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.


  1. Welcome to the world of blogging!

  2. Hi Owen,
    Can you tell I'm following you closely? It's about time you started blogging.
    So happy to see you online my friend. I will add you to my blogroll on Eden Makers Blog.
    Take care.
    Shirley Bovshow

  3. Great blog! Nice information and well done. I am a horticulture therapist and blogger. I would like to add a link from my blog to yours. May I? Thank you!