Sustainable Landscaping for Dummies by Owen Dell (Part 1)


Sustainable Landscaping for DummiesFirst, we're all agreed that "For Dummies" is a successful book franchise and nobody takes "Dummies" personally, right?  

Next, MAN, you'd never catch me trying to cover this huge, sweeping, controversy-filled topic!  But Owen does a great job at this thankless task and I'm glad HE did it, so I can just send readers to the product of his labors.  Here's a sampling of my favorite parts of the book:

  • It includes silliness and bad puns and promotes "the totally cool art of junkscaping."
  • In "What's in it for you," Owen declares that sustainable landscaping is "cheaper, easier to care for, more satisfying to live with, and much more interesting" than the alternative.  Amen.
  • It stresses the importance of beneficial trees and shrubs.
  • It declares that wildflower meadows, though "righteously sustainable", are "not so easy."  You bet.
  • After listing all the terrible things about lawns, Owen lists their benefits, including water absorption (unless the soil is compacted).  Wow, a fair and balanced assessment of lawns!

Now despite all this common ground I found with Owen (and more in Part 2), that doesn't mean we agree on everything and it's no wonder, since we garden in very different climates, too.  So let's have at it!

To quote, "The sustainable strategy for dealing with less than desirable soil is to pick plants that like the soil you have."  But what if it isn't soil at all, just contractors rubble and clay?  Or what if you don't want to limit your plant choice, perhaps drastically?  And he says that for clay soil, adding organic matter provides no long-term benefit.  Now I've never dealt with clay myself but isn't adding organic matter what everybody recommends for it?

And I know he's pro-mulch so I don't get this:  "Maintaining a cover of mulch might help over years or decades but it won't do you any good in the short term."  Say it ain't so!  I've been recommending mulch as the gradual, low-maintenance way to amend soil. 

In choosing groundcovers Owen tell us to "Avoid bee-attracting varieties like clover."  Pass up the best damn nitrogen-fixer and pollinator-feeder on the planet?  I say: Get some shoes!

Now Owen's not a blogger, Tweeter or Facebooker himself but he has agreed to play ball with us by responding to these posts about his book – in between his duties that actually pay the bills.  We hear ya, Owen.

Btw, Owen's one of the two Garden Wise Guys of California TV fame.  His partner in crime IS a blogger – our pal Billy Goodnick.


  1. Your ‘get some shoes’ comment made me laugh right out loud! Here, Here! As for mulch, I had a conversation with my Mom about mulch yesterday. For the shrub border or perennial garden, mulch should be considered a short term solution to keep moisture in and weeds down for a few seasons until your ground covers or perennials fill in to the point of seeing no gaps. Layered plantings as in trees, shrubs, perennials and groundcovers in one area reduce the need for mulch long term. How have we fallen in love with the look of mulch in this country? The vegetable garden is a different story. Just an opinion.

  2. Around here most gardeners dealing with solid clay have learned to build “up” rather than try to change the nature of their soils by digging “down” and adding organic matter or anything else. Mounding massive amounts of bought top soil on top of clay is not as expensive as it sounds and a lot less work.

    I hope he backs up his anti-mulch comment with some data, otherwise he’s the perfect person to write a book with “dummy” in the title.

  3. Dell is right about organic amendments in clay soil. They last 2-3 years & are gone. Leaving clay soil again.

    Clay soil amended with granite grit (Turkey grit) or river sand or builders sand stays amended throughout your lifetime and beyond.

    The Georgia Extension Service urges soil preparation with organics. I teach Master Gardeners for the Extension Service and diverge from them on this topic.

    I did the organic thing, as they outlined, it was gone in 2 years.

    And why didn’t I plant more groundcovers when I started my garden? Whatever. Planting many more now. I want my landscape a mulch free zone.

    Thanks for your topic Susan.
    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara Dillard

  4. Personal preference alert!

    I have clay soil here and what I did last year was simply to mound compost on top. I have access to vast amounts of free horse manure so all summer I bring it home, add it to my compost pile and by the following spring, I have a nice LARGE pile of compost that I simply mound on top of the soil. I have no idea how long it will last, but I know for a fact the stuff I tilled into the clay/dirt didn’t become the soft, finely sifted stuff I had where I mounded it up. I will use the clay as a *barrier* for the compost to keep it from disappearing.

  5. hold it on the sweeping statements. Is all clay soil alike? I don’t think so. Are all amendments alike? I don’t think so. Peat has been pretty much discounted as a lasting effective amendment, for one, and crushed granite is, of course, and entirely different type of amendment. Can you just amend your soil once and expect it to last? I don’t think so. Same for mulch.

