5 Things I Love about Tomorrow’s Garden


This review was originally published on Kirkus Reviews – click here to read the comments.  And check out Amy's A Conversation about Understanding Garden Design, published today.

After years of presenting America’s best gardens to magazine readers and writing about them for The New York Times, Stephen Orr finally found the time to compile the most interesting ones in his new book Tomorrow’s Garden. (Rodale Books, 2011.)

While it’s true that what makes these gardens so interesting are the myriad ways that they exemplify sustainability, don’t worry because Orr avoids the usual lists of environmental do’s and don’ts and their accompanying finger-shaking, and relies instead on photos that lure and inspire us to create environmentally responsible gardens that are also beautiful. Plus Orr includes stories of real people making some very nontraditional gardening choices – so there’s lots to love here. For me, these are the highlights:

1. His own journey. Orr grew up in West Texas, where “gardening for us was an act of forcibly bending nature to suit human will.” That meant disease-prone hybrid tea roses and “liberal doses of bright blue fertilizer.” His confession that he was “pretty naïve ecologically” rings true to us experienced gardeners and we can learn a lot from his journey toward “responsible gardening,” far more than we’d learn from the preachings of new converts to gardening.

2. Super-inclusiveness. Orr has taken pains to include a surprisingly wide range of gardens and garden-makers. We meet older gardeners who have edited out their more resource-intensive plants, as well as 20-somethings in our hipper cities starting rooftop farms and apiaries. We see not just small meadows and food gardens but also curb-side gardens and even formal gardens with clipped hedges. This huge range of options will no doubt lead to more cumulative changes than any single solution (kitchen gardens for all!). StephenOrr3

3. Lawns, not so much. As a promoter of less lawn myself, I was thrilled by Orr’s statement that “One of the common denominators of a modern garden style is the absence of turf.” Indeed, most of the featured gardens have little or no lawn and instead use a whole slew of lawn alternatives: a grove of trees; lush groundcovers with stunning boulders; porous pavers; and a surprising number of gravel gardens. 

But hold on for the shocker – three of Orr’s chosen gardens, including the shady city lot above, use fake turfgrass! Not the old Astroturf, though – today’s synthetics are much better, while using scarce water on lawns has become crazier and crazier, especially in the desert. (What’s even crazier? That this realization has been so slow in coming.) And whether they’re fake or the real deal, Orr urges us to think of lawns as rugs, not wall-to-wall carpeting. Hear, hear! 

 4.Gardening as a joyous pursuit.  We’re used to treatises on “sustainable gardening” making it sound like as much fun as flossing, but thank goodness Orr believes that “Giving pleasure…is essential to any garden that we should wish to sustain.” Indeed, for most of us it’s the sensual rewards of beauty, fragrance, and working among the birds and bees that turn us into gardeners, not appeals to avoid doing harm in our yards. 

5. Stuff I’d never heard of.
  Take Gabion walls, the stone-filled metal cages developed for erosion control that are used as walls and seating in this modern garden. Or the unknown-to-me fact that pea gravel is, um, nonrenewable and that a much better option is crushed limestone or granite (though the bad news is that the mining of all aggregates, even sand, is destructive to the environment.)  

See, it’s not easy being green, at least not perfectly green. But perfection isn’t what Tomorrow’s Garden is about. Thankfully.

To learn more about Tomorrow’s Garden, see Rodale’s interview with Stephen Orr.

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Susan Harris

Susan’s a garden writer, teacher and activist in the Washington, D.C. area. Co-founder of GardenRant, she also wrote for national gardening magazines and independent garden centers before retiring in 2014. Now she has time for these projects:

  • Founding and now managing the pro-science educational nonprofit GOOD GARDENING VIDEOS that finds and promotes the best videos on YouTube for teaching people to garden.
  • Creating and managing DC GARDENS, the nonprofit campaign to promote the public gardens of the Washington, D.C. area, and gardening by locals.
  • Creating and editing the community website GREENBELT ONLINE to serve her adopted hometown of Greenbelt, Maryland (a “New Deal Utopia” founded in 1937).
  • Also in Greenbelt, MD, writing the e-newsletter and serving on the Board of Directors for the cooperatively-owned music and arts venue and restaurant called the NEW DEAL CAFE.

Contact Susan via email or by leaving a comment here.

Photo by Stephen Brown.


  1. Took out my turf 2 decades ago. This is modern?

    Most older neighborhoods, without deed restrictions, don’t have lawns. Instead, collection of clovers, moss, groundcovers, what the wind blows in.

    Great pollinator habitat, lovely fragrance, no watering, no fertilizer, no chemicals.

    Modern? Not.

    Centuries old gardens across Europe, same thing. Modern? Not.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  2. It sounds like Stephen Orr, being from Texas, has let the secret out, there is gardening being done in places other than the East and West Coasts.

    I do see many homeowners still gardening with the idea that it is an “act of forcibly bending nature to suit human will,” however, I doubt those are the gardeners interested in sustainability or this book. They are also the ones doomed to endless frustration.

  3. I really enjoy these book reviews, while I’m sure my husband hates them. There are so many books I need to get now!! This book sounds fantastic. Thanks for reposting your reviews over here so I don’t have to go looking for them on my own!

  4. Great review of a great book. I am also a new fan of Gabion walls. I first learned about them in Matthew Levesque’s “The Revolutionary Yardscape”, a great companion to Orr’s book for those looking for DIY help with their repurposing projects.

  5. We do have to mow still (but less) and my ‘flowery mead’ with its clover, hawkweed, ground ivy, etc. is a pleasure ground. I think Pleasure is the key component for every garden. Have to get this book1

  6. I enjoyed your book review of Stephen Orr. And thanks for the pictures. I live in north central Texas. This is my first year to plant a garden. It’s coming along nicely. I live in town and don’t have a lot of space, but your pictures and review have given me some wonderful ideas about using the space I do have. Thanks again.

  7. I still have lawn. It can take a while to create new plantings if you have a large lot. Tara is right that absence of lawn is nothing new for avid gardeners who always want more space for their plants. What will be new and exciting is when HOAs stop requiring them as part of a landscape.

    I was not into gardening yet when I lived in West Texas, but my father laughed at the memories of trying to keep roses going in a hot climate and sandy soil. Well, it was the 80’s.

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