By Susan Wilhelm, Extension Certified Master Gardener
Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change is one of several recently published books addressing the “whys” and “hows” of sustainable, naturalistic garden plantings (see also Sowing Beauty: Designing Flowering Meadows from Seed by James Hitchmough, and Planting in a Post-Wild World by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West). In a nutshell, the book explains how to design and plant gardens based on the ways plants grow in natural settings, what the authors call “ecological gardening.” Such gardens change and evolve over time to create healthy, sustainable landscapes that support wildlife and require fewer inputs than many traditional garden designs.
Garden Revolution is laid out in four parts, starting with an explanation of the book’s conceptual basis, and definitions of ecological gardening terms. Subsequent chapters address site analysis and preparation, with detailed instructions on design, plant selection, and maintenance for meadow, shrubland, and woodland gardens. The book concludes with a discussion of Larry Weaner’s own yard in suburban Philadelphia. Rich, large-format color photographs illustrate the concepts discussed.
Throughout Garden Revolution, the authors emphasize that an ecological garden is as much process as plan, taking a garden’s evolution over time into account along with other design factors. For example, they discuss planting long- and short-lived perennials and grasses together so the plants that take longer to grow mature at the same time the shorter-lived plants die out. Another example is taking advantage of a plant’s self-seeding propensities, to reduce the amount of physical planting required.
While most of the examples in the book are for large gardens, the book’s concepts and tools also work in smaller spaces. For example, in the discussion of ecoregions, the authors describe how to use the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s ecoregion maps along with the more familiar U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Plant Hardiness Zone Map to help select “the right plant for the right spot.” Similarly, advice on the appropriate heights of plants for screening applies to garden settings of all sizes.
Naturalistic plantings appeal to some people who believe such plantings require less extensive weeding. Weaner and Christopher describe how using plants with complementary above- and below-ground growth habits can inhibit weeds over time. In fact, the authors assert that this strategy is more effective in reducing weed invasion than mulch in the long term. However, they do insist that weeding is required, especially as the garden is getting established. Their instructions on weeding techniques and their effectiveness (or lack thereof) are worth reading all by themselves. Be aware that in addition to a section specific to weeding for site preparation, weeding is addressed throughout, so you need to read, or at least skim, the entire book to get the most out of it on this topic.
Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change (Timber Press, 2016) is available at the Arlington Public Library, the Alexandria Public Library (e-book), and at national booksellers.