Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Attack of the Designosaurs

Speaking of monsters (see "Garden Wise Guys" below), the time has come to talk of some of the design practices that ought to go the way of the Stegosaurus. Just as this ancient dinosaur became extinct when conditions changed around it, the changing conditions of our present world are making lots of formerly accepted gardening practices obsolete. And those who continue to design landscapes that follow the old, wasteful rules are slowly changing or going the way of all effete creatures. Here at County Landscape & Design we call them "Designosaurs."

It's simple. Water wasting plants are out; climate-adapted plants are in. Chemicals are out; natural controls are in. High-impact hardscape materials are...you guessed it...out; biotechnical, reclaimed, recycled, and natural materials are waaaay in. Dumb irrigation controllers? Ouuuut! Efficient smart controllers? In. Lawns out; meadows in. Bare soil...you know; mulch in.

These changes matter to you because they are not only good for the environment, they make your gardening life easier, make the garden look and work better, and can save you heaps of money. Who could argue with that? Shoot, even if you hate the environment, you should do these things because they're good for YOU!

Yet there are plenty of people still stuck in the past. Why do homeowners continue to do things the old way, and why are some designers still lawn-and-thirsty-plants-centric? Well, mainly because of habit, ignorance, and oftentimes a misunderstanding about sustainable landscaping that leads them to believe it's an arcane practice that results in grim, parched, ugly places and agonizing sacrifices. Nothing could be further from the truth. A sustainable landscape could look like most anything -- a Japanese garden, a perennial garden, a forest, whatever -- and sustainable landscapes can be GORGEOUS!

Want to know more? Hey, you need a copy of my book, Sustainable Landscaping for Dummies. Have a look at it and order your own autographed copy right here. Don't be a Designosaur!

Garden Wise Guys News

GWG logo 200x124.jpg

Learn about sustainable landscaping the fast, fun way. Join Santa Barbara landscape architects Owen Dell and Billy Goodnick as they host the popular sustainable landscaping sitcom Garden Wise Guys on City TV channel 18, County TV channel 20, or on the web

In the current episode, "Lawn and Order," the Wise Guys end up in jail for the crime of "lawn abuse." They have big adventures while trying to get a dismissal from the judge.

And watch for the next episode coming in October: a monster movie spoof about watershed-friendly landscaping.

Garden Wise Guys is sponsored by local water agencies and offers lots of great information on how you can make your landscaping easier to live with and kinder to the environment. Check it out! 

Getting Started in Your Own Landscaping Business

OK, so this is me hard at work at my drafting board, designing a new garden for one of my first clients. This photo was taken a few years ago; I've been at this a long time. When I first started doing landscaping, I didn't realize it would become my life's work. But here I am, still at it. 

If you happen to be interested in a career in landscaping, you may want to check out my classic book, How to Start a Home-Based Landscaping Business. First published in 1993, it has opened the door to many an aspiring landscaper over the years. Now in its 5th Edition, How to Start a Home-Based Landscaping Business is used as a college text and has sold tens of thousands of copies. It's a great way to get your bearings, to decide whether this is the field for you, and to guide you through the intricacies of starting and operating a successful landscaping or gardening business. Readers send me emails and letters nearly every week, thanking me for all the help this book has given them. It can work for you too.

Just to get you started, here's the Introduction to the book. If you'd like to get your own autographed copy, just click here.

Here's the intro...



copyright © Owen E. Dell 1993



In 1972, I was studying botany at the local junior col­lege, going out into the mountains and deserts of our beauti­ful state of California and looking at some of the most gor­geous natural places you or anyone has ever seen. As luck would have it, ‘72 was one of the great years for wildflowers and we really got an eyeful. Having grown up in the inner city, I knew little about nature, or about gardens for that matter, and I was plenty impressed. Through that wonderful spring that I’ll never forget, something grew inside me, something that was entirely new to me and remarkable.

We would troop out into the wilderness and spend a morn­ing, a day or a week steeping ourselves in the incredible el­egance of it all. Then we would inevitably return to civi­lization, which looked more and more like a bad mistake car­ried out on a grand scale by some very inept people. As I be­gan to see nature I also began to see gardens, and what I saw was how inexplicably different the two were. Slowly over that spring I came to understand that gardens were important, and that they could be made better than they were. I came to love nature, but I also came to love the idea of my playing a part in nature. I came to have a passion about the dream that had unfurled inside me like the first leaves of a sprouting bean – the dream of making horti­culture more like nature.

