Sunday, November 18, 2018

Book Review: The Humane Gardener Offers Lawn Alternatives

Nancy Lawson was not always one to garden beyond her self-interests, but The Humane Gardener (Princeton Architectural Press, 2017) represents her own horticultural metamorphosis through careful research and the experiences and results of others. She deftly avoids sermons and diatribes, instead letting common sense and examples speak to her points. The result is a thoughtful, captivating, and motivational book.

Do not let the cover, which brings to mind the Old Farmer's Almanac, fool you. This is not an old-fashioned throwback to romanticized rural life and how to achieve it. The book is well-illustrated and well-organized. Chapter breaks are punctuated with real people experiences of gardening with native plants, coping with sometimes unwelcome wildlife, and successfully enhancing or restoring natural landscapes. Lawson is unwavering in her focus on the whole, yet still paints vivid portraits of the people behind the process of converting desolate deserts of lawns and exotic botanicals into something not only sustainable and more diverse biologically, but that ironically often takes less work to manage.

The text is gentle, rarely admonishing any reader who may be practicing the "normal" style of manicured turf and media-dictating plantings of the latest and greatest cultivar of this or that. Lawson herself describes once shopping for various varieties of commercial roses, for example. She readily admits her failures and what she learned from them, as well as demonstrating how others have overcome obstacles to reinstating a more natural look to their properties.

I fully expected a much more forceful....activist....voice, with one-sided arguments, and was pleasantly surprised by the fairness of Lawson's approach. When I was certain that she was going to give only one side of an incident involving dead bumble bees and linden trees, she came through with further explanation. Notes in the back of the book cite the sources for her assertions of statistics and academic studies. Nowhere does she claim to have all the answers, nor advocate a one-size-fits all mentality.

The whole point of the book appears to be that our spectrum of urban to rural landscapes are works in progress, usually resilient, with a memory for what they once were. Still, each location has its own peculiarities and deserves a reverence for its history as a precursor for whatever comes next. Changes do not happen overnight, but your efforts are often, if not usually, rewarded more quickly than you would imagine. Patience and forgiveness are recurring themes in the book. No one in the selected examples between the chapters is raised to sainthood, and each readily admits their shortcomings.

While there are numerous photos throughout the book, most are exceptionally dark, and the matte finish of the paper makes it difficult to discern the subjects of the images in many cases. That matters little, as the prose paint their own imagery. I found only one error in the entirety of the 204 pages of text. There are no "Grey herons" in North America, let alone my home state of Colorado. I am rather certain she meant "Great Blue Heron." Zero spelling, punctuation, or grammatical errors did I detect.

Lawson's previous work at the Humane Society of the U.S. prepared her well for writing and marketing this book. She recognizes that the shift toward more wildlife-friendly gardens is in its infancy and that a book is only a snapshot on a timeline. To that end she has erected a website, The Humane Garderner, to continue the conversation and explore specific topics more in depth. The website also lists author appearances and other events, provides an opportunity to sign up for her e-mail newsletter, and gives readers a portal for feedback. Lawson is also aware of the mobile digital age and so the book itself is available in e-reader formats as well as the hardbound copy that I have.

The Humane Gardener is an ideal introduction to gardening with natural history in mind, and I look forward to a sequel or two that might give more tips applicable to those of us in townhouses, home owners associations, apartments, and similar residential situations. The same might go for office and industrial parks. We all need to get on the same page, though how we get there could be a radically different journey.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Eric. Another good read to get for my own bookshelf!