Stephen Orr, editorial director of gardening at Martha Stewart Living, and renowned author recently published a new book that turns an artist's eye on sustainable gardens across the country. Orr along with two other garden book authors will be at the Rodale Institute May 13 for Grow Up, Grow Well, Grow Modern, an evening sure to be full of lively discussion (space is limited, so reserve your spot now). We caught up with Orr in advance of the event to get his definition of sustainability and vision of tomorrow's gardens.
“You can’t hold up any one example as the paragon of sustainability. I don’t want people to turn their minds off to attractive sustainability. The aesthetics of something shouldn’t cheapen the things for people.”~ Stephen Orr
Tell me about Tomorrow’s Garden. What can readers expect?
One thing I hadn’t seen that much in the marketplace is that sustainability could be beautiful. Other books that go into sustainability have a lot of detailed information, but I felt like I could do something new. On the other hand, I didn’t want to do just a book of beautiful gardens that would simply sit on coffee tables. I wanted something that worked on different level. I wanted it to be more of a visual handbook.
The book is not a how-to book about sustainability; it is more a mind-set book. How to shift your mindset with a view to what you can do with your yard and garden. The book is definitely trying to teach people about issues of sustainability, but in a way that draws people in. It is accessible--especially to people who aren’t already interested in the idea of sustainability.
What inspired you to write this book?
I had worked at some very high-end glossy magazines, and documented a lot of very large estate gardens. I started to feel kind of psychologically burdened by how big and vast and grand these things were. Our economy had been puffed up and our garden-making had gotten puffed up, too. I wanted to addresses smaller gardens that have a sense of purpose. Gardens that were not just about money and getting the rarest plants.
I include myself in that group of gardeners who had gotten wrapped up in this ideal. I just started to feel like we were all moving toward a new direction with American gardening that isn’t so wasteful and inconsiderate of our resources (water, time, effort, fertilizer).Or, at least, we should be.
Like giving up the old fashioned ideas about not worrying about water. I have a friend in LA and saw how hard it was for her to garden with their water restrictions. Eventually, she transitioned to a Mediterranean-style garden. It is still a non-native garden, but it made much more sense for the climate. And maintaining that garden turned out to be much easier on the environment (not to mention the gardener).
Writing this book was really about the education of a responsible gardener. And I educated myself in the process.
Tell me a little bit about you. What is your background, your history?
Well, I’m a self-taught gardener. I’ve never been to school for horticulture, but I’ve always loved plants. My parents were both interested in plants and I gardened with them. I learned at very young age to appreciate gardens and plants. I moved from Texas to New York in 1988 and started working as a magazine art director. So I’m really visually oriented when it comes to gardens because of my art direction background.
When I started thinking about the initial idea for this book, it really struck me that with magazines, we often stuck to just a few parts of the country. I wanted to do a national book. Since I have a BFA in painting and photography, I was able to take my own photos. Basically, I started traveling and documenting everything myself, and it became a really organic process. I was able to get out and document stuff on the side of the road if I stumbled up on something inspiring!
Did you come across any surprises while out on the road?
We know that we have climactic difference across the country, but one thing that was surprising is that each of the locations I visited had a different gardening soul.
Whether it was high design in small backyards, public spaces being used in interesting ways, or a community gardening utopian spirit (like in Portland where they’re gardening together and sharing front-yards). The approach to sustainable gardening that people had was very different from city to city and town to town.
Why do you grow organically?
I didn’t quite make a big deal about “organic” in the book because it was kind of a given. I’m an organic gardener myself and I don’t have any temptations not to be. If I have a problem I just live with what nature brings and do what I can to avoid the problem in the future. Everyone I talked to and worked with was organic to my knowledge. I didn’t put them to a test, but they were all certainly somewhere on the organic spectrum.
What was the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a gardener was the key to overcoming that challenge?
Right now my biggest challenges are deer and shade. The area where I live is full of beech and hemlock trees and heavily deer ridden. A fence would block the view, which is incredible, and I am currently gardening within a very restricted palette. Wherever I move next, I’d like to make it sunnier and with a fence or a wall garden. I’ve been gardening as an adult for 25 years and learned to grow in quite a few weirdly restrictive situations. The most interesting was on the rooftop in the west side of Manhattan. Everything had to be in a pot and I had trouble with wind. Of course, most people have restrictions with their gardens. But when you enjoy growing things, the challenges can be make it more interesting.
How have you seen people’s relationship to their food and how it is grown change over the last decade?
Everybody is more interested in how their food is grown—where it comes from. Gardening is slightly behind on that local-sourcing movement. All the same issues that pertain to the new food movement are things we can consider with gardening. You can think about what kind of stone or gravel you’re using and find something mined locally. Even if plants aren’t native you can still think about where they’re being shipped from.
I really think the younger people that are interested in the food thing are going to be very interested in the garden thing, and growing their own food will lead them into growing their own ornamentals, too. Edible gardening is the gateway drug to full-on gardening nut!
How do you define sustainability?
You know, you can’t hold up any one example as the paragon of sustainability. I don’t want people to turn their minds off to attractive sustainability. The aesthetics of something shouldn’t cheapen the things for people. If you want to take a piece of the message, that is better than nothing. Hopefully over time, you’ll get more and more into it. We’re on the verge of a new generation of gardeners who are interested in both sustainability and beauty.
Are you inspired by any organic pioneers?
When I first started gardening I was inspired by Eliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch—and I still am. They are seamlessly putting forward an organic and very beautiful garden. And I love anyone who celebrates the native flora—Lady Bird Johnson, Theodore Payne, Lester Rowntree. And, to be honest, the Rodale family. I have a number of the older books and I still use them, especially the herb book from the 60s and 70s.
What is your opinion on organic versus local?
I feel like all of these things are so complicated. It is not either or, but an equation that is very personal to people. It is so hard to say to somebody you only have to buy local or you have to buy organic (even if you have to ship it a long way).
I’m not really into telling people what to do. I’d rather ask people to be conscious of their actions. If you have a great organic nursery nearby you’re blessed, but if you don’t, do what you can. I think you also lose people to the cause when you make strict rules. If someone violates these rules then they fail. I wouldn’t want to do that.
What tool couldn’t you live without?
I have a little weeder that is kind of like a knife and I really like it a lot. It is good for digging in cracks and planting bulbs. It is made by Sneeboer, a family business. So, although it is imported from Holland, I feel good about supporting the work they’re doing.
Meet the authors
Stephen Orr, Derek Fell and Michele Owens
Garden discussion, booksigning and cocktails
at Rodale Institute
May 13, 2011
7:00 to 9:00 pm
Registration required and space is limited.
Suggested donation of $25 at the door (cash only).
Or call 610-683-1400
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