If you’re an active participant in the world of landscape design or gardening, you no doubt include the word sustainability somewhere on your business card, blog or website. The lectures I attend (and give) as well as many of the books and articles I read do a wonderful job of explaining the havoc careless gardeners can wreck on the environment, when water is treated like an infinite commodity and chemicals are casually applied.
Of course, like most people, I don’t like to be lectured at.
That’s one of the reasons I enjoyed Tomorrow's Garden: Design and Inspiration for a New Age of Sustainable Gardening by Stephen Orr. Instead of opening with a doom and gloom lecture on the perils uninformed gardeners pose to the planet, he begins with the story of his own evolution as a gardener, starting with his ignorant acceptance of the “coddling, fertilizer and fungicides” required to maintain the beloved tea roses and hydrangeas of his Texas youth to his gradual discomfort with the high-maintenance, under-utilized gardens he toured and photographed all over the world as garden editor for House and Garden, Domino and currently Martha Stewart Living. Culminating in the lessons learned most recently as an upstate New York gardener battling deer, difficult soil and harsh winters, Stephen has written a book that is not a lecture on sustainability, but rather a celebration of gardens that connect with nature in both small and large ways.
The first of the book’s main themes,” garden where you live”, advocates the importance of beginning a garden design with a program. Designers and Landscape Architects (and lovers of lists in general) will be familiar with this concept, but Stephen puts his own spin on it, by suggesting that you first understand how you will use the garden, and second acknowledge the cultural conditions of your area with the goal of working with your site rather than against it. This section is illustrated with a series of individual garden stories, from a chicly modernist kid-friendly garden in L.A. to a wind-swept garden in Nantucket.
The second theme focuses on choosing appropriate materials. Stephen seems to have a mania for gravel gardens, so if you’re a fan of that particular aesthetic, you’ll particularly enjoy this section, but there is good advice in general on working with local and repurposed materials. Plenty of photos are included, many of which display a more modernist aesthetic.
Of course, no self-respecting gardening book can get by these days without at least a passing mention of edibles and chickens, and the final section of Tomorrow’s Garden covers edible gardens and community. Although this is typically the part of a book I skim over (I’d rather drool over well-designed gardens and kick-ass planting combos) as it turns out, the final chapter on gardening in the street was my favorite. I loved reading about neighborhoods in Portland and Brooklyn that take a communal approach to front yard gardening, with young and old, experienced gardeners and neophytes all working together to create community.
I had the pleasure of hearing Stephen deliver the key note address at the Garden Writers Symposium in Indianapolis in August (and it’s my signed copy that’s encouraged me to cheekily refer to him as Stephen instead of the journalistically correct Orr). If you have the chance to hear him speak, I’m confident you will enjoy his presentation as much as I did, although if you’re secretly hoping for a little dishing about Martha, he limits himself to noting how hard she works and admiring her timeless beauty and sense of style.
Sigh. If I ever graduate to “Steve” and learn anything juicy, I promise I’ll be back to share.