My good friend Buddy was in the class. Buddy was a Louisiana boy, fun-loving and easy-going. He saw it, too, this dream and we talked about it a lot. That summer, broke as always, we de­cided that we were going to quit school and become landsca­pers – native plant landsca­pers. So, suddenly there we were, our meager funds invested in a ‘55 Ford pickup (light blue, no major dents, ran pretty good, $100), a few hand tools (from the swap meet mostly, another $50), and a couple of straw hats (Thrifty Drug Store, $2.29/each plus tax). No, we didn’t have any work, but we felt great just the same.

At the time, a cup of coffee was still a dime at Sambo’s, and that was our lunch every day. We called it “Coffee Bean Soup,” and drank lots of it from the bottomless pot of java and the soothing little jug of “coffee whitener,” the ingredients of which we avoided thinking about. We had Coffee Bean Soup and lots of laughs and not a whole lot more at first. No sensible person would have lasted a day with us.

We spent the last part of June and most of July driving around looking for piles of trash to haul, weeds to be cut down, anything that would get us another few dollars for the next day’s gas and a couple of beers that evening. We did some pretty horrendous things. And we were having a blast.

Finally in late July, we got a job building some retain­ing walls and a terraced garden for a kindly college profes­sor up in the hills. I often think back on how trusting he was to let us do this, especially since our initial approach had been to ask him if we could haul away some rubbish. Still, I guess we did something right because he kept us busy right through September.

The first day, we broke the gas main. The next month was the hottest on record. The soil was more like rock and it never occurred to us to soften it with some water before try­ing to dig it. But we were doing it, that was the thing! And what a summer it was, so good to be alive. We were on our way!

Now to the main thing, the thing that has kept me going all these many years. We finished just as a bit of fall was be­ginning to show up in the morning air. And yes, the job was beautiful, everyone agreed on that. The last day, about 3:00 p.m., Buddy and I carried the last of our tools up to the faithful blue Ford and turned to look back down on our mas­terpiece. That moment, there with my wonderful friend and business partner, there with our hard fine work, that moment will surely always guide me through the hard times, as it has so often in the past. We stood for I don’t know how long, each thinking the same thought: that if we could feel this good once a year, that would be reason enough to carry on. When we finally turned to each other we both had tears in our eyes.

Horticulture has been good to me. I’m pretty comfortable these days. I have lots of work, and if I have Coffee Bean Soup for lunch it’s because I’m trying to lose a couple of pounds. I still think about quitting now and then; we all have our bad days. But when I consider the other choices I might have made, I’m glad about my life.

Now, I will tell you that if you want to put your green thumb to use, and if you learn to do things really right, you will be doing something brave and noble and fine. You will have a marvelous, difficult and rewarding life. You will meet the finest and warmest people. You will see beauty every day, beauty often of your own making. And as you grow old, you will travel beneath the shade of trees you yourself planted with your own hands. If this is what you want, I’ll try to help you get a good start. Remember, don’t come looking for riches, easy money or a soft life. But if you can live with whatever your personal Coffee Bean Soup is to be, and if you can stick it out, I do guarantee that your soul will be nour­ished, your heart will be moved and your corner of the world will be much the better for your having made your choice. And, yes, I do hope to save you some time and trouble by keeping you from making the mistakes I made.

Truth is, most people who start a business of whatever kind know only their craft. That’s not enough. You’ve got to run a business, too, and if you run it badly, you’ll fail. Sadly, most people do fail because, like a garden, a business is a complex and challenging thing. It’s just too much for most who try. You see, if you only know horticulture, you’ve only got half the skills you need in order to do well. So now, let’s make you the exception, the one who succeeds so that you can do what you love, earn your livelihood at it, stay out of trouble and have a good time.

