A Few Book Recommendations for Native Landscaping Advocates

| Advocacy, Climate Change, Colorado Native Plants

Contributed by Tom Swihart and Deborah Lebow Aal

It turns out that thinking about landscaping with native plants is akin to thinking about people’s relationship with the natural world. Below are brief descriptions of some books that we find interesting or inspiring. Many of us have more time to read right now, and need some inspiration. Though most libraries and bookstores remain closed, many of these books are available as digital downloads or can be purchased new or used online. We hope that you will chime in with recommendations of your own, and we are hopeful we can have a Wild Ones Front Range Chapter Book Club selection and discussion on the book, this fall or winter. So, please send any of your recommendations to us, by responding here.

larkspur growing in garden
Gratuitous picture of front garden where larkspur has gone wild. No idea whether it’s the native larkspur or the European…photo by Deb Lebow Aal

Tom’s Recommendations:

I must first recommend two books by Douglas Tallamy, entomology professor at the University of Delaware: Bringing Nature Home (Revised and Expanded 2018) and Nature’s Best Hope (2020). Tallamy makes the case for the biological importance of NATIVE gardens better than anyone else. He is an engaging and compelling speaker; many of his presentations are available online, including this talk from March, 2020.

If you are interested in the unconscious assumptions of traditional Front Range landscaping, I suggest looking at High Plains Horticulture (2008) by John F. Freeman and Fruits and Plains (2007) by Philip J. Pauly. High Plains Horticulture is pretty dry and contains substantial organizational history. Fruits and Plains has more of an environmental history orientation, emphasizes the broad cultural implications of landscaping, and includes a chapter on tree planting on the Western prairie. 

I think that Lyana Lynn Haupt’s Crow Planet, Essential Wisdom for the Urban Wilderness (2009) is a classic. The New York Times review called it a “curiously personal and thought-provoking meditation” in which “Haupt mourns the encroachments of urbanization, but cherishes the wildness that survives.” While sharing her close observations and relaying the natural history of crows, Haupt weaves in profound meditations:

“It means that everything we do matters, and matters wondrously. More than we thought, more than we can even know…It is about a habit of being, a way of knowing, a way of dwelling. It is about attentive recognition of our constant, inevitable continuity with life on earth, and the gorgeous knowledge this entails. There is a crow’s nest in the neighbor’s yard, and there are feathers at our feet. We walk around like poems–our lives infused with meaning beyond themselves.” (p. 123)

I also like A New Garden Ethic (2017) by Benjamin Vogt (a garden designer in Lincoln, Nebraska). Vogt makes the same biological arguments as Tallamy but also focuses on the moral, spiritual and poetic arguments for native plants:

“Native plant gardening does not limit your aesthetic choices; it expands your ethical ones, connecting you to your family, your children, your children’s children, and all other humans and species who are bound together in ways we ignore in every aspect of our privileged Western lives.” (p. 61)

For a taste of Benjamin Vogt’s message and musings, check out some Vogt videos. 

In the realm of fiction, The Overstory, by Richard Powers, came out in 2018 and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.  The Washington Post reviewer called it “The most exciting novel about trees you’ll ever read.” (It is a big fat print book. The Kindle version presently is only $6.65.) In an interview about the book, Power said,

“We’re at this watershed moment where our destruction of biodiversity and old ecosystems is accelerating. The matter is almost nightmarish here in the States, where the Trump administration in just three years has managed to obliterate more than half a century of hard-fought environmental legislation. At the same time it’s also clear to anyone who’s paying attention that we’re in a moment of slowly transforming consciousness. What’s not clear is whether that moment has a chance of becoming more than just a moment, whether we are now moving towards a new relationship with the neighbors with whom we share the world.”

Deb’s Recommendations:

I wholeheartedly agree with many of Tom’s selections. I will begin my recommendations by adding an oldie but goodie: Noah’s Garden, by Sara Stein. It is probably the seminal book on “Restoring the Ecology of our Own Backyards,” which is its subtitle. Published in 1993, it tells of Sara’s awakening to the fact that as she learns to garden in the accepted way, she is ruining the ecosystem on her patch of land. She goes on to “ungarden,” and reclaim her yard in charming fashion. 

Second, my bible for landscaping with native plants on the Front Range, High and Dry: Gardening With Cold-Hardy Dryland Plants by Robert Nold. Bob’s dry humor is on full display: while imparting an amazing amount of knowledge on natives for the Front Range, he kept me chuckling. This book is out of print but can be found online. To order an edition with color photos, order through Abe’s books). If you order it on Amazon, you will most likely get a black and white version, which is not nearly as engaging.

Third, I loved The Zen of Gardening in the High and Arid West by David Wann. This book is not about natives. In fact, it’s much more about vegetable gardening, and I’m not sure David ever mentions native plants per se. But he imparts a love of gardening and is so full of hope and motivation, that it is worth reading. He gives many tips on how to garden in our region, beset with its challenging climate. 

And finally, I found Growing Food in the Southwest Mountains by Lisa Rayner truly inspirational. It’s much more of a guide to sustainable gardening than just growing fruits and vegetables. She weaves ecology and permaculture concepts into gardening, with a wealth of information on how to cope with our harsh climate, how to attract and manage beneficial insects – insects that will work with you instead of against you – and how to cultivate the microbial life in soil. It’s quite the almanac of information, and in fact is more of a reference tool than a book you would sit down and read cover to cover.

We hope you are staying safe and healthy and have used any extra time you might have to educate yourself on things you care about. Happy reading!

Curious to learn more about transforming your garden into a habitat with Colorado native wildflowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees? Check out our native gardening toolkit, register for an upcoming event, subscribe to our newsletter, and/or become a member – if you’re not one already!