Rambunctious Garden, a Book Review

By Glenn Steinberg

Rambunctious Garden is not a gardening book.  It’s more a book about the philosophy of conservation, written for a popular audience.  As such, it’s very thought-provoking and deep.

The book begins by tracing how our concept of nature in America developed.  We tend to define nature as separate from humans – as pristine, wild, untouched.  But as Marris points out, there is little (if any) nature that hasn’t been touched by humans, and trying to undo human influences (and guard against future incursions) is costly and, ultimately, futile.  Humans are also themselves part of nature – a species like other species, not a separate category of being.  So, the way that we think about nature and the ways that we’ve generally thought about the conservation of nature are flawed.  Marris contrasts the “conservation movement’s persistent focus on wilderness” in America with the traditional European approach, which has instead “focused on sustainable human use and avoiding extinction” (p. 18).

So, if Americans give up our way of thinking about nature (as pristine wilderness), what happens?  How does our view of nature and conservation change?  Marris provides several interesting examples of how we might think anew about preserving and supporting nature.  Basically, if we stop trying to halt time (by seeking to preserve pristine wildernesses perpetually in their “original” or “natural” state) and instead try to do something else (such as support the greatest biodiversity possible or slow the rate of extinctions), our approach to conservation changes too.  Rather than focus only on preserving pristine wildernesses, for example, we might engage in assisted migration of plants that are threatened by climate change, introducing species that might otherwise go extinct (as global temperatures rise) into new regions further north or at higher elevations.  Such assisted migration flies in the face of traditional ideas of conservation, because it isn’t about preserving pristine ecosystems in their “original” or “natural” state but about preserving individual species from extinction, even if preserving the species means disrupting pristine ecosystems by introducing an endangered new, foreign species into them.

Marris also discusses other new approaches to conservation, including rewilding, designer ecosystems, and reconciliation ecology.

So, what does all this philosophizing about new approaches to conservation have to do with wildlife gardening?  Well, basically, when we garden for wildlife, we are participating in these new approaches to conservation.  We are engaging in reconciliation ecology – “inventing, establishing and maintaining new habitats to conserve species diversity in places where people live, work, or play” (p. 145).  We are rewilding our back yard and assisting in the migration of species to new habitats.  We are part of a movement to transform lands that used to be thought of as unnatural and lost to conservation into lands that serve human needs but also preserve nature in the background:  “This background nature comes in different flavors, to be sure, from vast fields of genetically identical corn to city parks to the last hectares of South America’s Atlantic Forest, where tiny golden lion tamarins swing from the trees.  Not all this land is equally valuable to most conservation goals, but all of it can be improved.  Those cornfields can grow strips of native plants on their edges; those city parks can provide food for migrating butterflies.  Thus the project of conservation is not just defending what we have, but adding lands to our portfolio and deepening value of the lands in play” (p. 135).  Our back yards can be part of that project too.

Emma Marris.  Rambunctious Garden:  Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World.  New York:  Bloomsbury, 2011.

100 Plants to Feed to the Bees – a Book Review

by Glenn Steinberg

Available at the Mercer County Library system

The Xerces Society.  100 Plants to Feed to the Bees:  Provide a Healthy Habitat to Help Pollinators Thrive.  North Adams, MA:  Storey Publishing, 2016.

The Xerces Society’s guide to 100 Plants to Feed to the Bees, like Gardening for Butterflies (another Xerces Society book), is basic, reliable, and straightforward – a compilation of 100 types of plants that support bees and other insect pollinators.  From plants that almost everyone will recognize (such as Purple Coneflower and Goldenrod) to obscure species that only the most stalwart, veteran gardeners may know (such as Wood Mint or Gumweed), the list of 100 plants is interesting and informative.  I’m familiar with a lot of garden plant species, but there were new plants here for me to explore in the future.

But again, like Gardening for Butterflies, this is a very basic guide – almost too basic.  Information about each kind of plant is minimal – with spare, vague notations about preferred sun exposure and soil moisture for growing.  Each plant gets more (and more useful) information about “notable flower visitors,” including lists of bees, butterflies, wasps, moths, fireflies, and beetles that frequent the plant or use it as a larval host.  An indication of honey yields and flavor are also often included.  But plants are generally listed not by individual species but by genus, with all species within a genus lumped together.  For a small or uniform genus, this might not be a problem, but for a genus like Coreopsis, Rudbeckia, Asclepias, and others, the genus is so broad that trying to generalize about all its species together just isn’t terribly helpful.  While the authors claim to value “an emphasis on regionally native species” (p. 19), listing plants by genus makes knowing which species might be best in a particular region difficult (although examples of local species broadly for East and West are sometimes included).

Overall, this is an interesting, dependable book, but it’s not as detailed or thorough as most aspiring bee gardeners will want or need.

The Forest Unseen, a Book Review by Glenn Steinberg

Our thanks to Wild About Ewing‘s Glenn Steinberg for his latest book review which we are sure will galvanize the citizen scientists among us into noting more closely the habits and forms of the many wild inhabitants in our gardens.

Haskell, David George.  The Forest Unseen:  A Year’s Watch in Nature.  New York:  Penguin, 2012.  ISBN 9780143122944.

David George Haskell returned to the same square meter of Tennessee forest every couple days for an entire year, observing the living creatures, big and small.  The record of his observations is an interesting compilation of facts and reflections about the kinds of creatures that you may expect to find in your garden if you garden for wildlife – moths, salamanders, snails, bees, songbirds, mosquitoes, deer, caterpillars, ticks, fireflies, coyotes, katydids, vultures, squirrels, ants, raccoons, springtails, bacteria, fungi, hawks, and more.  You’ll learn that Eastern coyotes, a relatively new population that moved into Eastern forests for the first time in the 1930s and 1940s, are larger on average than their Western counterparts and often have traces of wolf DNA in their genes.  You’ll learn that sharp-shinned hawks in northern forests (including those in New Jersey) used to migrate south for the winter but that human bird feeders have increased the wintertime success of bird populations in the north and resulted in a greater supply of food for the hawks, ending their need to migrate south for the winter.  You’ll learn that slugs of the Philomycid family have beautiful markings on their backs that mystify sight with disruptive patterns that make distinguishing where the slug’s body begins and ends difficult – a form of concealment that works no matter what color background the slug traverses.

You’ll learn lots and lots and lots of other interesting facts about wildlife.  Late in the book, you’ll also learn Haskell’s purpose (and hope) in writing his meditations on all these forest creatures:  “I hope this book will encourage others to start their own explorations.  I was fortunate to be able to watch a small patch of old-growth forest.  This is a rare privilege; old growth covers less than one-half of a percent of the land in the eastern United States.  But old forests are not the only windows into the ecology of the world…. Gardens, urban trees, the sky, fields, young forests, a flock of suburban sparrows…. Watching them closely is as fruitful as watching an ancient woodland” (p. 244).  Personally, I love to sit and silently watch wildlife in my garden – from the bumblebee visiting my Comfrey’s flowers and the swallowtail caterpillars on my Fennel to the squirrel successfully getting seeds out of my “squirrel-proof” bird feeder and the pesky deer sauntering around my back yard, eating my Hosta and Daylilies.

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.