Ever since Capability Brown’s natural designs took the beau monde by storm in the 1700s, gardeners have seen the wisdom of looking to the great outdoors for inspiration. Native plant species tend to do better than imported species and also help maintain the wellbeing of local ecosystems, making for a healthy, happy and low-maintenance garden. The latest in a long line of natural gardeners, Beth O’Donnell Young’s takes up this idea, using the concept of ‘naturescaping’, first coined in an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife publication in the early 1990s, as its guiding light. Naturescaping is, put simply, the direct opposite of the school of gardening that champions maintenance-heavy exotic species and dishing out doses of chemical pesticides. In short, it’s a holistic, organic philosophy that looks set to change the way we garden.
And it’s getting popular. O’Donnell Young, an Oregon-based landscape designer, has been running classes in naturescaping since 2005. She describes it as ‘a quiet revolution in the way we garden based on a growing awareness of our interrelationship with all of life.’ The Naturescaping Workbook sees her proposing it as an eco-friendly choice for gardeners - one that encourages you to enjoy the biodiversity your region offers and, because of the minimal maintenance, saves on energy costs. She breaks the process down into chapters; beginning with observing both your own garden and the wider ecosystem it’s placed in, before moving through water management, plant selection and tips on making your garden more wildlife-friendly. The last two chapters see the spades come out and the naturescaping begin, with plenty of helpful detail on organic garden maintenance.
Her advice is impressively wide-ranging: she profiles everything from the various species suitable for different climates to the plethora of sustainable materials available for laying down paths and driveways. The chapter on being ‘water wise’ is particularly good; outlining multiple ways of saving water, from xeriscaping your garden to reduce the need for irrigation or making the most of grey water from your dishwasher or sink. Throughout, information is presented accessibly in worksheets (more of which are downloadable from her website), diagrams and lists, although it’s worth mentioning that the latter aren’t extensive - amateur gardeners might want to seek more detailed technical information on growing patterns and individual techniques from another source. It should also be noted that many of the references, either to ecosystem characteristics or the right authorities to contact for advice on permits, etc, are US-specific, so while almost all of the information is transferable, readers elsewhere will have to seek out their relevant organisations.
Throughout the book, O’Donnell Young drops some (frequently terrifying) facts but is never alarmist. For instance, homeowners are urged to minimise their lawns, given the huge amounts of water they require - 60 per cent of all water usage in the western United States according to the NPO PlantNative. However, she frames this constructively, suggesting that people try buffalo grass or ‘ecology’ mixes of grasses, clovers, wildflowers, and herbs as more water-efficient lawns. A consistently lively and thorough adviser, when O’Donnell Young turns to seeking inspiration from the wild, her writing shows her to be a passionate naturalist. ‘This is where naturescaping goes way beyond the simple advice to use only native plants in your garden,’ she explains, before offering up wonderful descriptions of white-footed mice ‘foraging under the laurels and heaths, wild blueberries, and wintergreen’.
The book can, though, get a little repetitive, almost to the point where it feels glutinous with information. For example, we establish the importance of mulching your soil - ‘add a thick - six inches at least - layer of organic mulch’, ‘cover any exposed soil with a mulch of some sort to keep new weeds from popping up’, ‘cover it all with a nice blanket of mulch’ - but there are only so many times this can be said. Hell, the book’s last words are ‘So compost and mulch’.
Despite the repeats, the case O’Donnell Young makes is compelling. If, by the end of the book, you haven’t got the urge to indulge a spot of naturescaping, then you’re definitely no naturalist and probably employed by Monsanto to boot. Even if, like me, you don’t have much garden to naturescape, it still made me want to get out and explore my local ecosystems. O’Donnell Young’s enthusiasm is catching, and she’s provided an enjoyably informative read even if you’re not planning on getting to grips with gardening anytime soon. The book itself is beautifully designed, and illustrated by Karen Bussolini’s rather stunning photographs of naturescaped gardens across the US. So take heed: make some wood chips, repurpose an old watering can and chart your backyard biohabitat, and get ready to join this quiet revolution.
The Naturescaping Workbook: A Step-by-Step Guide for Bringing Nature to Your Backyard by Beth O’Donnell Young (£16.99, Timber Press) is available from Amazon
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