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Book Reviews

Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes
by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West, Timber Press, 272 pages

January 8, 2020
Conservation Friends,

Planting in a Post-Wild World by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West presents an alternative to the landscapes that fill our yards with plants that do not touch, or touch because they have grown beyond their allotted space. Bare areas in the beds are covered with mulch to prevent weeds, that grow anyway. Maintenance consists of pruning, weeding, mulching, watering and spraying, all costly in terms of time, money, and effects on our environment.

By “a post-wild world” the authors mean a world where “the wilderness of our ancestors is utterly gone.” “There is no going back.”

Rainer and West’s alternatives are landscapes that cover the ground in layers, but not the familiar layers of tree, shrub and groundcover. They describe their design framework as structural, seasonal theme, and ground cover layers. The structural layer is formed of tall forbs (flowers) and grasses. The seasonal themes are created with flowers and textures, while the ground cover layer functions by preventing erosion and weed growth.

Their designs and those of their colleagues, most often seen in botanical, public, and estate gardens, utilize drifts of plants interspersed with taller structural plants with a cohesive layer of smaller plants with muted colors and textures. The authors create plant communities based on close study of all their characteristics. The noninvasive plants are either native or exotic and include many cultivars. These beautiful gardens are called resilient landscapes. They define a resilient planting as one where “plants are allowed to interact with other plants and respond to a site.”

I have written about the sense of loss that many have had when realizing that the tall grass prairie is gone. Rainer and West write about the sense of loss of native sites and how this creates a craving for an encounter with the natural world. Their solution is to create landscapes, small and large, that evoke the shared memories of common landscape patterns. They draw inspiration from spontaneously colonized areas such as common weed patches. “By focusing on naturally occurring plant communities, as opposed to those that are purely native, the focus is shifted from a plant’s country of origin to its performance and adaptability.” This is a very different approach from those who design native landscapes or sustainable landscapes which may include a small number of noninvasive exotic plants.

Throughout the book the authors write about the value of diverse landscapes and plant communities without ever mentioning the creation of habitat for native insects, birds, butterflies, and small mammals. Native plants are crucial in these landscapes. The authors have tipped their hats to these plants, preferring to value most those exotic plants that adapt well to site conditions and add great ornamental value. These exotic plants and hybrids of native plants offer the designer a larger pallet of colors and flower shapes and do not provide the beneficial ecoservices that sustainable gardens with predominantly native plants provide.

In this period of climate change, it is more important than ever to protect, sustain, and encourage the diversity that native gardens provide. Gardeners want landscapes that provide native habitat because these gardens provide an outdoor experience for their families as well.

Judy Nauseef

The Bee-Friendly Garden
by Kate Frey and Gretchen LeBuhn, Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony/Rodale, 224 pages

August 21, 2019
Conservation Friends,

The Bee-Friendly Garden by Kate Frey and Gretchen LeBuhn, is a garden book about bees. These two authors know their bees and how they live in our gardens, when we give them the chance. The reader learns about honeybees and native bees. Pollination is the daily activity of the bee and this activity plays a great part in thriving gardens and crops. During pollination, adult bees gather the pollen to feed their young and use the nectar for energy. Honeybees turn nectar into honey that they store to help the colony survive the winter.

The first chapter explains the difference between these two species beginning with the reassurance that native bees rarely sting while honeybees may when their nests are disturbed. The authors describe the lifecycles of the different bees and provide detailed descriptions of a few native bees, illustrated with small photographs. There are 4000 native bee species in the United States.

Chapter two describes bee-friendly plants for your garden, emphasizing the importance of annuals, perennials and shrubs. The photos of plants are wonderful. The authors give suggestions of how to choose plants based on location and size of the garden and include information from areas around the country. This section covers blossom size, shape and color, bloom time and cultural needs. Frey and LeBuhn stress the importance of including native plants in the garden, but do not link the necessity of providing native plants for the native insects as much as they could have. Biodiversity and the creation of habitat is mentioned in the chapters.

