I am reading two really great books right now. The first is Claire E. Sawyers’ The Authentic Garden: Five Principles for Cultivating a Sense of Place (Timber Press, 2007). It’s not a coffee-table-sized book but it will join just one other garden design book on my coffee table: Page Dickey’s Inside Out: Relating Garden to House (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2000).
Claire Sawyers is the director of the Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College (a place of great beauty and inspiration for me) and took the photographs that clearly illustrate the five principles. Since the five are listed on the outside of the dust jacket I feel I may repeat them here:
1. Capture the sense of place
2. Derive beauty from function
3. Use humble or indigenous materials
4. Marry the inside to the outside
5. Involve the visitor
There is an emerging ethic which celebrates that which is unique to our place: to grow native plants in our gardens, to try to capture what is special about where we live—rather than imitate historic styles from other climates or cultures. Sawyers articulates what makes American natural landscapes—and the gardens that fit them—distinctive and gives examples from New Mexico to Maine.
The other book is Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens by Douglas W. Tallamy. (I reported on hearing him speak at a conference last summer.) This book turns on its head what is written in almost every other gardening book: instead of choosing garden plants that will be completely unblemished by pests for the greatest possible beauty—choose plants instead that will support the greatest number of herbivorous insects so that you sustain the food web and can enjoy the beauty of the birds and other wildlife that depend on it. And if done well, with a diversity of native plants, insect damage never becomes an aesthetic problem.
Tallamy’s argument is that human-altered landscapes dominate the country and these landscapes will not support the full species diversity that historically existed here, unless we encourage our suburban landscapes to meet these species’ needs.
And the best way to support wildlife is to cultivate the plants that feed the insects that support all other species. Insects are often specialist feeders on only the plants to which they’ve adapted. Given a diet of non-native ornamentals, they disappear.
I particularly like that he advances a new metaphor for the role species play in an ecosystem (36-38). Earlier concepts cite the presence of a single “keystone” species, without which the habitat changes drastically: beavers, sea otters, and prairie dogs are ones that are familiar examples. The new metaphor Tallamy describes is like the game of Jenga ™, where players remove blocks from lower levels of a tower of blocks and replace them on top. In the game,
…the role each block plays in the stability of the tower is relative and constantly changing. If ecosystems are [like] Jenga towers, almost any species can play a keystone role under the appropriate circumstances (37).
I think we’ll be playing Jenga at WebWalkers next week…
After describing the “why” of inviting nature into our yards Tallamy describes groups of native plants and lists some of the insects each supports.
And then there is a large and wonderful section of the book called, “What does bird food look like?” which is simply a guide to the native insects that these plants will attract. Tallamy is an entomologist and suddenly you realize that this gardening book is also a thinly-veiled bug book, one that is a much more entertaining read than a non-entomologist might expect.
Like Sawyers’ book, the author took most of the stunning photos; many of them are from Tallamy’s own yard, a place where he has experimented with bringing wildlife back by planting what it needs.