The New American Landscape: Leading Voices on the Future of Sustainable Gardening

The New American Landscape offers the nuanced perspectives of thirteen sustainable landscape experts on a range of topics that include native plants and wildlife gardening, creating meadow gardens, managing pest problems, green roofs, and gardening with edibles. The authors aim to provide a deep understanding of the philosophies and debates within each topic, and the result is not only compelling but surprisingly useful.

As a landscape designer and home gardener, I often think about how best to balance the use of native plants, edibles, and the exotic plants that make up most gardens. I’ve struggled with how to infuse my landscapes with a sense of regional character, while leaving room for human artfulness and interaction in the form of flowers for cutting, edibles for the table, and plants that my clients and I just plain enjoy.

Rick Darke’s chapter on balancing natives and exotics in the garden is pragmatic, sympathetic, and instructive. He’s long had a passion for the wild areas in his region and a desire for his landscape to reflect some of that beauty, as well as to support the specialist insects that have evolved to only breed or feed upon native plants. Yet his horticulture career began at Longwood Gardens, which features exotic plants from around the world, so his advice and musings on the topic are balanced and carefully considered.

A number of Western experts are featured in the book as well. John Greenlee, the California-based author and champion of meadow gardens, shares the best plants and tactics for creating meadows. The answer isn’t always native plants; he makes the point that a sustainable garden is one that requires few resources to manage, and that many of our native plants have needs incompatible with home gardens, such as a natural ecology based on fire. The beautiful photographs of meadow gardens will inspire even those gardeners who think they don’t care for grasses.

Elaine Ingham, an internationally renowned soil microbiologist from Oregon, has a chapter about managing garden soils that will change the way you tackle many common pest problems. While the explanations of soil science will require an alert mind and a quiet room to grasp fully, the information she shares can be put to immediate practical use. She provides a cheat sheet at the end of her chapter, outlining how to deal with pest problems that are really the result of poor soil health. This small section, alone, is worth the cover price of the book.

Permaculture guru Toby Hemenway contributed the book’s final chapter. He brings together the varied topics within the book under the umbrella of time-tested techniques drawn from permaculture (permanent + agriculture), as a guide for those embarking on a new design or gradual re-design of their outdoor space. Always in sight is the goal of creating a landscape that needs little care, few resources, and feeds not only the people who tend the garden but also the birds and insects that form such a vital community with us.

While The New American Landscape is a departure from the typical glossy gardening book stuffed with photographs, both passionate gardeners and those interested in the environment will find it an invaluable resource for better understanding today’s hottest topics in sustainable landscape practices.

Genevieve Schmidt, landscape designer & garden writer
Arcata, California