Most of this book is about practical matters. I’m not going to tell you how to plant roses or what kind of fertil­izer to use. There are plenty of books that will help you with all that. This is a book about the business of hor­ticul­ture. You’re go­ing to learn how to set up your company, how to write a business plan, keep records, find and keep good employees, attract and retain clients, manage jobs and a lot more. You’re going to learn how to do things right the first time. Nuts and bolts? Yes, but don’t be put off – you’ll find it’s as interesting as gardening. And remember what’s behind it all – a love of green things, of natural surroundings, of nurtur­ing. It’s all connected, all a part of the great adven­ture. Come on along…

To purchase your own autographed copy of How to Start a Home-Based Landscaping Business, click here. Thank you!

The Incredibly Stupid Water Thing

I’m not going to mention any names, but there’s a town in San Diego County that just did an incredibly stupid thing. Towns do stupid things all the time, of course, but for sheer obliviousness this one really stands out. Some time back a developer with a plan for developing a blighted property in the middle of this town began construction on his community-friendly, mixed-use, LEED-blessed, low carb, high fiber building.

Part of the plan was an underground parking garage that would keep quite a few cars off the street. After he had excavated about 30 feet down he hit ground water. Turns out there’s a perched water table under most of the town and under much of the neighboring town as well. It’s been there forever and has caused problems all over the area ever since people began building things there. Water leaks out of the cliffs and causes them to collapse. Water undermines buildings. Water fills basements. Water deteriorates pavement.

Still, the water, for all the problems it creates, is fresh and clean, as testing proved when the developer first hatched his Bright Idea.

The Bright Idea was to incorporate a cistern into the building and start using the water for flushing toilets, watering the landscaping, and other uses. He figured everybody would win with this approach: he’d have a ready supply of fresh, local, wholesome water for his needs, two communities would have a long-standing problem mitigated at no cost to the taxpayers, and neighboring property owners wouldn’t have to worry about their buildings collapsing into sinkholes. Oh, and the area is under a Level Two Drought Alert with up to 20 percent mandatory conservation, so it’s not like they can’t use the water.

Mr. Developer went to the City with his Bright Idea and they wiped the smile off his face in a hurry. “Sorry,” they said, “there’s no place on our forms for that kind of thing. You’re going to have to forget it. Oh, and you had better figure out someplace to get rid of all that water you’re going to have to pump out of your parking garage.” Long story short, he sucked over 26 acre feet of water out of the ground and spilled it, with the blessing of the City, onto a local beach. He’s still pumping and dumping water today, and will be for the life of the building. In the midst of a drought, with water in short supply, in a community that gets a little over 10 inches of rain in an average year and has had recent annual rainfall as low as under 3 inches, in a community that is suffering with no end in sight, the authorities chose to insist on throwing away water. No doubt there are other city officials in the same building who are working day and night to encourage citizens to conserve water. Go figure. 

Wonderful, Rotten Compost: An Introduction


Compost is nothing more than plant parts broken down by microorganisms into stuff that looks like soil. It’s the most natural, and the most common, recycling program on earth and it’s happening in your yard right now whether you do anything about it or not. In fact, here’s a case where benign neglect is half the battle. By allowing leaves to remain where they fall, you mimic nature’s own composting system whereby the leaves (called “duff” in a natural system) decay in place and the nutrients are returned directly to the plant in a perfect, elegant little loop. Nature doesn’t need you for this. Go back to your hammock.


Compare this with the really dumb conventional practice of raking everything up on Saturday morning, putting it in trash bags and sending it to the landfill. You’ve gotta ask, “Why are people doing this?” The truth is, they don’t know. Their fathers did it and their fathers’ fathers and so on, and without questioning they, too, take rake in hand as dutiful suburban homeowners and repeat this folly of middle-class wastefulness. See, that stuff is a resource, not a waste material. Where are you taking it?? It’s organic fertilizer waiting to go to work! When you throw it away and then have to bring in, at considerable expense, inferior nutrients in the form of chemical fertilizers, you’ve created several problems at once -- the waste of a resource, the effort of removing it, the cost of disposing of it, the impact on landfills, the expense and effort of buying and applying fertilizer, the damage done to plants and soils by the harsh, salt-laden elements in the fertilizer and the loss of natural mulch on the soil surface. You’ve gone to a lot of work to make things worse.


