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Books for Garden Inspiration: The Living Landscape

March 5, 2015

The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodeversity in the Home GardenThe long winter months when my garden is dormant provide a time for me to seek inspiration from garden books. One important source of inspiration this winter has been Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy’s The Living Landscape (Timber Press, 2014).  Darke, a horticulturalist, and Tallamy, an ecologist, have combined their talents and perspectives to consider how we can create home gardens that are both beautiful and ecologically functional.

The book is organized into five chapters, but it may make most sense to think of it as having two major parts: Chapters 1-4 lay the conceptual groundwork for Darke and Tallamy’s approach, while chapter 5 (which makes up almost half the book and is longer than first four chapters combined) applies these concepts to the home garden.

Chapter 1 is devoted to the key theoretical framework of the book, the idea that landscapes (both wild and domestic) can be understood as a set of interconnected layers, including vertical layers (canopy, understory, shrub, herbaceous, ground), horizontal layers (e.g., edges), and cultural layers. A richly layered landscape, they argue, is both aesthetically pleasing and ecologically functional. Chapters 2 and 3 focus on ecological concepts, the interrelated community of living organisms and the ecological functioning of layered landscapes. Chapter 4, “The Art of Observation,” focuses on how we can better see and read both wild and domestic landscapes. Chapter 5, “Applying Layers to the Home Garden,” brings all these ideas together in an analysis of how to create richly layered, beautiful, and ecologically functional gardens.

The Living Landscape is not a how-to book with a set of foolproof steps for creating functional layers in the home garden. It is primarily a conceptual volume, providing us with tools to see and think about our gardens in new ways. It felt to me like the more advanced sequel course to Doug Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home (see review here), a book that completely changed how I understood the presence of insects in my garden. In saying that this is a conceptual book, I don’t mean to imply that The Living Landscape does not provide practical advice; it does. This a big, gorgeous picture book, and every idea is richly illustrated with lush photographic examples (mostly by Rick Darke). There are also important pieces of garden design advice. I found this guideline for creating biodiversity in the home garden particularly helpful:

   One potential down side of plant diversity in gardens is that it is often concentrated at too small a scale. For the love of plants, gardeners sometimes group too many species with distinctly different growing needs into areas that are too small or not diverse enough to sustain them…. Looking to healthy natural habitats as models is a reminder that while the overall plant diversity of a landscape may be high, in any given space or localized ecosystem there is considerable repetition of a few key species.

   When designing for diversity, it’s important to aim for the highest supportable biodiversity overall but to avoid unsustainable variety in any one spot. (p. 151)

Practical information is also provided in a series of appendices (organized by region of the United States) that list the landscape and ecological functions of plants that could be used for the home garden.

Darke and Tallamy live and garden in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, and their analysis and examples are based primarily on the deciduous forests that characterize the native wild landscapes of that region. This means that their analysis is most relevant for those who garden in conditions similar to that of the mid-Atlantic states. My own home in New England is a geographical neighbor to the mid-Atlantic region, has a similar deciduous forest native habitat, and includes many of the same plants, so the book translated well for me. As you get further afield from the mid-Atlantic  region, however, either geographically or ecologically, the specifics of The Living Landscape become less useful. Although Darke and Tallamy do include some examples in the text from other regions of the country and even the world, the book privileges the mid-Atlantic states. The plant listing for the mid-Atlantic region takes up 32 pages, compared with much shorter listings for the Midwest and mountain states (14 pages), the southeast region (10 pages), New England (8 pages), the Pacific Northwest (7 pages), and the southwest region (5 pages). And, of course, Darke and Tallamy have not attempted to analyze the landscape and ecological functions of native plants for other parts of the world.

Despite these inevitable limitations, I think Darke and Tallamy’s conceptual framework would help gardeners anywhere to look at and think about both their native landscapes and their gardens differently. For those in the United States mid-Atlantic and neighboring regions, the book is a goldmine of information and is likely to become an indispensible reference.

26 Comments leave one →
  1. March 5, 2015 5:42 pm

    Jean, this is a truly informative review. I have the book and until reading your review have not felt the urge to open the cover. (The book was a gift.) But now I am intrigued. Thank you.

    • March 9, 2015 8:03 pm

      Pat, The conceptual approach of this book might be very stimulating for the kind of thoughtful gardener and garden designer that you are. For me, it provided a whole new conceptual framework for thinking about my garden and is already influencing my thoughts about my new front garden.

  2. March 5, 2015 5:42 pm

    Jean, it sounds like a great book to dig in to. And you sure did! The upcoming gardening season (if it ever gets here – someone forgot to turn the calender page to March and we’re doing Feb all over again)… will be a busy and exciting one for you as your design, plant, and enjoy your new spaces. Looking forward to your posts as we progress through the year. Happy Garden Reading! Gin

    • March 9, 2015 8:06 pm

      Ginny, Sorry to hear that you are experiencing more February. If that had happened here, there would have been mass suicides! Although our temperatures are still below normal most days, they feel balmy compared to February’s way-below-normal temperatures. We haven’t had any significant new snow in a couple of weeks, and there is actually some melting happening.
      Since you garden in exactly the region of the country that Darke and Tallamy are focused on, you might find their book very interesting and helpful.

  3. March 6, 2015 9:31 am

    This book is getting attention. It’s topic is certainly one to open a discussion.

    • March 9, 2015 8:09 pm

      Amy, The attention the book is getting is well-deserved. I appreciate the fact that they are not native-plant purists, but instead focus on the ecological functions our garden plants serve for us and for other living creatures. I found the book both thought-provoking and inspiring.

