What I Learned from The New American Landscape


I must have read every book ever published about “sustainable gardening” – surely there aren’t any more of them! – but still I was eager to read the latest on the subject from Timber Press because the contributors are the undisputed experts on their subjects, from soils and water conservation to native plants and permaculture.  Indeed the book’s subtitle, “Leading voices on the future of sustainable gardening,” is no idle boast.

So despite my imagined overexposure to this topic, I found plenty of interesting tidbits in The New American Landscape, including the following.

Pest and pesticide experts David Deardorff and Kathryn Wadsworth boldly state what’s so often said whispered about the horticultural advice given by universities – that it’s often tainted by the source of their funding – the chemical companies. 

Permaculture advocate Eric Toensmeier isn’t entirely happy with the Sustainable Sites Initiative requirements for LEED-like certification for landscapes because they give no credit for growing edibles.  He goes on to make an impressive case for food-growing even in the desert, showing off a Tucson garden that supplies 10-25 percent of the owner’s food using rainwater, greywater and runoff only. 

Doug Tallamy explains that insects are more important than seeds and berries for sustaining birds, writing that “Ninety-six percent of terrestrial birds in North America rear their young on insects….When they are reproducing, birds need the high-quality protein and energy-rich fat bodies produced by insects to succeed.”  (Tallamy also disproves two opposing myths about native plants, as I reported here earlier.)

Richard Darke defines “sustainable gardens” as “those that consume the fewest resources,” which makes so much sense I wonder why that definition isn’t universally accepted.  Then he jumps into the hottest topic in gardening with his take on invasive plants: “I am not comfortable with the term ‘invasive’… So-called invasive plants wouldn’t exist unless they were better adapted to current conditions than so-called native species.” Darke grows a mix of natives and nonnatives but declares that “None of the plants I grow require watering beyond initial establishment, fertilizing, or pesticides.”  He’s my kind of gardener.

 Meadows expert John Greenlee, when describing the yearly cutting back required by meadows and natural lawns, recommends doing the job with a “groundcover mower or a weed eater with a blade.”  What the heck are they and where can I buy them?

Reliable predictions are that by 2013, 36 U.S. states will have chronic water shortages, so “waterwise gardening” isn’t just for the arid West anymore.  Tom Christopher reminds us that 30 percent of residential water use goes to the landscape, mostly to lawns that could and should be allowed to go dormant in the summer.  Dormancy isn’t a sign of impending death; it’s the state of “suspended animation” that keeps turfgrasses alive through weeks of summer weather.

Christopher also points out a gaping omission in the USDA’s growing zones – they reflect winter temperatures only and ignore amounts of rainfall.  “The USDA map classifies Naples, FL as identical with Victorville, CA, even though Naples receives 51.9 inches of precipitation annually while Victorville gets less than 7.” 

Christopher’s caveat about the use of mulch surprises me, though.  “In the short term, an organic mulch will reduce soil fertility because it will absorb nitrates (a major plant nutrient) from the soil as it decomposes.  For this reason, the application of such a mulch will probably increase your plants’ need for fertilization in the short term.”  Can that be true of all organic mulches, not just hard wood?  

New-american-landscapeAbout soil science and the details of permaculture, I found a lot here that was new to me but frankly, grasped close to none of it.  My bad, I’m sure. 



  1. i tell people all the time not to freak out when their grass is scorched and looks dead. the author is right, it’s gone dormant and will bounce back when the rains begin in the fall. we are always working against nature. it knows best.

  2. Historic gardening with current buzz words.

    Historic gardens of Italy dwarf this book. Combining pleasure grounds in vanishing threshold with the house, groves of fruit trees, veggies, paths, focal points & etc.

    Why does it matter? The complete package, previous paragraph, increases food production by 60%-80%.

    How? Easy, more pollinators.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  3. Oh, I’d love to win. This book is so amazing that I haven’t wanted to lend it out (I read portions almost daily), but I have one friend who would flip the hell out if I gave her a copy – a sustainable designer who has been waiting for it at the library. Hope I win!!