So perhaps you could write this down and tape it to the wall in your toolshed, or maybe have it engraved into the handle of your leaf rake:




(Why do you think they CALL them leaves??)

That way, when guilt finally drives you out into the yard, the last thing you’ll be tempted to do is destroy the automatic composting system that’s under your shrubbery.



FIRE: Many people live in areas where wildfire is a concern. Naturally, the more dry stuff you have laying around when a fire comes, the greater risk that your house will burn down. Even if that doesn’t happen, the leaf litter will burn up under the plants and kill them by toasting off the bark; not a happy scenario. If you’re at a high risk for fire, keep leaf litter down to a minimum. Rake it up and use it to feed your compost pile, which is described below.

DISEASE: Certain diseases are made worse by allowing litter to collect under plants. For instance, Camellia petal blight is commoner when the fallen flower parts are allowed to remain on the ground. Some fruit tree and rose diseases are also spread this way. If you have susceptible plants, first ask yourself why, and remove them if you can’t come up with a good answer. If you decide they should stay, resign yourself to the constant chore of cleaning up after them.

VERMIN: People talk about how rats and other filthy creatures live in mulch, but I have never seen any evidence that this is actually true. I think it’s another urban myth that’s been passed along from generation to generation like the alligators in the sewers. The only critters I know of that like natural duff are beneficial ones -- earthworms, soil bacteria, sowbugs and other members of the Leaf Reincarnation System.



What most people think of when they hear the word “compost” is a pile or bin of steaming yard waste out behind the garage. It conjures up images of long days spent turning it over and over with a rusty, hand-blistering pitchfork, watering it with gallons of sweat, being chased by clouds of irate fruit-flies and ending up with a puny pile of brown dirt that looks no different than something you could have swept up off the driveway.


WHY COMPOST? Compost seems like an act of penance, a virtuous undertaking whose reward may only come in another life. Compost seems like a sacred practice of the lost tribes, something “real” gardeners do, in private and for mysterious reasons only they understand and are sworn on penalty of death never to tell the rest of us. So why would the average gardener ever want to compost?


IT’S NEEDED ELSEWHERE. Sometimes the valuable nutrients and microorganisms that are tied up in compost are needed elsewhere in the yard: a newly-planted flowerbed for instance, or the veggie garden. Even lawns benefit from compost. In fact, by manufacturing and spreading compost in your yard, you greatly reduce the need for fertilizing, and your plants will respond miraculously to being composted. I have seen many plants come back from the nearly-dead within a few weeks after an application of compost over the root zone and a couple of good waterings. You know what those “real” gardeners say? They say, “You can never have too much compost.” They say this with great feeling and a sense of wistfulness because no gardener has ever even had enough compost. Like sex and money, we imagine that others are getting more than we are.


THE GREENWASTE LOOP. Even in the best-planned yard, there comes a time when there’s just too much foliage of one kind or another to leave laying around. When the hedges get trimmed, when the leaves drop in the fall, when the lawn gets mowed -- all these events and more produce sudden pulses of biomass into the system. Since these cannot be ignored, and since it’s no longer acceptable to send them to the landfill, the compost pile serves a basic need. Composting keeps green material (too bad it’s been given the unfortunate name “greenwaste”) within the system of your yard by breaking it down into a usable form.


Composting will help you be a lazier gardener because it solves so many problems at once. Instead of hauling waste out and fertilizer in, you make and spread compost. Instead of nursing sickly plants that are suffering from a lack of decent nutrients, you enjoy the beauty of healthy plants that are more resistant to pests and diseases.


how hard is this going to be?

“OK, I’m convinced. I’ll compost, I’ll compost already!” you say, “But how hard is this going to be? I don’t know if I can do this.” Relax. Composting is a lot easier than you think. Imagine something that you make in less than an hour, then mostly ignore for a few weeks, then spend less than an hour with to harvest the end product. Isn’t that easier than what you’re doing now?


