Planting: A New Perspective – A Book Review

By Glenn Steinberg


Piet Oudolf & Noël Kingsbury’s Planting:  A New Perspective

This book has several drawbacks:

  1. It isn’t specifically about gardening for wildlife.
  2. It’s written by Europeans about (mostly) European gardens.
  3. It’s really more for professional landscapers than for individual, private gardeners.

At the same time, it’s an interesting book about garden design, a topic that most of us who seek to plant gardens that are welcoming to wildlife often know little about.

Once you’ve decided to garden for wildlife, you still have to decide what you want your garden to look like.  You have to decide how wild you want it to look and how aesthetically pleasing it should be to you, your neighbors, and the world at large.  Planting:  A New Perspective offers some advice about how to design the look of your garden – both abstract philosophical foundations and concrete, practical strategies.

Late in the book, Kingsbury lays out his philosophy of garden design:  “My own gardening is very much about planting and then allowing natural processes of growth, birth and death to take over, or at least to proceed under the eagle eye of my management.  The result is a far denser canopy than is considered normal for perennials…. [A] density approaching that found in natural plant communities is far more resilient than traditional ones with spaces between plants.  Maintenance will be also reduced” (p. 236).  Kingsbury, Oudolf, and designers like them “stress ecological process and dynamism – the idea that plantings will change over time and that the role of the gardener or manager is to direct these processes in a way which preserves or enhances their visual qualities and other desired features, such as species diversity” (p. 237).

So, if you’re rethinking the look of your garden (especially in the direction of a wilder, more natural appearance), Planting:  A New Perspective will give you much food for thought.

Other similar books to consider include Noël Kingsbury’s Natural Gardening in Small Spaces (Portland, OR:  Timber Press, 2003) and Thomas Rainer and Claudia West’s Planting in a Post-Wild World:  Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes (Portland, OR:  Timber Press, 2015).

Interestingly, all these books have come out of Europe rather than the U.S.  I’m hoping that a good book or two on natural garden design by and for American gardeners will follow soon.

Bibliographic Overview

Authors: Piet Oudolf & Noël Kingsbury
Title: Planting:  A New Perspective
Publisher: Timber Press, Portland, OR
Publication Date:  2013
ISBN: 9781604693706

Designing Gardens with Flora of the American East – A Book Review

by Glenn Steinberg

Carolyn Summers’ Designing Gardens with Flora of the American East (New Brunswick:  Rutgers University Press, 2010) is an excellent book.  It begins by laying out the reasons to garden with native plants (which the book insistently calls “indigenous plants”).  Its reasons include providing habitat for birds, bees, and bugs, as well as making use of fantastic indigenous plants that simply don’t get enough play in the big-box nursery business.  The book also discusses the jargon of the nursery business and the implications of that jargon for the gardener who wants to be ecologically responsible (such as how to know when cultivars and hybrids successfully function like native plants and when they don’t).
It spends considerable time talking about native alternatives to popular invasive species (such as Norway Maple, Bradford Pear, and Forsythia).  The most interesting part of the book (to me) was a lengthy section on how to use native species in popular garden designs (including the street tree, traditional foundation plantings, a Japanese garden, and a cottage garden).  Another section discusses how to mimic natural landscapes in your  garden (such as woodlands, meadows, sandplain grasslands, heaths, and salt marshes).  Needless to say, the book covers a lot of ground, and for that reason, my one criticism of it is that there were times when I’d have liked more depth and less breadth.  But overall, it is an excellent book for anyone interested in incorporating more native plants into the garden.

Noah’s Garden – A Book Review

by Glenn Steinberg

In Noah’s Garden, Sara Stein argues for creating suburban landscapes that allow for greater biodiversity and wildlife. It isn’t a new argument, but she’s very forceful, even eloquent. For example, she writes, “Spaciousness to us means not only roomy in area but visually open, expansive, uncluttered, uniform in texture, low in growth, without impediment to view. To others [i.e., wild animals], ‘spacious’ is closer to the biblical paradox, ‘My father’s house has many mansions.’ The diversity and complexity of vegetation creates a spacious landscape for animals by offering each kind the opportunity to earn its living in its unique way. Remove the pheasant’s cover or the butterfly’s flower and you have erased its space. The less variety of habitat the landscape offers, the less space there is until, when all is mowed, even an expanse the size of a golf course becomes just a hole in the world” (p. 46). What we see as open space is nothing but “a hole in the world” to wildlife.

Sometimes it’s as though Sara Stein is speaking for me, saying the words that I’ve often thought but haven’t gotten around to articulating yet. At one point, Stein writes about an Eastern Bluebird that takes up residence on her property, and she says, “The Bluebird had assessed our real estate. He had noted the lay of the land: the availability of water, the potential for insects in the meadow, the protection of surrounding trees. I’m proud that our property rates a bird’s approval. But I wish its richness to be valued by humans, too. I want us as a culture to depart from the old tradition of evaluating land according to what can be extracted from it as a commodity or abstracted from it as social asset and turn instead toward a new tradition of valuing land by the life it harbors” (p. 243).  Noah’s Garden isn’t a how-to guide for creating a wildlife garden, but it’s a welcome exploration of the philosophy and rationale for creating such gardens — without a lot of jargon but with a lot of heart.