The living landscape Designing for beauty and biodiversity in the home garden

Rick Darke

Book - 2014

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Portland, Oregon : Timber Press 2014.
Physical Description
392 pages : color illustrations ; 27 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 367-368) and index.
Main Author
Rick Darke (author)
Other Authors
Douglas W. Tallamy (author)
  • Layers in wild landscapes
  • The community of living organisms : why interrelationships matter more than numbers
  • The ecological functions of gardens : what landscapes do
  • The art of observation
  • Applying layers to the home garden.
Review by New York Times Review

IT MAY BE that, like the feckless Candide, we should quit tormenting ourselves about the terrible things over which we have no control - and just cultivate our gardens. Except we have very little control over what's happening there either. Plants inexplicably wilt, rot and shrivel; they suffer the depredations visited upon them by voles, moles and deer. And then there's global warming, giving booster shots to the poison ivy and generally wreaking havoc with droughts, downpours, blue northers and scalding heat waves. Help is at hand, even if it can sometimes offer only temporary relief - or temporary distraction. Consider, for example, Nepeta cataria, catmint. Many years ago, it inspired the first demonstration of real delight my children took in the garden I tended in suburban New York. Yowls rang throughout the neighborhood, and soon our furry friends were staggering around in the yard. Nepeta cataria is "a unique herb," we learn in the handsome and authoritative RODALE'S 21ST-CENTURY HERBAL (Rodale, $35), "intoxicating to cats but relaxing to humans." Amply fulfilling the promise of his book's subtitle, "A Practical Guide for Healthy Living Using Nature's Most Powerful Plants," the esteemed ethnobotanist Michael J. Balick thoroughly explains the culinary and medicinal value of more than 180 herbs from around the world. Balick's passion for the study of "the power of the bond between plants and people" rings out on every page. I defy the reader not to fall in love. His favorite book - of the great multitude spilling through his home - is John Gerard's "The Herball," published in 1597. The very smell of its pages draws Balick back to a time when families compiled their own therapeutic recipes. A global survey informs us that the yarrow stalk was used in the ancient Chinese system of divination called the I Ching; that Abyssinians stuffed pillows with fresh celery leaves; that Native Americans used pennyroyal to repel insects. A chapter called "How Herbs Work" examines their chemical composition in accessible, lively language. This indispensable volume is beautifully produced, a treasure for generations of gardeners. If you're someone whose idea of perfect bedtime reading is "Dirr's Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs," you're in luck - a bumper crop of excellent reference books is on its way. The encyclopedic WEEDS OF NORTH AMERICA (University of Chicago, paper, $35; available in August), by Richard Dickinson and France Royer, is going to have pride of place on my bedside table for years to come. It covers more than 600 species from 69 plant families at every stage of growth. Royer's photographs are almost perversely alluring. They make you want to go out and plant weeds. Which, er, actually I do. There's plenty to ponder for the philosophically minded gardener. What, exactly, is a weed? A plant out of place? An unloved flower? An intruder? (In that case, the authors advise, "phytosanitary measures" are required.) Is a weed sort of like pornography: You know it when you see it? Scoff if you like, but for their purposes Dickinson and Royer leaned on "federal, provincial and state weed legislation," about which, I admit, I was clueless. I note, however, that weeds, like deer, haven't learned that there are statutes dictating where they're not wanted. The deer in my neighborhood seem to know their weeds, and avoid them assiduously. Many's the time I've thought I would just turn my garden over to the weeds' higher powers. I'm happy with a profusion of mints, salvia and yellow flag irises - weeds all. I've been known to encourage white clover, which makes a beautiful lawn, and admire Scotch thistle, pokeweed and common mullein. As for teasel, though Dickinson says it's "of little economic importance," I planted some for its arresting architecture - never anticipating its thuggish tendencies. Surely there must be something marketable in a tall, thin, angular and indomitable specimen? How can you not be ensnared by a book populated by prostrate pigweed, tansy ragwort and dog-strangling vine? The giant hogweed looks like an English eccentric. I do get it: Weeds like the Russian and autumn olives crowd out the natives. But who was in the garden first? Let's not wander into that particular thicket. Common milkweed is a concern since it hosts viruses like cucumber mosaic, strawberry mottle and tobacco streak. Yet it also plays host to monarch butterflies. Maybe we don't give weeds enough love, even if they must eventually be chased out. After all, weeds give us the chance to vent a little O.C.D. energy; it's utterly