Perhaps you’ve read complex “recipes” for compost, involving exact percentages of different materials, compost starter inoculants, special herbs gathered by tribal virgins, ram’s horns passed over the pile by the light of the full moon, dust of alabaster, eye of newt and all that. Well, I’ve read those recipes, too, and met the wild-eyed zealots who advocate their use. Maybe they work, maybe they don’t. Personally, I would advise you to forget them. Stuff rots. If you follow a few basic principles, the stuff rots somewhat faster. That’s it. OK? Let’s do it, then...




50% green stuff (lawn clippings, fresh leaves, etc.)

50% brown stuff (wood chips, branches, decrepit lawn furniture)

0% animal products (meat, fat, chili con carne, fish heads, dear departed Aunt Millie)


shredder-grinder or chipper (optional)

compost enclosure or manufactured composter (optional)



1. CHOP IT UP. Make stuff smaller by shredding or chipping. Shredding is what you do with leaves; you use a shredder-grinder. Chipping is what you do with branches; you use a chipper and then visit the chiropractor the next day to have him stop your entire upper body from twitching uncontrollably. Your goal is to beat the material up as much as you can and make it as small as you can. This increases the surface area to make it more accessible to the microbes that are going to do the real work. In my own garden, I chop everything up into tiny pieces with my pruning shears. This is less work than it sounds like; I just stand there snipping away until it’s a trash can full of little pieces of my yard. It’s more peaceful than using a noisy machine and the pruning shears are cheaper and easier to maintain than the machine and they don’t burn gasoline and pollute the air like the machine. Plus I have an awesome right wrist. Want to arm-wrestle?


2. PICK A SPOT. Find a place that’s out of the way, since compost piles aren’t usually all that good-looking. If you do have any friends who are real gardeners, they will admire your compost pile (you might want to invite them over now and then just so this will happen). Others will ignore it or look alarmed as they pass by, as if you had just audibly broken wind. If you choose a shady location, then the pile won’t dry out as quickly and you’ll be able to work in the shade when the time comes to harvest the material. You can even compost over an area where you’re planning to plant a garden; you’ll have a head start on fertility that way because nutrients from the compost will leach out into the soil below.


3. PILE IT UP. You don’t need a fancy compost tumbler or bin. Do that if you want to. A pile is fine. Now, one thing that’s going to happen as soon as you make the pile is heat. The pile will heat up and you want that to happen. Heating is the first stage of the process, and starting temperatures inside the pile should reach around 140-150 degrees in order to kill as many weed seeds and pathogens as possible. If your pile is too small, it won’t heat properly. If it’s too big, it may overheat. The ideal size is 3 x 3 feet up to 5 feet tall by 8 feet long and wide.


Mix about half green material and half brown material. You can add a bit of soil, or manure or organic nitrogen fertilizer to speed the process up a bit. Don’t bother with the compost inoculants (also called “starters”) that are sold in nurseries and catalogs; all the bacteria you need for compost are already in your raw materials. Some people layer their materials, others mix them together. Be careful not to allow layers of grass clippings to form, as they’ll rot and smell really unforgettably bad, rather than quietly composting as you want them to. Also, don’t include weeds that have gone to seed, because many seeds remain viable despite the heat of the process, and so you’ll just spread them back into the yard later. Kitchen scraps are fine, but no meat, OK? No meat, no fat. Compost piles are vegetarians. Animals will eat the meat long before it ever has a chance to break down.


By the way, if your pile is open to the outside world, and if you don’t turn it regularly, mice and rats will come to live in it. This is not so good. So either make sure your bin is completely enclosed or turn your pile every few days. Keep in mind that mice and rats can get through even very teeny openings. I’ve been told that a rat can dislocate the major bones in its body, kind of like taking a snap-together model plastic skeleton apart, push them through a half-inch diameter hole one-by-one, and easily enter the forbidden lair of, in this case, your composting operation. Kind of gives me the creeps. My otherwise impenetrable recycled plastic bins are open at the bottom; I wrapped the bottoms with aviary wire, which is like chicken wire but with ½ inch diameter holes that the critters can’t pass through. I’ve had no intruders since then.


When your pile’s made, water it down real well to get things going. Covering it with a tarp helps hold the heat and moisture in.


Now go away and let the pile do your work for you.


4. WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? The pile will begin to heat right away. Maybe steam will come off it for a couple of days. Keep it moist during this stage, and maybe turn it once or twice. Have fun pushing your hand inside (you can’t resist) to marvel at the amount of heat generated. (Be careful, though. It can be hot enough in the center to really burn you.)


After a while, the pile will cool down and you’ll notice how much smaller it has gotten. That’s the signal that the intense period is over and a long process of breakdown and curing has begun. If you turn the pile often, you could have ready compost in as little as a month. But what’s the rush? Lazy yards should have lazy compost. Turn it now and then if you think of it, and definitely keep it moist. Pull back the outer layer once in a while to see how the center’s doing. After a few months, you’ll find a big heap of delicious brown material inside, ready to be harvested.

5. GATHERING THE COMPOST. Perfectionists sift the finished compost before using it. It’s not a bad idea, especially if you’re incorporating it into the soil. There are always chunks of undecomposed material in the mix and they can be awkward to work with. But it’s perfectly OK to simply shovel the compost up and haul it away to be used. If you do sift, use an old nursery flat, the kind they sell ground covers in, as a sifter. It’s free.



Incorporating compost into flowerbeds and vegetable gardens will make a huge difference in the growth, vigor and productivity of the plants. You don’t need much; a half-inch layer dug into the top 6 inches of soil will do. Too much can actually stifle plant growth.


Spread compost in beds, under shrubs and trees, and even over the lawn. Water it in and stand back. Compost supplies everything your plants need and can be used in place of fertilizers. In some cases you may have special problems that need the addition of trace elements or other special treatment, but the compost will handle most of your plant nutrition.



You can also enlist worms to do your dirty work. A worm compost bin can be a simple box or a ready-made multi-tiered annelid apartment complex. Either way, the idea is that specially trained red worms gobble up your kitchen scraps and garden clippings, and quickly turn them into ultra-rich worm compost that’s laden with good things your garden needs. In fact, worm compost is even better for your garden than plain vanilla compost. If you want to learn more about worm composting, visit http://www.cityfarmer.org/wormcomp61.html or see a pretty cool video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JjjuYNilM60.


Composting is easy and it’s an essential part of closing the nutrient loop. A sustainable garden isn’t complete without some kind of composting system. Have fun with yours.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Adversarial Horticulture

I don’t watch TV much. I’m too busy and TV makes me restless, and besides I enjoy the smug feeling of being able to act as though I’m above all that. But now and then when I’m in a hotel room and there’s nothing better to do, my dark side comes out and I find myself watching tacky cop shows and other lowbrow dreck. I'm not too proud of that, but there it is.   

A few springs ago I made a visit to a local desert and got severely rained out as soon as I arrived. There was nothing to do except hole up in a cheesy motel until the wicked storm passed. Surfing through the channels I came upon an ad for power garden equipment. The sponsor was one of the large national home improvement store chains. Like so many ads, this one was a little 60-second play in which the Happy Suburban Homeowner (a 30-ish white male) ventures out to the far corners of his lot, his sturdy shoulders hung with a goodly arsenal of power tools – weed whacker, lawnmower, chainsaw, etc. 

Looking like he's bound for Iraq, HSH disappears into the shrubbery. Soon a cacophony of snarling motor noises emerges from the greenery, and bits of hedge and grass fly up as the foliage quakes and shivers as if it were being devoured by a giant gopher. After a while, HSH emerges, a bit soiled, with his hat askew and his t-shirt hanging out. But he has a happy grin because he has once again prevailed against the enemy that is his garden. Cut to the logos of Toro, John Deere and Green Machine.   

Such is the relationship many of us have with our yards. We accept, and are even eager about, the apparent necessity to engage in a fierce war with the garden as part of our Saturday domestic ritual. Thus a place intended to be a peaceful refuge from the world’s troubles becomes a chlorophyll-soaked battleground strewn with the severed branches and mutilated grass blades of a suburbia in mortal conflict. 

I call this Adversarial Horticulture. I also call it unnecessary. It is not what we really have in mind, is it? Truth is, if you take a little extra time to design stability into your landscape you won't need to struggle. The garden you create will be on your side and stern measures won't be needed.

