Sustainable landscaping from inspiration through construction

Four excellent books explain the ins and outs of sustainable landscaping, from philosophy to practical advice.

Photo courtesy of Terry Hankins/Petaluma Argus Courier
A family tends a plot at the La Tercera Community Garden, in Petaluma, Calif. Urban homesteading is growing in popularity as more people want to save money and live more sustainably.
Photo by K. Ruby Blume/Courtesy Skyhorse Publishing
Jane and a giant cabbage in the community garden. Even apartment dwellers can grow much of their own food, thanks to the popularity of community gardens.

Sustainability has become such a popular buzzword in landscaping that new books on the topic come out every week. Knowing which ones best suit your needs can be a challenge, but these four recent titles will give you a grounding in the philosophies and how-to involved in landscaping and gardening more sustainably.

Philosophies and debates

My first recommendation is "The New American Landscape: Leading Voices on the Future of Sustainable Landscaping," edited by Thomas Christopher (Timber Press, $34.95). Thirteen powerhouse authors contribute to chapters on balancing natives and exotics in the garden, waterwise landscaping, sustainable edible gardening, green roofs, meadow gardens, and more.

This is some of the most balanced and thorough writing about sustainability issues in the landscape that I’ve seen. Part manifesto and part how-to, each chapter delves deeply into a topic in sustainable landscaping and shares the philosophies and debates surrounding it, as well as the expert author’s best advice for how to move forward in a practical and helpful way.

The new and exciting thinking on these topics made for fascinating reading, and even though I’ve read at least eight books on sustainable landscaping in the last year, this is the book I returned to most often to find fresh ways of approaching these topics and to re-examine my beliefs.

Urban landscaping projects

While "The New American Landscape" provides inspiration and a worldview shift, "Urban Homesteading: Heirloom Skills for Sustainable Living," by Rachel Kaplan and K. Ruby Blume (Skyhorse Publishing, $16.95) provides a wealth of information about actual projects you may like to take on, to green your footprint and increase your self-reliance.

While none of the chapters will make you an expert, they give just enough information so you can figure out which projects will be most likely to be a good fit for you. They cover an incredible range of how-tos, including how to make and plant a seed ball, create a composting toilet, grow potatoes in a barrel or trash can, ferment your own sauerkraut and make your own naturally bubbly sodas, keep rabbits or goats, harvest edible weeds, and build a solar drying rack.

Even apartment dwellers can do the majority of these projects, and many would be fun to do with children. The entire book is packed full of diagrams and dense information that will help you live closer to the land.

Importance of good design

Alice Bowe’s "High Impact, Low-Carbon Landscaping" (Timber Press, $24.95) focuses more on the nuts and bolts of designing a stylish yet sustainable landscape. She has suggestions for how to design with plants (even in challenging conditions), which types of building materials are the most sustainable, and how to plan your landscape to leave as small a carbon footprint as possible.

My favorite aspect of this book is the emphasis on blending good design principles with sustainable techniques. So many authors get caught up in being eco-friendly that they forget how important beauty is as well.

After all, if our sustainable landscape looks messy or poorly planned, how will we effectively educate our neighbors and act as ambassadors for these important concepts?

How to select meaningful projects

Lastly, "Sustainable Landscaping for Dummies," by Owen Dell (Wiley, $21.99) is the most thorough compendium of construction and maintenance techniques that I’ve found. Mr. Dell is a landscape architect and contractor, and has been a landscape professional since 1971, so his information is spot-on, and both practical and effective.

This gem of a book had me laughing out loud. Chapter headings such as “Breaking wind like the pros” and “Fancypants composting technology and the supplies you really need” were both fun and informative, and kept me reading even those sections I had no intention of implementing.

The best part is that because Dell’s been a landscaping professional for so many years, he’s seen trends come and go. His straight-shooting advice about which sustainable techniques are easy and give a lot back, and which projects are thankless and best avoided was much appreciated.

This is a solid read, and I’d recommend it even for experienced landscape professionals. I’d be surprised if this book isn’t used in at least a few college-level horticultural programs across the country -- it’s just that good.

While many well-known classics in the field such as "Gaia’s Garden," by Toby Hemenway (Chelsea Green) and "Bringing Nature Home," by Douglas Tallamy (Timber Press) certainly deserve a place on any bookshelf, this newer crop of books streamlines and focuses the information for specific types of projects and situations, and are accessible to both expert and beginning gardeners.


Genevieve Schmidt is a landscape designer and garden writer in the redwoods of northern California. She shares her professional tips for gardening in the Pacific Northwest at North Coast Gardening and on Twitter. To read more by Genevieve here at Diggin' It, click here.

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