Sustainable Landscaping for Dummies

Landscape architect Owen Dell long ago established himself as a maverick, promoting design solutions that actually enhanced the natural ecology of a site, while providing wonderful spaces for outdoor living and gardening. His seminal articles in Pacific Horticulture may have incorporated the first use of the term “sustainable” in reference to the garden, although the concept of a regionally appropriate, chemical-free, wildlife-friendly, and resource-efficient approach to garden making has been a dominant theme of the magazine since its founding in 1976. Owen has spoken at three of the magazine’s Gardening Under Mediterranean Skies symposia. So it was with great enthusiasm that I learned of Owen’s new publication, Sustainable Landscaping for Dummies. And what a resource it is!

While there may be many definitions of “sustainable,” Owen focuses on key ideas that make sustainable landscaping work: recognize the garden as a living system based on nature; aim for stability as the garden matures (particularly important to reduce pruning needs); recycle and repurpose materials; accept local conditions (especially climate and soils); and carefully consider the inputs and outputs of a garden to minimize impacts both within and outside of the garden (eg, reducing the use of toxic materials and fossil fuels). By putting these ideas into place in creating our gardens, we can have a profound beneficial impact on the future of our world.

Owen has created a complete textbook on the process of garden making, from conceptual design to implementation to management of the finished product—all with the underlying theme of sustainability, which is what sets this book apart from the countless others on the subject of garden design. He begins by emphasizing the need to understand the site, its opportunities and limitations, and to realistically evaluate your own needs in the garden. The clear, simple style of the Dummies series shines here, making the entire process accessible for novices, although Owen is frank in acknowledging that some situations (eg, retaining walls, irrigation, and water features) may need professional help.

Owen covers both hardscape and softscape, always emphasizing the use of materials—living or otherwise—that will not adversely impact the environment. He discusses the structural elements that make up a garden (flooring, pathways, walls, and ceilings) and evaluates the role of hardscape materials (paving, stepping stones, gravel, fencing, overhead arbors) versus softscape materials (walk-on ground covers, hedging, and trees) in creating those structural elements.

Several chapters are devoted to the issue of water in the landscape—from harvesting the natural rainfall, to the most efficient ways to design, use, and maintain irrigation systems. Though his professional work is primarily in Santa Barbara, where water is a constant concern, he writes for gardeners anywhere, emphasizing, as always, the need to understand the local situation. But he never never fails to remind his readers that the future remains a question mark because of global climate change; we all need to conserve water in every way we can.

Nearly one-third of the book is devoted to a discussion of the selection and care of plants in the garden. Given the national audience of the Dummies series, Owen wisely avoids any detail of specific plants, since he could not adequately serve the entire country. Rather, he focuses on the role that plants play in a sustainable garden (shade, screening, ground covering, wildlife habitat, and food production) and the practices that will ensure their healthy growth with minimal effort and expense to the garden owner. Again, adaptability to the regional climate is point one, along with the need to select plants suited to the space available—to avoid unnecessary pruning to control each plant’s growth.

Sustainable garden care fills several chapters, emphasizing alternatives to chemicals for fertilizing or pest and disease control, as well as alternatives to the fossil-fuel-burning power equipment that destroys the peace and quiet of most neighborhoods today. Lawns receive attention in their own chapter, geared primarily for those who simply cannot have a landscape without one and are blessed with natural rainfall during the warm growing season. Owen recommends exploring low-maintenance grasses that are now available for almost every region of the country, or walk-on ground covers, mulch, and, in the right situation, meadows. But no plastic lawns! They contribute nothing to the environment, increase the urban heat island effect, often involve fossil fuels or toxic chemicals in their manufacture, and merely add to the waste stream when they reach the end of their useful lives.

There is a substantial amount of reading in Sustainable Landscaping for Dummies, since there are no photographs and only a relatively few line drawings (plus the usual cartoons that begin each section of a Dummies). For those not up to that much reading, The Part of Tens provides a capsule summary of ten quick projects that will make a positive impact on the environment, along with ten totally non-sustainable mistakes to avoid. Finally, just inside the front cover is a tear-out Cheat Sheet that offers an even briefer rundown on the simplest ways to make your landscape sustainable, set up a water-thrifty landscape, select the right plants for the right place, and find sustainable alternatives to power equipment and chemicals.

Richard G Turner Jr, editor