  6. Regarding soil types and soil amendments, I think the catch in Owen’s statement is “sustainable strategy.” Much as we don’t like to admit it, sustainability sometimes may involve some sacrifices, such as, in some cases, limited plant choice. And speaking as someone who gardens in sandy soil, I would say the results are the same as what those of you claim who garden in clay soil. Early in my gardening here, I loaded up with organic amendments. The results were great–for about a year and a half, and in spite of adding more amendments in smaller doses ever since, the soil has basically reverted to its original sandy state. My conclusion: It is what it is–deal with it.

  7. Right plant for the right soil type.
    That is an over simplified statement in my Northern California area.
    Wouldn’t it be nice if it were just that easy.
    The geological term for the soil structure that occurs in my area is Franciscan melange.
    That means we have a diverse medley of soils all mixed up with one another side by side , such as ; chert, slickenside, yellow , brown and grey clay, schist and other soil types exist side by side in deep and shallow pockets.
    Then throw into this mix that most of the home sites are left with imported compacted class II aggregate back fill.
    Often times not even our most aggressive European invasive weeds can penetrate the crust of this soil structure.
    In many garden sites the native and disturbed soils must be amended and continued to be amended ( decomposition happens ) to support / sustain both native and non native plant life.

    I hope the Dummy book didn’t make the mistake of a blanket statement. Soil profiles and how they are sustained in a residential situation are more complex than simply saying right plant , right place.

  8. Sand is the worst thing you add to clay!!!

    The difference is particle size is such that they do not meld well together at all.
    Add sand to clay and you get CEMENT

    the TROLL

  9. Hmmm. I see this in a circular way.

    We take from the earth…we put back into the earth. We grow and eat things from the ground…and then *ideally* put matter back into the ground to balance out the cycle (compost, manure, etc.). My point here is to start seeing soil as a living thing.

    I don’t think there’s such a thing as a one time fix.

  10. The think the point he’s making about mulching is well-taken and echoed by you, Susan – it’s gradual and not a quick fix. If your soil is OK, mulch will keep it OK long term. If it’s not OK, mulch will do little in the short term to change that. Over time, like a lot of time, it will make a difference, but I’d add compost first and then mulch if the starting conditions aren’t OK.

    Now the soil amending thing I just don’t agree with. It really helps to add compost to soil and I don’t find more than a few plants that will tolerate a hard clay subsoil or the mess left by builders. Maybe he’s just trying to make the point that you can’t change the actual soil type, but discouraging adding compost just isn’t realistic when so many of us are dealing with new construction and little to no actual topsoil.

  11. Ooh! So much to talk about here. Excellent points and comments. And first off, a big thanks to Susan for covering Sustainable Landscaping for Dummies. OK, here we go…

    SOIL AMENDMENTS: Three decades ago I was shocked and then inspired by the work of Dr. Carl Whitcomb, then with University of Florida, on soil amendments. He did some field testing to see which soil amendments worked best. His conclusion, as unexpected to him as it was to the rest of us, was that in most cases un-amended soil works best. Now, there are exceptions here that I won’t take the time and space to get into. But he found, through repeated testing in many climates, with various soil types and plant species, that amending soil reduces fertility, creates a soil that is unnaturally high in organic matter, creates a highly porous sump that will drown plants during rainy periods and allows the soil to dry out faster than normal in dry periods. I interviewed Whitcomb for a magazine article and we struck up a nice friendship. I tried planting directly in native soil, choosing only plants that were adapted to it, and by golly he’s right. We haven’t used amendments for many years now, and we have a fabulous track record of success on hundreds of projects in all soil conditions. (We DO add mycorrhizal fungus inoculum, which is a whole other success story.) Check out for lots of good stuff from Carl. I consider his books very worthwhile, as he has spent a long career debunking horticultural myths with good solid science.

    CLAY SOILS: According to Carl and to other good sources I’ve seen, the only way to truly improve clay soils is to add LOTS of sand or other gritty mineral material. A little sand added to clay does indeed produce concrete, more or less. Clay soils eat organic matter very quickly. As with all other planting decisions, the moral to the story is RIGHT PLANT, RIGHT PLACE. Why do gardeners struggle so hard to do things that don’t make any sense? (I call this ADVERSARIAL HORTICULTURE.) If one has clay soils, one should choose plants that like clay soils. Period. Yes, this does limit one’s choices, but as your mother probably told you, you don’t always get what you want. Mine certainly did.

    MULCH vs. SOIL AMENDMENT: Mulch is the stuff that goes on top of the soil. A 3 to 4 inch deep layer of wood chips, shredded bark or other coarse, organic material acts as a blanket to smother weeds, greatly reduce watering, moderate soil temperatures, and a couple dozen other benefits (see my book for all the gritty details). Mulch is not mixed into the soil; that would be soil amendment (see above). My comment about mulch not being much good in the short term referred only to its ability to gradually improve the condition of the soil beneath it over time. Nearly everyone should be mulching. Mulch mimics the natural “duff” layer in the forest, with all the attendant benefits. Oh, and gravel, crushed rock, decomposed granite and other mineral-based materials used as mulch seem to create more problems than they solve, so they don’t really count. Finally, allow leaf litter to remain in place so that the valuable nutrients it contains can return to the soil from whence they came. They call them leaves because you’re supposed to leave them there. (NOTE: My attorney wants me to warn you that mulch can burn and should be used with care in high fire hazard situations.) To be perfectly clear, I’m the last person to speak out against mulch. Mulch is the coolest thing ever.