Chapter four on bee garden basics gave me useful new information on what bees need, how they forage and their needs for pollen and nectar. They require a variety of and repetition of plants and a variety of flower color and shape. Native bees nest in the ground and in cavities such as hollow plant stems, fence posts–the bees drill the holes, dead trees, old wood or beetle holes. Gardeners can build nesting boxes and the book shows examples. Water, sun and healthy soils help maintain a bee population.

Chapter five on designing a bee garden suggests the gardener considers both the functional and aesthetic aspects of outdoor spaces. Once these are determined, arrange the planted spaces around them and choose the plants. Now is the time to use what you have learned about how bees live in the garden from the earlier chapters.

The book includes plant lists for different areas of the country and other resources.

Judy Nauseef

Birds Art Life: A Year of Observation
by Kyo Maclear, Scribner, 240 pages

June 20, 2019
Conservation Friends,

Birds, Art, Life: A Year of Observation by Kyo Maclear, was a gift from my sister Martha. We often exchange book titles and I looked forward to reading this one. Although a small book, I took my time with it and by the end saw the author’s life clearly and sympathetically.

The art of observation adds knowledge of what we observe, but also ourselves. The author, while caring for an aging father and two young boys, managing her household and working as a writer, felt the future sorrow at losing her father overtaking her life. She writes, “I have lost the beat”, meaning the rhythm required to keep such a life humming along. It was winter, which made it all worse.

Maclear explored the possibilities of new relationships, athletic activities, art lessons, something that would override the “predominantly provisional feeling,” of waiting for something to happen. At home, she pulled out long-stored art supplies and started to begin to make small drawings. Expressive pen and ink drawing of birds, leaves and people are scattered through the book.

Maclear writes, “Then there were the birds, which were suddenly everywhere.” She learns of a musician who had found peace by birding in the city of Toronto. She contacts him and asks if she could accompany him on a bird walk. On that walk she contemplates the state of being open to something new, to directing serious attention to a new thing. The musician agrees to her request to follow him on his birding walks for a year. She describes those walks in detail, so that we feel we are by her side.

The book is organized by season and, within the seasons, the months. The birding, her family’s history, and a record of a short period of time in her life together form a memoir of discovery. The reader will find beautiful passages worth reading a second and third time.

Judy Nauseef

Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life: The Plants and Places That Inspired the Classic Children’s Tales
by Marta McDowell, Timber Press, 340 pages

April 17, 2019

Conservation Friends,

This month’s book, Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life: The plants and places that inspired the classic children’s tales by Marta McDowell, connects us once again to our childhood and gardens. My grandchildren enjoy Peter Rabbit today and laugh hilariously during the beautiful children’s 2018 film Peter Rabbit. I laugh too.

McDowell researched Potter’s life, work and gardens, travelling to visit where Potter lived, worked and gardened. The first half of the book is Her Life as a Gardener, but is so much more as her childhood, adulthood and art education and enormous body of work are explored. McDowell describes the gardens lived in and visited and the important part they played in Potter’s life. The book is full of Potter’s drawings, watercolors and photographs, which are strikingly beautiful and sensitive.

The second half of the book, The Year in Beatrix Potter’s Gardens, takes each season and shows us images of Potter’s gardens and details how she cared for them. She was a down-on-one’s-knees in the dirt kind of gardener: planting, weeding and dividing. Her botanical drawings, book illustrations and photographs and photographs taken by McDowell make the book a page turner.

There is information on Visiting Beatrix Potter’s Gardens. You can start in the South Kensington neighborhood and end up in the Lake District. This could be another bucket list trip. I will add to my list that starts with a visit to the location of Anne of Green Gables.

Judy Nauseef

The Landscapes of Anne of Green Gables: The Enchanting Island that Inspired L.M. Montgomery
by Catherine Reid, Timber Press, 280 pages

February 8, 2019

Conservation Friends,

I saw this book at Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City and had to have it. The Landscapes of Anne of Green Gables: The Enchanting Island that Inspired L.M. Montgomery by Catherine Reid is a beautifully produced book that takes the reader into the hearts and minds of Anne Shirley, main character, and Lucy Maud Montgomery, author. Prince Edward Island, Canada sits at the top of both my and my daughter’s bucket lists of places to visit. After reading the books and then watching the Anne of Green Gables movies starring Megan Fellows, we fell in love with the stories.

