The Self-Sustaining Garden: The Guide to Matrix Planting

One of the most important garden books I’ve ever read was Peter Thompson’s The Looking Glass Garden: Plants and Gardens of the Southern Hemisphere (Timber Press, 2001). Thompson urged readers to abandon the “orthodox horticulture” espoused in the majority of English and American gardening books, in favor of a gardening approach that responds to the specifics of soil and climate—a philosophy that we strongly advocate at Pacific Horticulture. I was, therefore, excited to receive his new book and was not disappointed by its message.

Originally published in 1997, The Self-Sustaining Garden presents one of Thompson’s key beliefs: the harder gardeners work, the more problems seem to multiply in their gardens. If, however, we select our garden plants more wisely and pair them with logical and compatible partners, the plants will do the majority of the work. The concept of “matrix planting” is based upon models of natural vegetation types, wherein a variety of species grow together in harmony and in support of each other.

These models are drawn from plant communities in the world’s temperate regions: from deciduous woodlands of the Eastern US, Western Europe, and Asia; from the grasslands of the American plains and the tussock lands of New Zealand; and from wetlands almost anywhere outside of the tropics. In each setting, an assemblage of plants share the land and the resources (soil nutrients and water), and thrive by virtue of their adaptation to the soil and the climate of the area. Mimicking these communities in our gardens, Thompson suggests, can lead to successful borders, shade gardens, meadows, and water gardens—all with minimal maintenance.

In addition to Thompson’s thoughtful prose are “case studies” of gardens in different parts of the world that have been created based on the matrix model. In truth, the studies are imaginary but are so well thought out and illustrated (by his talented wife, landscape architect Josie Owen) that they bring to life his vision of intelligent garden designs. (His tongue-in-cheek descriptions of the clients for these gardens are, alone, worth the price of the book.)

While intended for gardeners in temperate regions, generally colder than those along much of the West Coast, the message of The Self-Sustaining Garden is one that can be adapted to gardens anywhere: look to the natural models and plant accordingly, using both native plants and others that will enjoy sharing space in the conditions your garden has to offer.

Richard G Turner Jr, editor