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

In Tomorrow’s Garden, Stephen Orr conveys a sense of what a modern garden should be: visually pleasing, environmentally responsible, and suited to its place. He writes, “For this book, I traveled the nation to talk to gardeners who could help me address the breadth and range of our nation’s horticulture from many different perspectives.”

Throughout the book, Orr introduces readers to innovative gardeners and designers across the country.

Before thinking about the more decorative aspects of gardening and plant selection, the author encourages gardeners to consider how each outdoor area will be used. Enclosed courtyards for outdoor living and dining, a small labyrinth for contemplative activity, a multi-use space that seems larger than its actual size, and a play area for children are just a few of the possible uses.

The suitability of plants to the site is emphasized over gardens that are strictly native in their plant palette. The author believes that “gardening, by its very definition, is the act of modifying nature, and sometimes that entails growing things in places where they wouldn’t normally exist.” Choosing appropriate plants for the site involves an understanding of their water requirements and local ecology. There are many options for planting gardens that are modern, traditional, or eclectic in their designs. A list of small evergreen shrubs for shaping is included for formal gardens, although they “cannot, by the more generous definition, be called low maintenance.”

Although drawn to contemporary gardens for their use of plants, materials, and water in the twenty-first century, Orr shows how gardeners can maintain a sense of tradition, while expressing their individualism in a responsible way. Many of the featured gardens are located in California, “where the hot summers and lack of water conspire to create an environment in which traditional flower borders are, at best, a vain struggle.” Orr also discusses the design of gardens with inherent limitations, such drying winds, steep hillsides, ravenous deer, or dense shade.

An entire chapter is devoted to gravel. The author notes that “more and more landscape designers are taking advantage of the material’s reductive quality as a blank canvas to accentuate unusual plant specimens and architectural features.” Gardeners living in dry climates and in rainy regions like the Pacific Northwest are using gravel as an alternative to lawn and as a unifying and porous layer that allows excess water to drain into the soil. Step-by-step directions are given for laying down gravel, together with ideas for softening the hardscape with the forms and textures of plants and other garden elements.

The author makes a strong case for recycling and repurposing materials that might otherwise be discarded. For example, Bay Area designer Shirley Watts transforms old vinyl billboards and computer motherboards into decorative and functional garden features. Other profiled designers create edible gardens in urban areas, including some on rooftops, or encourage collective gardening where space is limited. To highlight the trend toward backyard farms, Orr profiles several people who are enthusiastic about raising chickens in their gardens, “where beauty and utility hold nearly equal importance.”

Tomorrow’s Garden is filled with detailed case studies of small and large gardens, stunning photographs on almost every page, and a list of resources that includes featured garden designers and organizations to help gardeners create beautiful and sustainable gardens for the twenty-first century. Orr inspires his readers to think about design, plant selection, water use, and materials in exciting and innovative ways.

Katherine Greenberg, garden designer
Lafayette, California