As a landscape designer, I notice landscape settings in books and movies probably more than most. I see landscape design everywhere and understand it to be central to plot and character development. As a writer, I am intrigued by how fiction writers pull in readers using detailed descriptions of landscape. In movies it is more evident how screenwriters and producers use the landscape.

Reid completed extensive research on PEI and on Montgomery while writing this book. She includes a complete story of Montgomery’s life, comparing the similarities and differences with Anne’s. Montgomery was a photographer, colorizing many photographs at later dates. These photos, as well as those of professional photographers, and historical photos fill the pages, giving visuals for Anne’s and Maud’s stories. Reid identified buildings, lanes, ponds and woods as those Montgomery described in the books. Illustrations from the original versions of the novels add authenticity to Reid’s book.

The Anne books have led tourism to be the island’s second most important industry. Development has encroached on some of the pastoral and natural areas. But, according to Reid, many of the settings of the lives described in the book exist today. The island is about 40 miles wide and 140 miles long. There are dunes, marshes, ponds, beaches, farmland and woods. Prince Edward Island is located off the eastern coast of Canada, nestled between the provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Québec and Newfoundland and Labrador in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. There is an Island Nature Trust, protecting wildlife habitat since 1979.

Judy Nauseef

The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh: A Walk Through the Forest that Inspired the Hundred Acre Wood
by Kathryn Aalto, Timber Press, 308 pages

December 14, 2018

Conservation Friends,

Just the cover of this book by Kathryn Aalto brought back memories of my childhood and of my children’s childhoods, where Aalto explores the landscape of the Pooh stories. Illustrations original to the books and archival and more recent photographs appear on nearly every page.

The book, divided into three parts, starts with biographical information and a description of the collaboration between the author A.A. Milne and the illustrator E. H. Shepard. Milne and his two brothers spent hours outside exploring the countryside. The setting of the books was based on real places, Ashdown Forest and the Five Hundred Acre Wood, near the village of Hartfield. We learn about Milne’s professional writing career and his marriage in 1913 with Dorothy de Selincourt (Daphne). Christopher Robin was born in 1920. Daphne would play on the floor with her son and his menagerie of stuffed animals. She is credited as the first person to give voices and personalities to the characters in the books.

E.H. Shepard’s family gave him a love of the arts and his mother, who died when he was eleven, encouraged his study of art. In art school he met his wife, Florence Eleanor Chaplin. He and Milne knew each other through work on the magazine Punch. Their collaboration began when Shepard illustrated the 1924 collection of verses When We Were Very Young. He drew from real life, visiting the ‘Woods’ and Christopher Robin at play.

For the second part of the book Aalto researched the origins of the stories and it is full of photographs and illustrations. She seeks out locations of the stories we know well and describes them fully, bringing into her text descriptions of the family and of their neighbors. We are reminded of our favorite stories as we see the illustrations reproduced in the book.

The third part of the book is a guide to the Flora and Fauna of Ashdown Forest. For me, this section is most interesting. Aalto is a landscape designer in addition to be an historian and a writer. She visits the location of the stories and reports on its horticultural identity, which is something that I feel brings great depth and character to novels and memoirs. She never forgets, however, that we have picked up the book as lovers of Winnie-the-Pooh.

Judy Nauseef

Gardening with Chickens: Plans and Plants for You and Your Hens
by Lisa Steele, 2016, Voyageur Press, 176 pages

October 10, 2018

Conservation Friends,
Lisa Steele meets a need for information on an increasingly popular backyard activity. I had no idea of the knowledge successful chicken keeping requires. Now, I am even more impressed by what my friends have undertaken to keep layers in their yards. Steele’s approach is to create a landscape of poultry habitat and gardens.

As a landscape designer who believes in the value of planning, the emphasis on how a garden and a chicken run/coop together create a diverse habitat is appealing. Steele writes about the basic tenets of vegetable, flower and herb gardening for those new to gardening. The gardens feed the chickens and the humans. The chickens eat many of the garden pests and of course provide a major ingredient for making compost.