soul-satisfying to rip into them, two-fisted. Salvias, those scofflaws of the weed police, get plenty of respect in John Whittlesey's THE PLANT LOVER'S GUIDE TO SALVIAS (Timber Press, $24.95), just one volume in a lavishly illustrated series produced in association with the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. It has just been released here, along with Brent Horvath's THE PLANT LOVER'S GUIDE TO SEDUMS (Timber Press, $24.95) and two Others. In THE PLANT LOVER'S GUIDE TO SNOWDROPS (Timber Press, $24.95), Naomi Slade tells us that visiting snowdrop gardens has become "an essential part of the British calendar." A tiny part of my soul tends toward galanthophilia, so I applaud such priorities. Slade's book even has an entire section on "Snowdrop Theft." Because these shy charmers are often passed around, Slade's American colleague David L. Culp remarks that "after a while you can tell who someone's friends are by looking at their snowdrop collection." We're in a dahlia craze these days, after having turned up our noses at their loud ways for a couple of decades. Must be that '90s revival in the air; these are the Spice Girls of the flower world. In THE PLANT LOVER'S GUIDE TO DAHLIAS (Timber Press, $24.95), Andy Vernon shines a spotlight on these bodacious bloomers. Vernon suggests companion plants, especially grasses, and for those wanting a quieter look, offers Dahliettas. Who knew? It's time to let our gardens do some work for us, for a Change. Kristin Green's PLANTIFUL (Timber Press, paper, $24.95) is exactly what many of us need. In spite of its rampant cuteness with section titles, this book is extremely useful. "Start small," its subtitle urges, then "grow big with 150 plants that spread, self-sow and overwinter." Here the common teasel "behaves beautifully, attracting bees." Green's Petasites japonicus rambles politely across a border, though in my beds it would be kind to characterize its growth as shambolic. It bears remembering that in the garden, as in life, what is nicely plentiful in one place might be considered invasive in another. So Green offers clear directions on plant division. Jessica Walliser's ATTRACTING BENEFICIAL BUGS TO YOUR GARDEN (Timber Press, paper, $24.95) makes a smart case for "a natural approach to pest control." Basically, Mom was right: You catch more flies with honey. The pictures of bugs, in their sometimes hideous detail, are splendid. The praying mantid can swivel its head a full 180 degrees in both directions, and it's lovely to know that while dragonflies rest with their wings open, damselflies fold them together. New York's state insect is the nine-spotted ladybug, but it (she?) has hardly been seen here for more than 20 years. Thus begins a fascinating tale of competition between natives and introduced species; in this case, it resulted in the national Lost Ladybug Project. And, dear reader, we are reminded that "weeds do provide resources for beneficial insects." Ahem. In THE LIVING LANDSCAPE (Timber Press, $39.95), Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy make an authoritative case for "designing for beauty and biodiversity in the home garden." Early on, Darke points out that in one of his previous books, although there were 700 pictures, only one bird and one bee were shown. That separation between plants and "nonplants" is no longer tenable in garden design, which must now focus not just on providing beauty but also on shelter, food and groundwater recharge, on gardens that are ecologically sound and conservative in using resources. Darke and Tallamy's book makes an impassioned plea, as Darke puts it, to "stop worrying about where plants come from and instead focus on how they function in today's ecology. After all, it's the only one we have." "Live in the layers,/not on the litter," Stanley Kunitz wrote in a poem about transformation. The window over his desk looked onto his compost pile. "The Living Landscape" opens with descriptions of the layers of growth in wild landscapes, which serve as a touchstone for designing the home garden. The authors show us how to define space organically, using plants and shrubs as walls, creating gardens that are both expansive and intimate. And they remind us to respect the life beneath our feet, like eastern box turtles, whose hatchlings can live underground for extended periods before emerging into the light. This thoughtful, intelligent book is all about connectivity, addressing a natural world in which we are the primary influence. Reading it, I was reminded of a scene I recently witnessed in a New York City park. "We don't touch nature," a mother scolded a child who had been approaching a robin. We do, of course, and nature touches us, beautifully, hauntingly, alarmingly. One of my friends rightly swears by Darke's "The American Woodland Garden" and Tallamy's "Bringing Nature Home." I'm partial to George Schenk's "The Complete Shade Gardener," to say nothing of his beautiful "Moss Gardening." But that doesn't mean there isn't room in the glade for other woodland lovers. Amy Ziffer is a decidedly pragmatic, opinionated writer. Three cheers for her protests against English garden books repackaged for the American market with an utter disregard for our growing conditions, THE SHADY LADY'S GUIDE