Gardeners are pathetic control freaks. We really are. I include myself in this. We cultivate a benign image that is utterly at odds with our truly vicious nature. The Gentle Art of Gardening? My foot. If weeds are to be counted as plants then we kill far more than we grow, do we not? If insects are among the wildlife we claim to love, then we must include genocide among our activities. We pinch, prune, shear, slash, chop, dig up, bury, squash, graft, coppice, espalier, pollard, girdle, tie up, tie down, stake, eradicate, poison, drown, trap, suffocate, and just plain murder. The monstrous things we do to plants and insects would land us in prison if we did them to a puppy. So much of gardening is about control and so little is about truly nurturing. (Gee, I hate to get political here, but a recent study revealed that Democrats spend most of their gardening time nurturing plants, while Republicans, if they garden, spend their time tidying up and shearing plants into unnatural shapes. Not to cast any aspersions or anything.) 

Why do we behave this way? Do we use the garden to act out our frustrations at being otherwise out of control at home, at work, on the street? When we can’t deal with our teenagers or our spouses or our boss, does the garden serve as a surrogate? If so, we have a great deal of work to do on ourselves. On the other hand, if all this is made necessary by the condition of our gardens themselves, then we had best get to work on creating a better garden. I'll share more in future posts about how to make this happen. For now, know that help is on the way.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Coming up for a look

Hello gardening friends,

It has been close to a year since I completed the manuscript for my latest book, Sustainable Landscaping for Dummies. Writing a book is a huge commitment and it takes a lot out of a person. For several months after the book was finally finished, I didn't want to write anymore than I wanted to eat a bag of triple sixteen on toast. But time has passed and I'm once again in the grip of the urge to share observations about the fun and follies and great potential of gardening and landscaping. 

This fine summer afternoon sitting under my apricot tree with my laptop on my lap and my two cats by my side, I reached a threshold, not really expecting to, and here I am more or less impulsively stepping into the world of blogging. It's not a completely impetuous act because, truth be told, I've been reading about blogging for a while and thinking it would be a good soapbox and, not incidentally, a savvy modern way to promote my books and my landscaping business. Yes, cyberspace is crass that way and I'm not about to be coy about it. I would love to reach out to all of you with garden wisdom, humor, pathos, and insights. And I'd love it even more if my doing so were to inspire you to buy one or more of my books, to contact me about a design project or garden coaching, or to ask about our new sustainable landscape analysis service (I'll talk more about that in future blogs). But if you learn something here that will help you to have a better, easier, cheaper, prettier, environmentally friendlier garden then I shall be happy, with or without the other rewards.

I haven't been so impulsive as to ignore the question of what this blog will be about. I'll be writing about the insights I've accumulated over nearly 40 years of working as a professional gardener, landscape contractor, and landscape architect, as well as the experience I've gained as an educator, a writer, and a television personality. The arc of my career has been broad and high. I continue to enjoy (and sometimes be alarmed by) wild leaps of understanding of what landscaping and gardening are all about. Many is the morning when I awake with yet another BIG IDEA and an unsettling feeling that I've just been propelled into yet another ring of the seemingly endless universe known as horticulture. 

It started with a love for wild places and the idea that if our gardens worked more like nature does they'd be a lot more attractive and we'd be a lot less burdened by them. Acting on that insight I started my little landscaping and gardening business in 1971. But I soon realized there was much more to it than that. Droughts, wildfires, floods, pest invasions, changes in society's beliefs about land and our relationship to it, and many more factors soon became driving forces that made me take a fresh look, over and over again, at what landscaping is and what it could become. The original dream I dreamed so many years ago has grown larger, deeper, more compelling. I don't expect this to stop any time soon, nor would I want it to. The fact is, we who live in the world of horticulture and related fields can never fully know the import of our work. We can only continue to seek out deeper levels of understanding and to incorporate new wisdom -- ours, that of others, and the inherent wisdom of nature itself -- into our activities. Beneath it all, for me, runs the abiding belief that what we do matters, that working with land and natural forces is important. We may not always be skillful, we may not always be right. We are always learning and being humbled by what is larger and wiser than us. Yet, we who love land hold the key, I believe, to a better life for all.

