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Owen Dell: The 'sustainable' drillmaster

The landscape architect so wants to spread the word about eco-friendly gardens that he wrote a book about creating them.

December 19, 2009|By Emily Green

The idea that suburban gardens might be "sustainable" came late to Southern California. Modern Los Angeles was sold on the promise that anything grows here. Exotic plants were status symbols. Sunshine was constant, and the only worry about water was finding plants best suited to go next to the swimming pool.

More than a century later, the fantasy style is out. Sustainable is in. There's only one problem. What does sustainable mean?

Landscape architect Owen Dell has cut through the eco-babble to offer not just a definition but also a how-to book. The Santa Barbara-based author of "Sustainable Landscaping for Dummies," published by Wiley this year, begins by defining sustainability.

It is a principle he has spent the last 28 years testing as a garden designer and home gardener. It all began, he said recently, in thinking about how to firescape, a term he says he coined. This became years spent problem-solving, challenge by challenge, and figuring out how to turn the environmental and financial net costs of gardening into net gains.

According to Dell, there are nine basic principles behind creating a sustainable landscape. The first is that the garden should be a "highly functioning system patterned after the ways of nature."

Second, it should be stable, meaning the garden won't outgrow your needs, requiring too-frequent pruning or generating too much waste that ultimately gets sent somewhere else. Third, that stability should be the product of what he calls "deep design," meaning that the garden's eventual size, irrigation needs and plant habits will be understood up front.

Fourth, the resulting landscape should harness natural cycles. Fifth, its plants will be well adapted to the local environment, and sixth, it will require few "inputs" such as fertilizers and pesticides.

Seventh: "Every element of a newly formed ecosystem must play a beneficial role: making oxygen, sequestering carbon, providing food, improving the climate inside the dwelling, preventing erosion, or protecting against wildfire, to name but a few," Dell writes. Eighth, the design will consider environmental impacts associated with its materials.

Finally, for the ninth requirement, Dell borrows a quote from architect William McDonough, one of the nation's most respected voices in green design. Sustainable landscaping "won't be less bad," Dell says. "It will be good."

To those of us who have been muddling for years through various, often-contradictory prescriptions for good gardening, it may be galling for an all-in-one text to finally come out. Yet, here it is, and though the sheer comprehensiveness of the book seems aimed at new gardeners starting from scratch, Dell's volume is still valuable to those of us trying to upgrade our existing gardens.

To benefit, one must submit to the drillmaster. Dell clearly believes we are capable of following a logical progression through "a build." That's the professional landscape architect speaking. Yet at heart, he's a do-it-yourselfer, and his "Dummies" book aims squarely at those of us treating small spaces on smaller budgets.

His home in a working-class district of Santa Barbara could be any postwar beach bungalow from Redondo Beach to Culver City. A visit to the humble abode bears testament to many experiments.

The driveway consists of pervious concrete. "The first in California," he says. The garage doors are recycled redwood. Inside a front patio, even the art is from recycled material. There is nothing beyond a handsome patio and stone fountain that an average homeowner couldn't do.

A curving path around the house leads to an Eden-like courtyard dominated by fruit trees and a kitchen cutting garden. Farther off, yet more passages have been transformed into miniature gardens.

At the back of the lot, a passageway becomes a light trap. As the path catches midday sun, it glows red from the leaves of a Virginia creeper, suffusing Dell's living room with an autumnal wash of color.

That moment isn't an accident. It was sustainable principle No. 9 in action.

In agreeing to take on "Sustainable Landscaping for Dummies," the only type of reader Dell refused to entertain was the dummy.

"The first thing I said when they approached me to do this was, 'I'm not going to do a dumbed-down book,' " he says.

The Dummies franchise didn't mind. In fact, the publisher liked it. What emerged was an authoritative primer on landscaping, water management, hardscaping, planting, plant care and maintenance.

Dell being Dell, he threw in a recovery program for conventional gardeners. Principles include reducing the size of your lawn, tuning sprinklers, pulling up sissy plants and growing food.

The best way to sample Dell's writing is to visit and read his playful blog, the Earthworm's Lair.

For the full hands-on how-to treatment, there's the book. Paying $21.99 to save thousands on water, fertilizer and maintenance is a good deal. Yet it seems clear that beyond saving us money, Dell is also out to save the world. "Dummies" amounts to a public statement of belief that we have it in us.

"People are by nature procrastinators," he said. "But look at the response to World War II. When America believed something was important, it turned on a dime."

Green's column on sustainable gardening appears weekly on our blog, She also writes on water issues at Comments: home@latimes .com

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