TO NORTHEAST SHADE GARDENING (University Press of New England, paper, $27.95) is written exclusively for those of us who live in this region of acidic soils, sultry summers, wintry mixes, twisters, hurricanes, nor'easters and, my new favorite, wind events. The Shady Lady is bossy, as well she should be. Just tell us what to do: We need help! Don't expect your shade garden to flower for that June wedding. There's a reason shade plants tend to have light-colored flowers: They pop out in the gloaming to draw pollinators. You think shade gardening is hard? Try being a shade plant. Most of us have way too many books about perennials on our shelves; they sprout (dare I say it?) like weeds in publishers' lists. Usually the old standbys serve best. But GARDENING WITH PERENNIALS (University of Chicago, paper, $22.50), by the British garden writer Noel Kingsbury, muscles its way in, dispensing "lessons from Chicago's Lurie Garden." It will be indispensable for Midwestern gardeners who deal with searing heat and bone-rattling cold - and not much in between. Yes, an Englishman in Chicago. That's the twist that makes this book special: It took an out-of-towner to realize that the dazzling, gently rolling five-acre Lurie Garden in Millennium Park merited book-length attention. Created by a Dutch landscape architect, Piet Oudolf, and the American theater designer Robert Israel, the Lurie Garden, sitting on the concrete roof of a parking garage, is brimming with ideas for every home garden. And it offers, as Kingsbury puts it, "a possible resolution to the native/nonnative plant debate," with Midwest natives making up over half the species planted, encouraging residence by bugs in a familiar web of life. Mind you, birds and bees will do it anywhere. If there's nectar, Kingsbury reminds us, they don't care if a flower hails from China or Illinois. There's nothing more pleasurable than visiting a garden that bears eloquent testimony to local styles, and the garden designer Judy Kameon is a wizard at conjuring up California in all its breezy pop and pizazz, GARDENS ARE FOR LIVING (Rizzoli, $50) made me want to head for that temperate West Coast sunshine. Plants matter most, of course - Kameon sticks to what thrives - but here they share the stage with chairs, benches, tables, screens and even outdoor beds for movie viewing. An amphitheater in Kameon's book is particularly delightful. Built to stabilize a hillside property, it was made of tons of broken concrete collected in part from the side of the road, then creatively planted. As people across the country seem to be hauling ovens and rotisseries and even refrigerators into their gardens, there's a welcome section on outdoor cooking. Kameon's tone is warm, gracious and informative. Her love for her patch of this enormous and varied country is infectious. No matter where you choose to cultivate your own garden, it's a time-honored tradition to reach for an icy drink at the end of a backbreaking day. At the start of that day, though, the perfect thing is a hot cup of tea and a stroll around the beds to see what made it through the night. Even better if your tea comes right out of your garden, with help from HOMEGROWN TEA (St. Martin's Griffin, paper, $23.99), by Cassie Liversidge. I'll never again complain about paying a pretty penny for high-quality tea, now that I understand what it takes to tend one measly Camellia sinensis. Not less than 11 hours of sunlight, please! No direct heat over a prolonged time! Must have misty mornings and evenings! And I thought roses were divas. The frustrating thing about growing camellias of any sort in Northeastern gardens is that one of these days you'll take a trip to New Orleans and despair when you see them running rampant in abandoned lots. The same happens when you visit Los Angeles and spot the jade plant you're coddling back in your sunroom, here planted in hedges and hacked back with chain saws. Liversidge moves off Chinese camellias quickly and offers dozens of options for tisanes, or herbal infusions. This is where the fun begins. What to do with all those scarlet rose hips as autumn's chill descends? Harvest them; when blended with mountain pepper, rose hip tea will be an excellent source of vitamin C through the long winter. Lemon verbena is "wonderful if you are detoxing" - though there's altogether too much worry in the air about detoxing, and I hate to encourage that sort of thinking. New Jersey can throw its own tea party with local tea, Ceanothus americanus, a small deciduous shrub. Politicians will be glad to learn that it soothes sore throats. Drink up. After you're done with the sowing and watering, the feeding and the harvesting, the drying and the chopping, you'll be thankful that on the seventh day, while we were resting, God invented the supermarket. There are plenty of reasons to turn your back on the world's travails, join Candide and lock the gate behind you. Voltaire himself was a gardener; it was an important pastime, he said, as it was an extraordinarily effective way to keep busy. Don't we know it! We may not live in the best of all possible worlds, but every gardener cultivates hope. And those are seeds worth planting. DOMINIQUE BROWNING is the senior director of Moms Clean Air Force. She blogs at