  4. All too often well meaning humans try to adjust nature to a more “traditional” appearance. Frequently that is a vision of wall to wall green carpeting. With LOTS of water to maintain that look!

    I confess that I find stilt grass an excellent ground cover. Loves shade, takes foot traffic, and doesn’t need watering. If it gets too tall, a once or twice a year mowing teaches it some manners. Since it is an annual, make one of those mowings just before it sets seed.

    Yes, yes, it is an “invasive” species, but then many of our native plants came here by the “same sneak across the border” route. Besides, if they crowd out the Mayflower Descendants, isn’t that just Mister Darwin’s theory at work?

  5. Tallamy spoke in my town last night and my small fire of native gardening is ablaze. As I read your review, I determined, budget be damned, that I would buy the book. Perhaps I will win one.

  6. You don’t need to enter me in the contest–I’ve already read and reviewed this book for my local horticulture society. I just wanted to answer your query about the “groundcover mower or weed eater with a blade.” You can buy blade attachments for many popular weedeaters at local hardware and even at the big box stores–they just bolt on in lieu of the string head portion. Just be sure you have a powerful motor–gas powered and not electric, say.

    As for a groundcover mower, I know DR sells one. I suspect other manufacturers do as well.

  7. I’m just loving the idea that not everyone’s so adamant about the “Natives only” approach. I’m tired of the lack of aesthetic diversity and the militant attitude that always accompanies a native planting.

  8. I am of the opinion that the term invasive doesn’t make sense in a already disturbed landscape, but is useful when thinking about large areas of (for lack of a better word) undisturbed or ecologically stable systems (places).

    It is amazing to see how garlic mustard spreads on a path in the woods, but can’t be found in the pathless areas.

  9. need all the ammunition I can find to convince my spouse who grew up in the suburbs and believes in LAWNS that the meadow needs to be mowed once a year and that insects need to be respected not zapped

  10. Can this be required reading in high school?

    We need to change people’s mindsets before they get, well, set on lawn.

    I feel like I’m banging my head against the wall trying to convince my dad not to water the Kentucky blue grass during July. It’s dormant, dad, NOT dead. ARGH.

  11. Husband looks at the slowly-browning lawn & says “More water.”

    I look at Husband and say, “No. Low-water plants.”

    We’ve fought this battle for years, each entrenched in the rightness of his/her own opinion. Maybe this book would give me more facts to win my side of the argument, if not to replace the lawn with a water-friendly landscape, then at least to not dump even more water onto a swath of lawn just to achieve “Suburban Green”.

  12. A garden is at its best when the plants are allowed to grow with as little intervention as possible. A perennial bed that is planted well, should make it hard for the weeds to compete (though I do love weeding).

  13. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – there is something odd about white people complaining about invasive species.

    I would love to add this book to my gardening library.

  14. My eyes were also opened over the comment about insects vs. fruit. I know birds consume a huge amount of insects, but I’ve never seen comparison numbers between insects and fruit before. The book sounds like a worth-while read!

  15. What little ‘lawn’ I have is dry and brown since I live in an area of exceptional drouth. I also live in terror of fire starting in the parched grass since we have had so many large fires in Texas this summer–169 at last count. This is not covered in any of the comments on ‘water or not water’ the grass. The rest of the plantings are very stressed for lack of water also.

  16. my lawn is native–or at least no effort on my part–plants because I refuse to put forth the effort. The flower and vegetable beds are another story altogether.
    the book looks interesting so I hope I win it. Otherwise, I’ll have to ask my library to get it.
    as for wood mulches, that they would steal nitrogen makes some sense. I’d think decomposed leaves would be a plus though

  17. I love your blog, it’s funny, opinionated and right on the mark. I’ve been a gardener for 40 years, studied with Alan Chadwick and have taught edible landscaping for 30 of those years. It’s great to see it at the crest of the wave. Forget moralizing and start planting. My favorite gardens are both beautiful and bountiful.

  18. I thought that the nitrogen-depletion issue has been debunked here by contributors, hasn’t it? In addition to branding sustainability as consuming few resources, I would also add that needs little intervention after establishment. But maybe that’s tacit in talking about resource consumption. Sounds like an interesting read.

