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Favorite Garden Books: Garden Revolution

July 26, 2017

Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change by Larry Weaner and Thomas Christopher (Timber Press, 2016) is part of a trend in garden design to use natural plant communities as a model for gardening. In  this sense, it fits together well with Darke and Tallamy’s  2014 book The Living Landscape (see my review here) and Rainer and West’s 2015 book Planting in a Post-Wild World (see review here).

Where Darke and Tallamy focus on mimicking nature’s layering of plants in the garden and Rainer and West focus on creating gardens of plant communities, Weaner and Christopher focus on the processes by which plant communities develop and change, particularly the ecological process of succession. Plant communities are almost always in the process of becoming something else. Where I live and garden in the northeastern United States, for example, the processes of ecological succession mean that all plant communities are either forests or on the way to becoming forests. (As I’ve weeded hundreds of oak seedlings and thousands of tiny maple seedlings out of my flower beds this year, I’ve been reminded of just how quickly my property would revert to forest without my active intervention.) Weaner and Christopher advocate a style of gardening in which you figure out what kind of soil you have and what plant communities naturally grow in that type of soil and then design a garden that uses a naturally occurring plant community with human interventions to shape the process of ecological succession (for example, stopping the process by which a meadow would turn into shrubland and then forest by mowing the meadow once a year).

Although the kind of wild-looking garden landscapes that Weaner and Christopher favor are not what I’m after, I found valuable insights for my own gardening in this book:

  • I had always heard (and believed) that plants which grow in poor conditions will grow even better in rich garden soil. Not so, Weaner and Christopher argue; many plants that grow in difficult locations are poor competitors that thrive there because they have carved out a niche where they have few competitors. Put them in rich garden soil, and they will be crowded out by more competitive plants, often weeds.
  • There is a tension between the idea of a garden as a composition of plant colors, shapes, and textures and the processes of plant community development. Good design requires thinking about how the plant community we are creating will change over time and an openness to those processes of change.
  • Disturbance is an important part of the ecological process of succession in plant communities. As gardeners, we can intentionally use disturbance (e.g., mowing a meadow, cutting down trees to create a forest clearing) to create desired results and we can avoid disturbance (e.g., pulling weeds) when it will create undesired results.

Before I was even halfway through Garden Revolution, it was already influencing my thinking about my garden. When a clump of self-sown blue Siberian irises bloomed in a flower bed that I had designed as a composition in shades of pink and lavender, I resisted my initial impulse to dig them out. So what if they changed the color scheme of the planting? The pink irises I had originally planted in this location had never really thrived, and these blue irises were healthy and happy and looked lovely in the company of pink flowers and green foliage. It was time, I realized, to let go of my pre-conceived color scheme and let nature guide me. The insight that not all  plants thrive in rich garden soil has shaped my thinking about how to design the new Front Slope planting that will be my major garden project next year. As I begin to work on that design, I am imagining a gradation of soil types from heavily amended rich garden soil at the top of the slope to unamended native loamy sand at the bottom.

I consider any garden  book that leads me to see my garden with new eyes or think about garden design in new ways well worth reading. Garden Revolution did both and I highly recommend it.

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. July 27, 2017 10:36 am

    Thanks so much for this reference, Jean. I am so much into this paradigm in gardening, though I have no garden at the moment, but I am in a project that could qualify as hands-on gardening research, will post soon about it. The book looks so interesting and offering insight into the actual environmental problems we are facing that is fantastic editors are publishing it. It is now a must in my reading list. I love the part were you found yourself accepting the change in your decided design for a “nature imposition”, I feel that should be the spirit, and your garden will look just perfect!

    • August 5, 2017 7:31 pm

      Lula, All three of these books were published by Timber Press, and I think the editors there deserve kudos for promoting this gardening paradigm. I’m looking forward to reading about your new gardening research project.

  2. July 27, 2017 12:13 pm

    I agree, Jean, this book has shaped my thinking about how to intervene to shape natural ecological succession. You distinguish the three books with wonderful clarity.

    • August 5, 2017 7:32 pm

      Pat, I kept thinking about your big meadow as I was reading this.

  3. July 30, 2017 10:12 am

    Hello Jean, thanks for the book review. Although my garden is very new, I often wonder and try to imagine how it will age and what it will tend to. My style is to not be overly fussy and let plants mingle, only intervening when one plant outcompetes its surroundings and threatens to take over. I’ve already let plants start self-seeding just to see what they will do, it keeps the garden interesting and subtly changing over time.

    • August 5, 2017 7:34 pm

      Sunil, I also tend to let plants self-sow, and I like to figure out ways to incorporate wildflowers already growing on my property into the garden. This book has given me more knowledge about how to do both those things with better results.

  4. July 30, 2017 4:38 pm

    Loamy sand sounds very promising for gardening. Yesterday I harvested three seedlings from the unamended sand between the paving slabs – a Melianthus major (yes, thank you! First ever seedling), another Asparagus fern and a tiny lavender. Potted up to go to chosen gaps in my garden.

    • August 5, 2017 7:35 pm

      Diana, It’s surprising how many things will grow in my loamy sand. In general, I can expand my repertoire of plants by amending my native soil into sandy loam.

  5. August 2, 2017 3:04 am

    Sounds like a great book and I enjoyed your intelligent review Jean. I find it interesting that this idea is still considered new or even a trend. I wrote my university dissertation on exactly this subject and that was back in 1995, which is a scarily long time ago, and even then it was based on the work of Hansen and Stahl who wrote a famous and very useful book on the subject called “Perennials and their Garden Habitats” in 1993. Why has it not caught on? Because, like you, this is not what the majority of people want from their gardens. That may change over a long period of time, but even I, as one who spent four years studying these methods and ideas, want my garden to reflect my will and my tastes rather than nature’s. Gardens are, after all, entirely about man’s control over nature. The degree to which one exercises that control can be varied. Thought provoking, as you say. Dan

    • August 5, 2017 7:52 pm

      Dan, It’s really interesting to know that these ideas have been around for at least 25 years. Again, I think Timber Press deserves kudos for publishing this series of books that bring them to a larger audience. I had some insight into why Weaner and Christopher’s wild-looking aesthetic doesn’t appeal to me recently when I heard Thomas Rainer give a talk. Early on, he showed an image of an 18th century homestead and garden, looking like a little oasis of order in the midst of wilderness. Then he said, “But those aren’t the conditions we’re gardening in today.” This, of course, is the premise of Gardening in a Post-Wild World. But my property at the end of a dirt road in the woods in the most heavily forested state in the United States, looks more like the 18th century image than like the urban and suburban examples Rainer and West use in their book. I’m still trying to counterbalance all the wildness in my environment by creating a space of more ordered beauty around the house.

  6. Nell permalink
    August 4, 2017 3:15 pm

    This is a tremendously helpful review; I was very interested in GR but unsure how much overlap there would be with the Darke/Tallamy and Rainer/West books, already regular reading here. Onto the winter wishlist it goes!

    • August 5, 2017 7:53 pm

      Nell, I like the way all three of these books begin with a shared premise, but then develop the implications of that premise in different directions.

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