There are extensive descriptions of various barriers to contain the chickens when necessary. Steele includes detailed instructions on fencing, walls and raised beds. These creative ideas encourage readers to experiment in their own yards.
The health of the chickens is paramount as is knowing which weeds and plants are harmful. Owners need to learn about poultry illnesses, hopefully avoiding them with clean chicken keeping and wise choice of feed and supplemental plants. She uses herbs, vegetables and fruit as beneficial supplements to the chickens’ diet.

The author covers the making of compost, new gardens, good and bad garden bugs and natural pest control. On her website fresheggsdaily.com, readers can find her blog, sign up for her newsletter and watch episodes of her television show “Chicken Lifestyle.”

The book has beautiful photographs and illustrations to make her text clear. It will be a great resource for gardeners and chicken keepers alike.

Judy Nauseef

Garden Renovation: Transform Your Garden into the Garden of Your Dreams
by Bobbie Schwartz, 2017, Timber Press, 264 pages

August 10, 2018

Conservation Friends,
The availability of books on gardens and plants grows increases every year. The rare book gives the gardener the tools to start a project and complete it successfully. Bobbie Schwartz’s new book, Garden Renovation: Transform Your Garden into the Garden of Your Dreams, shows homeowners that change is good and how to implement change. They need to be willing to look at their yards with fresh eyes. The author’s years of working as a landscape designer doing just what she describes in the book gives the readers confidence to make decisions and choose new and exciting elements for their backyards.

As Bobbie writes in the preface she is an obsessed gardener. Her knowledge of plants, particularly perennials, is astounding. I have been with her on garden tours where she gives botanical names of nearly every plant we see. She was my mentor on the Association of Professional Landscape Designers board of directors, when I was preparing to replace her as Certification Chair.

The chapter, “Understanding Landscape Essentials,” provides explanation of basic components of the landscape. Read it carefully. The chapter, “Working with Hardscape Elements,” covers an important and large topic and may be better studied after initial familiarization with landscape planning is learned.The chapter, “Assessing and Choosing New Plants,” will be very helpful as well as enjoyable for the homeowner. Bobbie writes from great knowledge and experience growing plants.

The photos of materials, plants and completed projects illustrate the text, adding inspiration to the book. Having been on many garden tours with Bobbie, I know she has thousands of photographs. I would like to see more of Bobbie’s own projects in the book. I am sure readers would enjoy them.

Judy Nauseef

A New Garden Ethic: Cultivating Defiant Compassion for an Uncertain Future
by Benjamin Vogt, 2017, New Society Publishers, 192 pages

March 14, 2018

Conservation Friends,
Vogt owns Monarch Gardens, a prairie garden design firm in Nebraska and in his book he speaks widely on the topic of native plants, wildlife, and sustainable design. He has researched his topic well and writes with a wide knowledge of native ecology and the changes occurring in our environment. He refers to many sources which give the reader an avenue to learn even more.

Vogt begins his book explaining the source of the title. From the start we are asked to think deeply about his topic. We know that ethics help us decide how to live. They explain the value of wildlife and landscapes. A garden ethic “links the human and nonhuman.” When we plant native gardens, “we are providing for the very real environmental needs not only of ourselves, but of other species as well.”

He writes that gardens become places of activism as the evidence of climate change increases. “Your garden is a protest. It is a place of defiant compassion. It is a space to help sustain wildlife and ecosystem function while providing an aesthetic response that moves you.” He believes that “[E]quality for other species will augment and spur equality among our own species.“

Vogt describes the loss of species and habitat and the development and planting of non-native or exotic plants. He explains the need to plant natives produced through open pollination, resulting in a diverse, but genetically similar, community. With the loss of biodiversity, the resilience of interactive communities is lost as well.

The good news is that all of us in our gardens can add habitat of native flowers and grasses for birds, butterflies, native bees and other creatures, for them to thrive and reproduce and for us and our families to enjoy. According to Vogt, “A well-positioned healthy stand of native prairie, even among a field of corn, can fundamentally alter nearby ecology and mitigate human-caused negative impacts on the landscape.”