    CLOVER: My attorney also urged me to warn people about planting clover in lawns. All it would take is one bee-allergic kid dying from stepping on a bee in a clover lawn to sue me for all the meager earnings on the book and everything else I own too. So although I realize that clover has some benefits in turf, I can’t advocate for it. Call me selfish, but I don’t really want to lose my house.

    FINALLY: No book can cover every variant and permutation of this extremely complex thing we call gardening (or landscaping, if you prefer). I did indeed make blanket statements, and have acknowledged them as such wherever I could. It’s up to readers to adjust the general information for their specific situations. Of course I hope you’ll all buy the book and judge for yourselves. I think you’ll find it eye-opening.

    Thanks for all the great comments. I’ll be pleased to continue the conversation.

    Grow the world you want to live in.


  12. I think you need to clarify, that no amendments are recommended when planting trees. Placing compost, humus, fertilizer, etc. in the planting hole does not encourage the tree’s roots to grow outward. The tree will become unstable, as it grows larger, if the roots don’t spread out from the trunk. (This is especially important here in Florida.) Semi-annual topdressings of compost around the dripline and beyond are recommended to improve the soil with all those microbes.

    Amendments for confined beds, to enrich the soil for annuals, perennials, and shrubs are a different story. Vegetables also require a richer mixture expect for legumes. So the flat statement that amendments are never required is misleading.

    Yes, compost, leaf mold, and other sources of humus will improve both sandy and clayey soils. Add more each year to improve the tilth. Eventually the microbes from your good compost will do their work. I have both solid clay and loose sand on our lot and in both areas after several years of compost the soil has improved significantly.

    Arborists’ wood chips makes one of the most sustainable mulches you can use. After a year or so, it incorporates into the soil creating a wonderful loamy soil. Make sure not to pile the mulch again the tree trunks, though.

    In doing the research for my book, Sustainable Gardening for Florida, I’ve done a lot of reading and talking with experts down here. Since my publisher is a university press, several experts critiqued it thoroughly. It’s been an interesting adventure and my book will finally be released in September. (With a much better cover–thanks to all you garden ranters for making my case.)

  13. The book sounds right on, especially when he clarifies in the comments that mulch is effective as a long-term, just not a short term, approach to soil health. I have planted yards with aerobic soil that was heavily impacted from contractors driving over it with machines and hummers all winter or breaking the water main while they were doing the grading, and I can say that there are still a lot of interesting plants that will thrive and look good if you pick wisely. There are some techniques that have lasting benefits for degraded soils–vertical mulching, trench composting, and amending with pumice or gravel below the crown of your plants, for instance–but I support any book that supports the golden rule of choosing plants: to pick the plant for your soil, rather than the soil for your plant, aka only amend for the plants you eat.

  14. I’ve found out the hard way that adding too much compost to clay planting holes simply does, indeed, lead to a pond when it rains hard and downs the plant. But why NOT add some organic stuff to the hole? And sand is not organic, and you will never be able to dig in your clay again. Right plant, right place. I’m stating a national campaign. Plenty of awesome things like clay, and you can create cool sculptures to put in the garden with any leftover soil. I did, and now I’m on Etsy.

  15. Ginny, the veggie beds and flower beds are the exceptions I was thinking of. Carl Whitcomb found that amending the ENTIRE root zone for perennial and annual plants worked well, but not amending planting holes for individual plants. So thanks for your clarification, which is right on.


  16. I thought you all would find one of my resources on trees interesting when it comes to the discussion of amendments or not in the planting holes.

    University of Florida horticulture professor Ed Gilman maintains the Landscape Plants Web site, with detailed information on tree establishment with irrigation details, pruning and other care of woody plants: See especially all of the sections on tree establishment, including on amount and frequency of irrigation after planting

  17. Thank you, Owen, for writing this book. Your responses to the comments are so well considered that I will certainly buy your book. Thanks, also, for the reference to Lacebark, Inc. as a resource.

    One of the main reason’s I apply mulch everywhere I can is to supress the overwhelming seed bank of exotic invasives in my yard. It helps control the Japanese stilt grass, multiflora rose, wineberry and privet that dominate my property. My desireable natives such as springbeauties, trout lily and sedges work their way through the chips just fine. As new stuff germinates on top it’s easier now to decipher whether to keep or not and easier to yank out.

    This is a great venue for thinking gardners. Thanks!

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