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The Master Gardeners Laurie McGrathTips for sustainable landscaping

February 11, 2019

When I see gardening books by horticulture writers or landscape designers who have built their careers in places like Florida or Massachusetts, I typically pass them by. There is often little useful info for gardeners in the arid West. But one particular title intrigued me: Climate-Wise Landscaping: Practical Actions for a Sustainable Future, by Sue Reed and Ginny Stibolt.

It didn’t hurt that the foreword is written by Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home and national champion of sustainable ecosystems. The subtitle of the book, “Practical Actions for a Sustainable Future,” should apply everywhere. So I decided to read it to find out what advice might be relevant for Santa Fe and environs.

This book does not delve deeply into plant selection. Instead, authors Sue Reed and Ginny Stibolt present useful information to help gardeners understand the relationship between what we plant and how we care for it and the carbon footprint that goes along with our choices. After a brief and highly readable “primer on climate change,” the book is divided into 10 sections that are clear and, better yet, optimistic. Each section offers tips for sensible and manageable action and subsections explaining the science behind why we should care.

The first section discusses lawns. I’m not a fan of lawns in this part of the country: The high use of water and chemicals required don’t fit a model of sustainability. But the authors explain that choosing grasses and other plants that suit your soils and building soil that can support a healthy lawn is a good place to start if you must have some green ground in your landscape. Of course, they become more persuasive about the benefits of greatly reducing lawn square footage and turning an existing lawn into a meadow of wildflowers. Though these are not new ideas, the presentation here combines practical steps with a deeper understanding of the benefits these changes can yield over time. And the time is now.

Other sections cover trees and shrubs, water, ecosystems, soil, planning and design, food, and urban issues. While Santa Fe isn’t exactly urban, some of the suggestions are pertinent, such as using permeable paving to keep water on your property and in the ground. I came away with a much better understanding of carbon and its complex role on our planet.

Most interesting for me was the section on materials, not often discussed in the context of climate change. Earthen materials, for example, combine rustic beauty with benefits such as cooler, more nourished ground; low-maintenance materials like plastics may be economical but come with a huge manufacturing burden on the environment.

Herbaceous plants are discussed but not with specific recommendations. The focus is on choosing site-appropriate natives that support a healthy ecosystem and require less water, fewer chemicals and lower maintenance. The authors point out that many natives, especially trees, are slow growing but that slow-growing plants are also more likely to get well established for the long haul.

Climate-Wise Landscaping offers a full menu of ideas and covers a variety of subjects in one volume. In addition to good photos, wonderful and inspiring quotes from other writers are graphically set off throughout the book. The authors do an excellent job empowering home gardeners to take manageable steps toward sustainable landscapes without sacrificing beauty.

Laurie McGrath has been a certified Master Gardener in Santa Fe County for 18 years and is a founding member of the Santa Fe Native Plant Project (SNaPP), an advanced Master Gardener training with the goal of educating the public about the many benefits of using native plants in the home landscape.

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