My husband and I have done this on our acreage as have other landowners in our county and beyond. We hear and see a vast number of insects in our prairies, year after year, pollinating and reproducing. The prairie roots absorb water that would otherwise run off the lawn into tile lines installed years ago in the pasture and cropland beyond. Our landscape benefits from the great number of pollinators and birds.

Vogt has great faith that the wildness which still exist in North American will inspire us to preserve habitat while creating personal gardens to enjoy with our families.

Judy Nauseef

The Living Forest: A Visual Journey into the Heart of the Woods
photography by Robert Llewellyn and written by Joan Maloof, 2017, Timber Press (OR), 266 pages

February 16, 2018

Conservation Friends,

Some books you just can’t help but feel the need to share with others. This is one of those books.

I had to first talk myself into actually checking this book out from the new nonfiction area of the Iowa City Public Library. It is coffee-table sized and heavy. What sealed it for me was an old habit, I read the Table of Contents, Preface, and opened the book to read a bit of the narrative and look at the pictures. I was hooked. The photography elucidates the narrative wonderfully, while it is indeed chill-bump raising – it pales in comparison to the beauty of the writing, which reads more like a lyrical prose poem than standard science writing. One of the reviewers even alluded to it. I had the feeling that a very benevolent elder was telling me these stories of the forest.

Joan Maloof brings together many diverse aspects of forest life from all levels. She divides the story by levels from the sky to the earth with a chapter on how the forest breathes and one on how water cycles through it.

Questions immediately arose how in the world do you coordinate the nature photography of Robert Llewellyn with her forest narrative? The acknowledgments answered my question. When asked to write a forest narrative, Joan said yes, I would write a story about old growth forests, and here are the pictures I will need to go with the narrative. As the book unfolded there were many unique photos needed which created a “compelling treasure hunt,” which was taken on as a challenge by Llewellyn and several Master Naturalists.

As background, Joan Maloof is the founder of the first national organization dedicated to documenting and saving the remnants of the old growth forests and the creation of future “old growth forests.” The Old-Growth Forest Network and Wikipedia have good information about how Joan was guided into the creation of this organization and how states, counties, trusts, and private land owners can get involved. I wanted to know more about Joan’s work, so have gone to YouTube and begun watching her speak about her work. As a retired Salisbury University professor, she now travels, lectures, and writes. She speaks with great passion and is ready to put her science and knowledge to work.

I have learned so much from this book and I am still swooning over its beauty. I believe it deserves to be looked at, read, and placed on everyone’s coffee table.

Gene Zdrazil

The Secret Lives of Bats: My Adventures with the World’s Most Misunderstood Mammals
by Merlin Tuttle, 2015, HMH Publishing, 271 pages

January 11, 2016

Conservation Friends,

If you are in need of a healthy dose of environmental optimism, you’ve come to the right place. This is the most affirmative book I’ve read in several years. Merlin Tuttle has devoted a lifetime to saving and promoting bat species around the world, with much success. The individual book chapters are a tour with him, one project after another, filled with hands-on science, amazing negotiations with local people (not all of them friendly), and sometimes incredible adventures (for example, huddled in a cold river for a night, shared with crocodiles and biting aquatic beetles, and a pride of lions waiting on the bluff above).

His tales are very believable because the result of many of his excursions are exquisite photos for his next National Geographic story. If you have been a regular reader of that magazine for the last two or three or four decades, this book is a behind-the-scenes look at what went into building those stories.

His finest moments are often near the end of each chapter, where he returns to the same cave or forest a decade or two later, and learns that his effort was sustainable – the cave is now part of a protected park, or the local folks now see their bats as useful pollinators instead of devils to be torched, or the tourists are now spending money locally to watch the nightly exodus, or…

In situations where others might only see despair, Merlin searches out opportunity by empathizing with people, and often winds up converting bat destroyers and indifferent officials into accomplices who work with him to protect these amazing creatures. If you only read one conservation book in 2016, make it this one.


Lon Drake