  4. March 6, 2015 12:30 pm

    I just went to another lecture by Doug Tallamy. He is excellent if you ever get the chance to hear him in person. I was very inspired by Bringing Nature Home and Tallamy’s accompanying talk. The recent lecture was on appreciating the amazing insect diversity that you can attract to your garden by planting native plants. Insects are amazing creatures! I will have to read this recent book too.

    • March 9, 2015 8:14 pm

      Carolyn, I can easily imagine that Doug Tallamy is a great lecturer; Bringing Nature Home was the work of someone who knows how to communicate new ideas clearly and convincingly. This book combines the strengths of that book with a focus on garden design. I found it very inspiring.

  5. March 6, 2015 2:22 pm

    Thanks for your review, Jean. “The Living Landscape” is on my birthday wish list but now I think I’ll look into “Bringing Nature Home” too.

    • March 9, 2015 8:16 pm

      Kris, The Living Landscape includes two chapters that summarize key ideas from Bringing Nature Home (about ecological communities and the importance of herbivore insects in those communities). I was glad that I had read Bringing Nature Home first for the more in-depth treatment it provides of those ideas.

  6. March 7, 2015 4:14 pm

    Hello Jean, going by what you say of the inevitable limitations, that may apply to much of the UK, where weather and temperature are far less extreme and more amenable to growing a large variety of plants ranging across most of the hardiness scale. Finally, one can always change the microclimate and conditions in a garden to better suit the plants one would like to grow – within reason of course!

    • March 9, 2015 8:19 pm

      Sunil, I think the real limitation of this book for a UK audience (or any other audience outside North America) is that you would have to find another source of information about the ecological functions of various plants. Their charts for regions of the US are very specific, for example, about which species of insects are supported by each plant that they list. Their focus is more on re-thinking which plants you want to grow from the point of view of ecology.

  7. March 7, 2015 8:13 pm

    I look forward to reading this book. I have read a few reviews and all mention this idea of too much diversity. I am looking into this as I redo my garden.

    • March 9, 2015 8:59 pm

      Donna, I need to reread this part more carefully, but I think the idea of too much diversity mostly has more to do with how sustainable the garden design will be than with its ecological functioning. It has led me, however, to pare down the list of plants I might include in my new fragrant garden.

  8. March 7, 2015 8:51 pm

    I’m glad you reviewed this book Jean. Your review of Bringing Nature Home made me go out and get my own copy and I really enjoyed it. I heard this book had come out but wasn’t clear on what it covered. You’ve convinced me it’s something I should take a look at.

    • March 9, 2015 9:01 pm

      Marguerite, I liked this book even more than I liked Bringing Nature Home (and that’s saying a lot!). I think you, like me, would find enough similarities between Darke and Tallamy’s mid-Atlantic ecosystem and your own PEI environment that the book would translate well. Happily, the USDA plants database (see sidebar for link) includes Canada; I find this a great way to check quickly on a plant’s native status.

  9. debsgarden permalink
    March 8, 2015 1:08 pm

    Jean, than you for this helpful review! This book has been on my wish list for a while, and I plan to buy it in the near future. I am in the Southeast, but I still think there are many things about this book I will enjoy.

    • March 9, 2015 9:03 pm

      Deb, Since the Southeast, like New England, borders the mid-Atlantic states and has quite a bit of overlap in native plants, I think you would find the book translates well to your environment.

  10. March 11, 2015 1:09 am

    Even with a focus on your location I think some of the principles are universal. I particularly like your highlighted quote that folks can get to hoarding plant species even if their conditions don’t support treating them with proper respect.

    As wonderful as your winter reading is, this Californian is wishing a change in your weather soon so that you can get out and garden and not only read about it! A real live garden with dirt and bugs and amazing plants is a wonderful thing–but you know that already!

    • March 13, 2015 9:48 pm

      James, Thanks for wishing spring for me. We have had a weather change, but it is fairly subtle. With high temperatures above freezing almost every day (and sometimes even in the 40s or 50s), winter is turning into mud season, which will in turn become spring.

  11. March 11, 2015 6:22 am

    two things leap out at me despite not being in that geography.
    First the lost layers is why we seldom see chameleons in our gardens, They need an appropriate framework (thicker or thinner, for the adults and the young ones) to get around the garden.
    Second makes me realise why the fruit salad effect jars and the new minimalism sings. Too much diversity flung together in the wrong microclimate. But how hard it is to whittle down the I Want list to the What Works list.

    • March 13, 2015 9:50 pm

      Diana, Your missing chameleons are an excellent example of the argument Darke and Tallamy are making about ecological functioning of layers.
      I, too, am struggling to whittle down the I Want list.

  12. March 18, 2015 12:25 pm

    Jean – that is a great review. I am reading the book now and in my book this is the Book of the Year! I loved Bringing Nature Home and was fortunate enough to hear Doug Tallamy speak. I have also read Darke’s The Wild GArden – Expanded edition. He is a great photographer and they both are inspiring writers. I also appreciate that they are not absolute native plant purists, but I love the charts at the end of the book. As I think about moving and beginning a new garden I am paying attention to the plants I like that also give a lot of ecological bang for my limited buck – and space. By the Way, you might also be interested in Roses Without Chemicals by Peter Kukielski – now a Maine Resident and ‘director’ of a sustainable rose trial garden in Portland.

    • March 18, 2015 11:21 pm

      Pat, Thank you so much for giving me this link to Peter Kukielski’s work. I want to include my first roses in my new front garden, and I love the fact that he focuses on both fragrance and hardiness. I have subscribed to his blog and am also planning to buy his book. Sounds perfect for me.


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