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [June 1, 2014] Review by Booklist Review

Interest in the native plant movement is slowly growing, but this guide will interest all gardeners as Darke and Tallamy go beyond simple gardening tips to describe how native plants can play essential roles in gardens designed for multiple purposes, with a focus on proven functionality. Beauty ranks high as a value and function, and the authors also note such equally important garden purposes as screening and cooling. They cover the various botanical, cultural, and temporal layers in wild landscapes, the interrelationships of living organisms, what landscapes do ecologically, the cultivation of appreciation for the wonder of nature's processes, and diverse home garden applications. Abundant color photographs of herons, egrets, turtles, and other animals enhance images of biodiverse landscapes and instructions for using native plant cuttings to create interior decor. The authors also provide useful grids showing selected plants' landscape and ecological functions organized by North American regions. Essential for gardeners and nature lovers interested in sustainability.--Scott, Whitney Copyright 2010 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission. Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Landscape designer Darke (The American Woodland Garden) and ecologist and entomologist Tallamy (Bringing Nature Home) give meaningful definition to the idea of biodiversity, particularly as it relates to a suburban garden. The book addresses the question: is biodiversity about "just gardening with native plants?" The answer is no; biodiverse gardening means giving native plants a functional and life-giving role in sustaining gardens. The authors highlight the less appreciated but critical role that natives can play, including cooling, tapping into ground water, and providing shelter for wildlife. They also assert that because suburban sprawl has created profound environmental change, "It's time to stop worrying about where plants come from and instead focus on how they function in today's ecology." Their book focuses on long-term strategies for regenerating depleted soil. They dispel the false dichotomy that a garden can be either all natives and therefore healthy or filled with exotic plants and not naturally sustainable. Including 500 color photos, the book offers guidance for creating beautiful landscapes that will be durable and "support life without sacrificing aesthetics." (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved Review by Library Journal Review

Darke (The American Woodland Garden) and Tallamy (Bringing Nature Home) have -cowritten a fascinating and beautiful book on creating gardens for wildlife. They begin by discussing the layers of a working forest ecosystem, followed by an explanation of the ecological function of gardens. They then apply these principles to the home landscape, showing gardeners how to build a beautiful garden that also provides habitat for wildlife. Heavily illustrated with stunning color photographs, with most of the images taken in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States, the book concludes with useful tables listing selected plants (trees, shrubs, vines, herbaceous plants, grasses, and ferns) along with their landscape and ecological functions such as cover; nest sites; pollen; nectar; food for birds, mammals, and caterpillars; flowers; fall color; fragrance; and screening. There are separate tables for the Mid-Atlantic, Southeast, Southwest, -Pacific Northwest, Midwest and Mountain States, and New England regions. VERDICT Highly recommended for all readers interested in ecology, natural history, and gardening for wildlife using native plants.-Sue O'Brien, Downers Grove P.L., IL (c) Copyright 2014. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.