and recommend.

Tomorrow’s Garden: Design and Inspiration for a New Age of Sustainable Gardening by Stephen Orr

Stephen Orr spent years finding the most gorgeous gardens in America and sharing them with readers of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and House & Garden Magazine, something he currently does for Martha Stewart Living Magazine.  Now he’s compiled the best of the best in his first book that features innovative gardens in more than 200 mouth-watering photos – eye candy for this scorched-earth time of year.  (It’s not just winter that makes us want to look at gorgeous gardening books and magazines, right?)

The gardens Orr shows us, from 14 cities across America, aren’t just sparse xeriscapes but a surprisingly diverse assortment of beautiful, innovative designs that include a variety of environmental solutions – like the stone-filled walls shown in the photo above.  Developed for erosion control, they can also be used as walls and seating, as they are in this modern garden.

The gardeners featured are a diverse bunch, too – including some older ones who’ve recently edited out their more resource-intensive plants, as well as 20-something urbanites starting rooftop farms and apiaries.  Orr shows us not just small meadows and food gardens but also curb-side gardens and even formal gardens with clipped hedges. This huge range of options will no doubt lead to more cumulative changes than any single solution (kitchen gardens for all!).  So, Orr’s choices may surprise you because they’re so inclusive.

The other big surprise here is the focus on making the gardener happy.   Orr believes that gardens should be beautiful, joyful places that give us pleasure.  He also believes, and demonstrates in this stunning book, that beauty CAN be environmentally responsible.

Sustainable Landscaping for Dummies by Owen Dell

This one isn’t really for dummies (that’s just the publisher’s name for their how-to books) but it does answer everyone’s big questions about “going green” in the garden, and in a way that’s easy to understand.  It explains how to design, implement and maintain a garden while using less water, energy and chemical inputs.  It includes the fun stuff, too – the plants!  Plants that are appropriate to your climate AND beautiful in the garden.   It even guides readers in the sometimes intimidating realm of hardscaping – the patios, walls, fences, steps and lighting systems that add so much to our enjoyment of outdoor spaces.

The author is Owen Dell,  a landscape architect and contractor in California, who’s known there as a wise-cracking television host.  So his style is friendly and fun, without a hint of self-righteousness.  Dell’s experience as a landscape professional makes him a savvy teacher of topics as broad as garden design and as specific as which steps in the installation process we can do ourselves and which ones we’d better hire someone to do for us (something we might hesitate to believe if a local contractor were telling us).

Here are a few of my personal favorite things of the book:

  • It includes silliness and bad puns and promotes “the totally cool art of junkscaping.”
  • In “What’s in it for you,” Dell declares that sustainable landscaping is “cheaper, easier to care for, more satisfying to live with, and much more interesting” than the alternative.  Amen.
  • It stresses the importance of beneficial trees and shrubs.
  • It declares that wildflower meadows, though “righteously sustainable”, are “not so easy.”  I couldn’t agree more, despite all the meadows-are-easy boosterism we’re seeing these days.
  • After listing common complaints about lawns, Dell also lists their benefits, including water absorption (unless the soil is compacted).  Wow, a fair and balanced assessment of lawns!

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