So my aim is to share some of those deeper levels of horticulture with you in this blog. I call it The Earthworm's Lair because it is the earthworm who goes deep into the soil, transforms its rich elements into a usable form, and delivers the results to the surface where they can be made use of by the ecosystem. So consider me your personal earthworm and enjoy my castings as you see fit.

Sometimes the postings here will be funny (I can't and won't be serious all the time), and sometimes they'll be sober. I shall make passes at profundity when I can summon up the chutzpah to do so. I hope to entertain as well as educate, and to touch something in you that matters more than the technical details. 

I will, of course, be delighted to hear your thoughts and comments. Please let me know what you think, what you know, what you've learned. Think of this blog as a sunny patio where we can sit a spell and chat. Make yourself comfortable and tell us what's on your mind.

I'll start with a overview. It's an introduction to a book that I wrote a few years ago. That book never quite came about, and the introduction has moldered away in my files for long enough. It still looks pretty righteous to me, perhaps a bit overly serious but I get that way at times and am just as unapologetic about it as I am about being goofy and silly at other times. I promise to make my next post as fun as this one is sober. For now, consider this a window into what gardens might become if we follow our deepest and best visions.

So, with a deep breath I shall release this into cyberspace and see what happens next. Enjoy.

Owen Dell

p.s.  Please visit my website for more information on sustainable landscaping and to order my books. Thanks!

p.p.s. If this was too serious for you, then check out the rock video I did with the co-host of my television show Garden Wise Guys, the inimitable Billy Goodnick.


OK, Here's the intro...

…the reason

for some silly-looking fishes,

for the bizarre mating

of certain adult insects,

or the sprouting, say,

in a snow tire

of a Rocky Mountain grass,

is that the universal

loves the particular,

that freedom loves to live

and live fleshed full,


and in detail.


From “Feast Days”

By Annie Dillard


I often wonder what is to become of mankind. We are kind and cruel, sensitive and clueless, creative and destructive, a study in contradictions if ever there was one. Today we teeter on the precipice of environmental collapse and yet few seem able to do anything about it. We flirt with another form of disaster in the endless wars we fight with one another, and we have enjoyed just a handful of years without war in all of human history. Despite the unique imperatives of our moment in time, we go on as if nothing much had changed since the beginnings of civilization, and we seem quite prepared to sleepwalk to our own doom. It’s not a pretty picture. Yet there are so many solutions at hand, and so much good work to be done that I believe if only humanity would turn to the task, things would start to get better fast. I'm a gardener, which means I'm an optimist. Bertrand Russell once wrote, "I've made an odd discovery. Every time I talk to a savant I feel quite sure that happiness is no longer a possibility. Yet when I talk to my gardener I'm convinced of the opposite."

What is the role of gardening in such a crazy world? Is there any possible justification in making or enjoying a garden, or in writing or reading about gardens? Despite the fact that I know the happy answer to that question, I have many times despaired over what seemed to be the indefensible nature of my professional life. I don’t know why I have at times allowed myself to wallow in this self-doubt. Perhaps it has been my conscience’s way of keeping me honest by forcing me to question, over and over again, the legitimacy of my life’s work.

After much soul-searching, this is how I see it: Your garden and mine are our personal chunks of nature. They are no longer pure nature, yet they are still part of the natural world. Denuded of their endemic inhabitants, rain still falls on them, photosynthesis proceeds in the leaves of exotic species of plants, odd foreign animals gambol about. The garden is at once our shame, our legacy, our pleasure pit, our little protectorate.

For the most part, gardens are made and maintained very badly. The reasons for changing that are many. In the context of global crisis one obvious and primary one is the restoration of some degree of order, sustainability and ecological sanity on a yard-by-yard basis. If that were all we could do, it would be enough.

But a garden is also a refuge, a sanatorium for weary spirits, a bit of personal agriculture, a place of joy and a thing of beauty. Those are all important too, for without healthy bodies and spirits we have nothing. When the world outside looks grim, we can always turn to the garden for nourishment, peace, and safety.

The garden, then, can be the place where we practice personal and planetary healing. As Annie Dillard says, the universal loves the particular. Use the information in this blog to delve into the particulars of gardening and of your garden, and to bring the full-fleshed richness of life to it and to you. It’s a difficult and joyous task. Begin.