  19. So what do I grow to encourage insects for the birds? Pollinators I understand, but who are the other insects and what do they want for supper (so they in turn can feed the birds).I need the book.

  20. I have the book “The New American Landscape sitting right in front of me.
    A very good book with a lot of information about gardening sustainably.
    A quote from the book.
    Rick Darke “Why natives?
    My top three motives for cultivating indigenous plants are
    to make a garden that reflects local materials,patterns, and processes,
    to live closely with species that represent my region,
    and to ensure that my garden plays an authentic role in sustaining local life and natural resources.”
    I may buy this book.

  21. I am interested in the water portions of the book. I live just north of Naples – all of that water comes in the summer, leaving everyone high and dry in the winter and spring.

  22. We’ve been trying to rehab a meadow to encourage wildlife to our property (and be firewise at the same time) and after wrapping up a very dry July and August, I would love to see what suggestions the contributors have to say in this book.

  23. I want to give this book to my friend who lost her whole garden (and lawn) in a recent hurricane. Her new garden must be sustainable!!

  24. I would love to win a copy of this book. It would be good to bring along to prospective clients and highlight certain sections. Driving around there are still way too many unsustainable gardens out there.

  25. Looking at all those bits of information makes me glad that I am a lazy and frugal gardener, and that I live in a rural area where I can comfort myself with the surrounding fields and woods that get no interference from me and therefore must be filled with bugs. The issue of mulching I find worth more investigation. I’d love to get this book and read in full.

  26. Would love to read this book. Regarding the lawn, I tell my friends I don’t mow my lawn, I level the weeds, whie clover, etc. Works for me.

  27. Fascinating! I’ll have to check that one out. (And in case nobody’s said it already, you can buy a bladed replacement for the usual string weed-whacker. Makes it look vaguely like something a Klingon would use to garden with, but I find it infinitely more useful than those damn plastic strings.)

  28. My husband hates that I recycle food (produce) waste from the kitchen because it attracts bugs (small sweet little fruit flies). Now I can show him that the buggers are feeding the birds we like so much. I need this book as evidence!

  29. I wrote my list of good lawn elimination needs, but it got eaten up. So, briefly, I would read this book from cover to cover and then talk about it endlessly.

  30. Not only is the mulch information just plain wrong (I’ve debunked that myth here and other places), but I’m incensed that my advice as a university specialist “might be “tainted by the source of [their] funding – the chemical companies.”

    I am SO tired of hearing this rubbish. Show me one university extension specialist – the faculty that actually give horticultural advice – who falls into this category. Guess what? Those of us who work in urban horticulture, arboriculture, landscapes, etc. get very little, if any, funding from chemical companies or anyone else for that matter. The bucks are in crop production research. Furthermore, those of us whose job it is to give horticultural advice are accountable to our administrations. Is there such accountabiilty for independent advice givers?

    I should also point out that USDA zones were developed ONLY for cold hardiness data. Rainfall has nothing to do with it.

    It sounds as though this book could have benefitted from some outside fact-checking before it was published.

  31. Would love to read this book. I live in Tucson, AZ and I know the USDA zones refer to frost and cold hardiness only but what a great chart the USDA could come up with if they included not only rainfall but summer heat hardiness.

  32. “In the short term, an organic mulch will reduce soil fertility because it will absorb nitrates (a major plant nutrient) from the soil as it decomposes. For this reason, the application of such a mulch will probably increase your plants’ need for fertilization in the short term.” Can that be true of all organic mulches, not just hard wood?
    Sorry but the theory stated above (also known as nitrogen draft) has been disproven yet this fallacy refuses to die. When wood chips as used as surface dressing, no significant soil nitrogen occurs ( or if it does, it occurs at the most superficial level where weed seeds might establish themselves) . Nitrogen loss occurs when the wood chips are MIXED with the soil (so don’t mix wood chips with the soil!) For a more robust discussion of the virtues of wood chip mulch check out Linda Chalker Smith’s website


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