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The Dry Garden: 'Sustainable Landscaping for Dummies' author lays out 9 steps for a greener future

The idea that suburban gardens might be “sustainable” came late to Southern California. Modern Los Angeles was sold on the promise that anything grows. Exotic plants were status symbols. Sunshine was constant, and the only worry about water was finding plants best suited to go next to the swimming pool. More than a century later, the fantasy style is out. Sustainable is in. There’s only one problem.

DellCoverWhat does sustainable mean?

Landscape architect Owen Dell has cut through the eco-babble to offer not just a definition, but also a how-to book. The Santa Barbara-based author of “Sustainable Landscaping for Dummies,” published by Wiley this year, begins by defining sustainability.

It is a principle that he has spent the last 28 years testing as garden designer and home gardener. It all began, he said recently, in thinking about how to "firescape," a term he says he coined. This turned into an adult lifetime spent addressing, challenge by challenge, how to turn the environmental and financial net costs of gardening into net gains.

According to Dell, there are nine basic principles behind creating a sustainable landscape, the first being that it should be a "highly functioning system patterned after the ways of nature."

Second, it should be stable, meaning the garden won’t outgrow one’s needs, requiring too-frequent pruning and generating too much waste ultimately sent somewhere else. Third, that stability should be the product of what he calls "deep design," meaning that the garden’s eventual size, irrigation needs and habits of its plants will be understood upfront.

Fourth, the resulting landscape should harness natural cycles. Fifth, its plants will be well adapted to the local environment, and sixth, it will require few “inputs” such as fertilizers and pesticides.

Seventh: "Every element of a newly formed ecosystem must play a beneficial role: making oxygen, sequestering carbon, providing food, improving the climate inside the dwelling, preventing erosion, or protecting against wildfire, to name but a few," Dell writes.

Eighth, the design will consider environmental effects associated the materials.

For the ninth requirement, Dell borrows a quote from architect William McDonough, one of the nation’s most respected voices in green design. Sustainable landscaping won’t be "less bad," Dell insists. "It will be good."

To those of us who have been muddling for years through various, often contradictory prescriptions for good gardening, it may be galling for an all-in-one text to finally come out. Yet here it is, and though the sheer comprehensiveness of the book seems aimed at new gardeners starting from scratch, Dell’s volume is still valuable to those of us trying to upgrade our existing gardens.

To benefit, one must submit to the drill master. Dell clearly believes us capable of following a logical progression through a build. That’s the professional landscape architect speaking. Yet at heart, he’s a do-it-yourselfer, and his “Dummies” book aims squarely at those of us treating small spaces on smaller budgets.

Dell4 His home in a working-class district of Santa Barbara could be any postwar beach bungalow from Redondo Beach to Culver City. A visit to the humble abode bears testament to many experiments.

Dell3 The driveway is of pervious concrete. “The first in California,” he said. The garage doors are recycled redwood. Inside a front patio, even the art is from recycled material. There is nothing beyond a handsome patio and stone fountain that an average homeowner couldn’t do.

A curving path around the house leads to an Eden-like courtyard dominated by fruit trees and a kitchen cutting garden. Farther off, yet more passages have been transformed into miniature gardens in themselves.

At the very back of the lot, a rear passageway becomes a light trap.

As the path catches midday sun, the corridor glows red from the leaves of a Virginia creeper, suffusing his living room with an autumnal wash of color.

That moment isn't an accident. It was sustainable principle No. 9 in action.

In agreeing to take on “Sustainable Landscaping for Dummies,” the only type of reader Dell refused to entertain were dummies.

"The first thing I said when they approached me to do this was, ‘I’m not going to do a dumbed-down book,'" he said.

The "Dummies" franchise didn’t mind. In fact, the publisher liked it. What emerged was a condensed, authoritative primer on landscaping, water management, hardscaping, planting, plant care and maintenance.

Dell being Dell, he threw in a recovery program for conventional gardeners. Principles include reducing the size of your lawn, tuning sprinklers, reprogramming the irrigation, pulling up sissy plants and growing food. 

The best way to sample Dell’s writing before buying the book is to pay a visit to his website and his playful new blog, the Earthworm’s Lair.

Yet for the hands-on how-to treatment, you’ve got to buy the book. Paying $21.99 to save thousands on water, fertilizer and maintenance is a good deal. Yet it seems clear that beyond saving us money, Dell is also out to save the world. "Dummies" amounts to a public statement of belief that we have it in us.

"People are by nature procrastinators," he said. "But look at the response to World War II. When America believed something was important, it turned on a dime."

-- Emily Green

Next week: A photographic tour of Owen Dell's home garden.

Green's column on low-water landscaping appears here weekly. She also blogs on water issues at www.chanceofrain.com.

Photo credits: Emily Green

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I'm still struggling with the definition of sustainable. Sustainability is a collective concept couched in terms of a finite system. One garden using 1000 gallons of water a year where 10,000 gallons of renewable water is available is sustainable. 100, or 1,000, or 10,000 such gardens are not (oops, call the water board for additional water transfers). Mr. Dell's ideas are really good but they are more in the vein of after the fact "conservation" rather than "sustainability". Of course, if his gardens use fewer resources (water, nutrients, etc.) than whatever was there before the house and the garden (which used no inputs other than natural soil nutrients, sunshine and rainfall), I'd say he had a sustainable garden - no matter how many are put in. I doubt this is the case, though, when he expects food and shade and fire-protection and more from it. Taken to the nth degree, in the collective sense, I see Mr. Dell's garden philosophy as being also just "less bad" - albeit, a savvy and sophisticated level of less bad. I don't think many people really grasp the true limits that real sustainability entails. I may buy yhe book, however.

I second your opinion of this book, and may I also add a couple that complemented it in my quest to turn a dead suburban foundational landscape into something drought-tolerant and wildlife compatible?

The Natural Garden Book by Peter Harper; Gaia's Garden by Toby Hemenway; and The California Landscape Garden by Mark Francis and Andreas Reiman. All three helped immensely with the development of the deep design Dell mentions.


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