Picking the Perfect Plants for Your Sustainable Garden

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Start your sustainable garden with plants that grow well without much of your time or extra attention.
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"Tomorrow's Garden" showcases gardens from coast to coast that seamlessly balance aesthetic appeal with environmental concerns. Garden writer Stephen Orr shows how responsible gardeners are redefining the modern garden and addressing design, plant choice, water usage, materials and more in innovative ways.

The following is an excerpt from Tomorrow’s Garden by Stephen Orr (Rodale, 2011). The excerpt is from Chapter 3: Which Plant Where?

To be sustainable, a garden doesn’t have to be reduced to its most basic essentials of only a few staunch plants marooned in bare plots of stone or sand. If you like to grow flowers, then I hope you will. If you want to have a plant-intensive garden in which you cheerfully spend your evenings and weekends at work in your flowerbeds, then by all means do. I love flowering plants myself; in fact, I couldn’t live happily without them. The main question to ask yourself if you want to be an environmentally conscious gardener (i.e., one who strives to sustain your surroundings rather than deplete them) is this: What kinds of garden plants are suitable for where and how you live?

Redefining the Plant Palette

We have a lot of garden baggage to deal with. It’s time to shake off our outmoded ideas about what plants make a good garden, along with concepts that most of us have toted around since childhood about what a real garden looks like. The first colonists not only brought food plants to America but also imported their countries’ long-established ideas of what makes a garden genuine, authentic, or at the very least pretty. These inherited notions have lingered ever since, and though such traditions have worked pretty well in New England, the standard became harder to satisfy as our population moved south and west. Think of the traditional plantings of begonias, impatiens, and petunias found in many municipal squares and of all the resources it takes to keep them looking presentable. Even the White House, with its enormous lawns and frequently swapped-out flowerbeds, doesn’t seem interested in making radical updates to the centuries-old planting style. Except for Michelle Obama’s organic vegetable garden, there has been no obvious gesture made toward native plants or sustainable horticulture.

American garden books often make the same mistake. They treat the wide range of the nation’s gardens as if they were all governed by the same conditions. For this book, I traveled the nation to talk to gardeners who could help me address the breadth and range of our nation’s horticulture from many different perspectives. It’s not easy to speak helpfully and with accuracy to everyone at once, especially since this is such a huge country with so many gardening zones—British garden writers have it much easier. I needed to acknowledge that there are places where billowing masses of old-fashioned summer flowers seem to grow easily, almost as if they were in a classic English garden–Nantucket and Aspen come to mind. On the other hand, there are plenty of areas, like parts of the Southwest, where the hot summers and the lack of water conspire to create an environment in which traditional flower borders are at best a vain struggle. A flexible mind-set is required to recognize what nature will allow us to grow in our area and to give up the struggle to grow plants that don’t wish to grow for us no matter how strongly we urge them.

Take a moment to consider what grows well for you without a lot of coddling, chemicals, or excess water and fertilizer. If you’re a new gardener and don’t have a lot of knowledge, then just take a look around the neighborhood to see what succeeds on its own (being careful to recognize and avoid carefree weeds, of course). On the other hand, don’t think you must use only natives or plants endemic to your region to be sustainable. A strict planting palette of natives is a fine goal, but I believe that gardening by its very definition is the act of modifying nature, and sometimes that entails growing things in places where they wouldn’t normally exist. Suitability is crucial. If you have to work too hard to help something survive, perhaps it’s simply not the right choice. Researching your plant selections is essential. Do an online background check to learn where a species that you’d like to grow originates. It doesn’t make sense to grow a plant from the Amazonian rain forest in a water-starved place like New Mexico, nor does it make sense to attempt a cactus garden in the winter wet of Seattle. On the other hand, gardeners in those parts of the world with a Mediterranean climate, such as California, parts of Australia and South Africa, and Chile, can easily swap exotic species with impunity. These guidelines won’t stop a lot of hard-core gardeners from trying to push their climates to the edge like daredevils—it is perhaps part of human nature to want to fight Mother Nature just a little.

Of course, given enough resources, anything can be forced. I remember flying to El Paso for a visit to far West Texas. As you gradually descend for landing over that remote city, you see a regular patchwork of native scrubby sagebrush that dots the flat areas of white sand for miles. As you get closer to the airport, though, this natural landscape gives way to a grid of lush suburban backyards and turquoise pools interrupted by vivid green expanses of golf courses. I hope that if I lived in El Paso, I would embrace the beautiful plant material from the Trans-Pecos region and Chihuahuan Desert and not try to bring some misplaced version of a lawn-filled northeastern garden down to bake on the border.

Reprinted from Tomorrow’s Garden by Stephen Orr.  Copyright (c) 2011 by Stephen Orr. By permission of Rodale, Inc., Emmaus, PA 18098.

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