The New American Landscape: Leading Voices on the Future of Sustainable Gardening, edited by Thomas Christopher, was my latest garden read. (Note: One friend saw me carrying this book and asked what class I was taking! The dust jacket face is basic and simple - lots of green. But I certainly wouldn't call it a textbook!)
Sustainable gardening has gotten some negative press over the last few years, tarred (in my opinion) by the fear of people who are scared to change anything about the way they garden or angry that someone might consider their way of gardening to be "wrong." The definition of sustainability is "to meet present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs." (p. 9) This doesn't seem negative to me. In fact, it seems like a very honorable goal - a positive that's not only well worth striving for but actually necessary, if humans are to survive over the long term on our planet.
So why don't "normal" gardening practices meet this goal of sustainability? What's so bad about them? Well, another quote precisely pinpoints the problem, "...beginning with a dream of lush fertility, we end up fostering environmental depletion and degradation." (p. 9) How's that?
When you stop to think dispassionately about all of the chemical products (herbicides, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers) spread upon our lawns, vegetable gardens and flower gardens, it's obvious that our gardening has become a non-sustainable battle which we're losing. Constant tilling constantly brings new weed seeds to the surface to germinate, bare soil washes away and compacts with rain and footsteps (or fills up with weeds seemingly overnight), plants designed to live anywhere but here are planted in great numbers because currently they're the "right" plants according to the design magazines. All of these typical practices and more actually act to kill much plant (and animal) life, rather than fostering it.
So what gardening practices are sustainable? That's what this book focuses on, in broad, general terms. From describing the principles behind sustainable gardening, to handling home landscapes in a sustainable fashion; from building healthy soil to using water wisely; from using natives in the home landscape to making vegetable gardens more sustainable, this book presents a wealth of ideas to ponder and slowly incorporate into our gardening lives.
Getting down to the nitty-gritty.... Since I've been interested in sustainable gardening for a long time, there was understandably a fair amount of information that I was familiar with. Because of this, I quickly skimmed through a few chapters. Others I read in greater depth. Some chapters were certainly easier to read than others, but I haven't tried to analyze whether that was because of my interest in specific topics or because of the style of writing in those particular chapters. I did a fair amount of underlining in some chapters, a moderate amount in some chapters, and none at all in a couple. (That's my informal measure of how much important, new material I'm finding in a book.)
A new gardener would greatly benefit by reading this compendium because she could start out sustainably: designing her landscape and concurrently learning to garden with sustainable methods from the very beginning. That said, there is plenty of "meat" here for more experienced gardeners, too. By explaining the underlying principles (the whys of sustainable gardening), long time gardeners can decide which of their current patterns really need to be reworked and which are fine, just as they are.
So, my final analysis? I will be keeping this book and recommending it to folks interested in sustainable gardening. This is not a coffee table book, but a theory book for hands-on gardeners. You'll need to go elsewhere for lengthy lists of native plants or insects, for lists of the "best" varieties of vegetables to grow, or for which specific tool will help you the most - but you will find the reasons why healthy soil is so important and how to tell if your soil is healthy, what benefits a green roof might provide to you, or why you will generally still have healthy plants if you quit using pesticides every time you see an insect. Definitely worth a read!