Book Excerpt: Sustainable Landscaping for Dummies by Owen Dell

A couple weeks back, I reviewed this deliciously funny and extremely useful guide to sustainable landscaping by Owen Dell. You can check out my video and written review here. I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to share an excerpt with you, so you could get a feel for Owen’s writing style, which is useful, practical, and off-the-cuff. Without further ado, here’s:

Ten Projects That Pay You and the Environment Back Big Time (an excerpt from Sustainable Landscaping for Dummies):

“In this chapter, I introduce some projects you can tackle right away (for relatively little or no money!) that make a big difference to you and the environment. They’re all easy, and most of them don’t require the use of heavy equipment, chiropractors, or bad language. Enjoy.

Make Your Lawn Smaller

Most lawns have parts that are never used for anything other than giving the lawn mower its weekly workout. Do what savvy sustainable landscapers everywhere are doing: Cut that lawn down to size! (Refer to Chapter 19 for the scoop on lawns and lawn alternatives.) Make a lap lawn — a phrase coined by a gardener I once met. Long and narrow, this type of lawn is still perfectly suited to hosting a friendly game of catch or a chase with the family pooch. After its midriff bulge has been whacked away, your svelte new lawn is ready for sustainable action. Consider a maximum size of 20 by 40 feet — a total of 800 square feet. If you can do with less, great. Tip: In making the lawn smaller, you create new borders. Plant these borders with useful, beautiful, climate-appropriate plants that need less care, water, and fertilizer than the original lawn did. Drip-irrigate and mulch the borders to save water. Don’t forget to move your sprinkler heads to the new edges of the lawn to save more water (and money).

Tune Up Your Sprinkler System

Out-of-whack sprinklers result in water waste and poor lawn performance, so you need to give the system a tune-up every so often. Turn the system on one valve at a time so you can test it and get everything working right. (See Chapter 10 to find out how to maintain your irrigation system.)

Reprogram Your Irrigation Controller

Conventional irrigation controllers have no idea how much water your plants need. They’re just timers, faithfully carrying out whatever instructions you gave them the last time you programmed them. Umm, you did adjust your controller at some point, right? If you haven’t, now is the time. Get out the instruction book for your controller so you can make sense of the simple-yet-often-obscure ways of programming these pesky beasts. Then read Chapter 9 of this book to discover how to make seasonal adjustments to your controller. Reprogramming your irrigation controller isn’t terribly difficult, and it saves you a bunch of money. Your plants will thank you, too.

Install a Smart Irrigation Controller

If you don’t want to reprogram the controller you already have (see the preceding section), yank that old clunker off the wall and put in a smart controller. A smart irrigation controller receives signals from — get this — outer space. These signals reset the controller’s program continuously, based on current meteorological data taken from local weather stations. To install and program a smart controller, you just have to answer simple questions about your soil, plants, and so on. You tweak it a bit over the first few weeks, and when you’re done, you probably never have to touch it again. These units have generated water savings of 25 to 50 percent, which means that your water bill will go down. Even better, you can gloat when the neighbors come over. Sustainability is just the coolest thing. See Chapter 9 for more on smart water management. Tip: Many water districts offer rebates for installing smart controllers.

Axe Your Overgrown Plants

Take note of how many hours per month you spend keeping plants from growing too big for the space they’re in. You could’ve spent that time enjoying a nice, sustainable activity, such as loafing. Plants don’t ask you how big you want them to be. If they’re programmed to get 100 feet tall, they always try to do so. So if you want an 8-foot-tall plant, you need to choose one that grows to 8 feet at maturity. Then you’ll never have to trim it. Plus, it looks better and is healthier when left alone. (And you’ll look so relaxed in that hammock.)

Pull Up Sissy Plants

Go around your yard with a shovel and perhaps a digging bar, swiftly and mercifully eliminating namby-pamby plants of whatever kind. Or at least move them where they’ll perform better, if location is the problem. Probably 80 percent of gardening problems are caused by 20 percent of plants. You know which ones they are. Go get ’em. My favorite sissy plant to weed out is the rose. I know the term may offend some people, but hybrid tea roses aren’t so great at taking care of themselves. It hurts me to ponder the rust, the leaf spot, the bugs, and all the other ills and ailments that plague these pitiable creatures. I consider it a public service to replace them with something a little more durable.

Dump Your Chemical Arsenal

Exactly what excuse does anyone have for holding onto that noxious-smelling collection of insecticide, weed killer, and fert-’n’-hurt? C’mon — you know you’ll never use that stuff again. You’re a sustainable gardener now! Put your old chemicals in a sealed container and then take them to your local hazardous-waste collection center for safe disposal. Then go home, perform a cleansing ritual or two in your garage, and get on with your life. Feel good knowing that you’ll probably never have to make the trek to the toxic dump again. Warning: Some of this stuff is truly treacherous to your health, so be sure to wear protective gear and be very careful not to spill anything.

Trade Your Power Tools for Hand Tools

Shop around for some truly good, lifetime-quality hand tools, and leave the power ones out at the curb for some other fool to struggle with. You’ll be glad you did. Power tools actually don’t save much effort. First, you have to work pretty hard to earn the money to buy them. Then you have to store them somewhere, do tune-ups and repairs, fuel and oil them, wipe them down and sharpen the blades, and adjust the dang carburetor over and over because nobody but the high priests of internal combustion can get it right the first time. Besides all that, think about the number of times you’ve pulled the starter cord with no result. Must be in the thousands, right? You could’ve had the lawn mowed with a simple push mower by the time you regained your composure and got that wheezy old mower running.

Mulch Your Beds

Naked beds don’t work. The soil dries out too quickly, root systems suffer heat and cold, weeds come up everywhere, rain washes earth away, beneficial soil microorganisms suffer, drip tubing shows, mud sticks to your boots . . . I could go on and on. In nature, organic material rains down from plants constantly, creating mulch and returning valuable nutrients to the soil. The sustainable landscaper mimics this elegant system by practicing chop and drop pruning (refer to Chapter 20) and by spreading some form of organic mulch on the surface of the soil. For more on mulching, see Chapter 16.

Grow Food

What better use can you have for your land than growing your own food? The list of advantages is a mile long (but I won’t bore you with the details). Plant a few crops that are easy to grow in your area and then devote a little time, money, and effort to reap the rewards. Flip to Chapter 18 for more information about sustainable veggie gardening.”

Want to read more from Owen Dell? Check out these recent blog posts:

Do Rain Barrels Really Work? Adversarial Horticulture The Attack of the Designosaurs Or, check out Sustainable Landscaping For Dummies on


  1. says

    Great tips! I’m designing a garden with a lap lawn right now. The only reason the homeowners want a lawn at all is to play frisbee with their German Shephard, so in this case, thin is in.

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